journalism, ridiculousness, television

Produced by Sonia Narang

Television news tends to hide the credits for stories. Take this little report from Coney Island:

Although the story is dominated by the so-called “talent,” the story was pitched, shot, and structured by Sonia Narang, who has a year-long fellowship at NBC. She produced it. (If you want to hear funny stories about your favorite television news personalities, by the way, talk to a producer.) Or as they say at NBC, Sonia DJ’ed the piece. “DJ” standing for “digital journalist,” which is what we all are turning into, I hear.

If they include a credit for caption writer, maybe I can get a little nod. I took a stab at the early version of the script and, this being national television news, tried to write something appropriately clichéd and bombastic. A few relics of that since-buried text were used in the online story caption, which can be rather hard to find, actually.

Update: Aired on Today show last Saturday, December 27th.


The Broken Angel

A story in today’s New York Times by Robin Pogrebin describes the recent travails and planned revival of a house in Brooklyn. The house is called the Broken Angel, a distinctive building for the modifications and additional construction created by Arthur Wood, the owner and resident. After an October fire, the building was deemed structurally unsound. But a group of architects and students affilliated with the nearby Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture are converting Wood’s designs into code-compliant plans. (Some of their work is visible here, in a NYT photograph by Liz O. Baylen.)

Brent Porter, a professor at Pratt, is playing a major role in this effort. One reason:

Mr. Porter’s efforts also reflect his memory of how the Broken Angel affected his daughter, Christina, who died at 21 in 2005 after a skiing accident. “I saw in my daughter’s eyes the joy that she and her friends drew from this building,” he said. “And I see a similar kind of respect my students have felt for the avant-garde in their lives.”

These names might sound familiar for those who follow the news from Dartmouth. Christina Porter was in the class of 2006. In February 2004, she hit a tree during a skiing class; the collision broke the left side of her skull into 12 pieces and left her in a coma for six months. Although she regained consciousness and some ability to communicate, she died in January 2005. The Times fails to mention–though the college’s newspaper did–that Christina was Brent Porter’s only child.

competition, education, journalism, money

Getting In

For a long time, when people asked me where I go, or went, to college, my first response was “New Hampshire,” or even, “New England.” Then they would slowly zero in: which school, or which town, until: Dartmouth.

I abandoned that initial answer too long after I had started getting the question. While I thought I was avoiding the obnoxious and overbearing pride of the Ivy Leaguer by not immediately admitting my affiliation, the avoidance began to seem self-consciously coy and precious, subtly inviting the inquisitor to continue peeling away, with growing anticipation, the layers of obfuscation. It was like Barthes’s strip tease. The final revelation was not always a great letdown, but, like the strip tease’s denouement, it sometimes was. Of course, coming from Alaska (as in many places west of Ohio), every second or third person did not know what or where Dartmouth was, so a regional response was often a very appropriate answer.

The issue of Ivy League designations is meaningful to me again because I recently had the choice of graduate programs at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. I believe that some people who were in the same situation picked Columbia, in large part because it is an Ivy League school (though that factor often went carefully unmentioned). By the way, that’s Columbia’s Low Library pictured above. I think it was Nick Lemann who pointed out when I was there that it is a library with no books.

Last October, Malcolm Gladwell, who brings revelatory sociology to the masses, published a story on the Ivy League mystique in the New Yorker. In particular, he described how the Ivy League has effectively branded itself as a high-demand, low-supply luxury, the result of various admissions practices that are themselves remnants of early 20th century policies stemming from conceptions of race, class, ethnicity, and morphology. The article also acts as a roundabout review of the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel (who happens to be a sociologist at Berkeley).

Gladwell is Canadian, and applied to college using a very simple form that took him about ten minutes. The college admissions process, for him, was not the nail-biting, mind-bending, perspective-warping experience it often is for Americans. He writes:

Am I a better or more successful person for having been accepted at the University of Toronto, as opposed to my second or third choice? It strikes me as a curious question. In Ontario, there wasn’t a strict hierarchy of colleges. There were several good ones and several better ones and a number of programs—like computer science at the University of Waterloo—that were world-class. But since all colleges were part of the same public system and tuition everywhere was the same (about a thousand dollars a year, in those days), and a B average in high school pretty much guaranteed you a spot in college, there wasn’t a sense that anything great was at stake in the choice of which college we attended. The issue was whether we attended college, and—most important—how seriously we took the experience once we got there. I thought everyone felt this way. You can imagine my confusion, then, when I first met someone who had gone to Harvard.There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. . . .

from “Getting In,” New Yorker, October 10, 2005.

Does it? That is one question I had to ask myself when choosing between Berkeley and Columbia. Later in the article, Gladwell discusses the research of a pair of economists, Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale. According to their work, if a student gets into a selective school as well as a less selective one, and then chooses the second option, he or she does as well in life as those who go to the more selective school. I find that a reassuring fact.

There is a big difference here between the choice that that research describes and my choice: namely, I was not choosing undergraduate schools. In fact, Berkeley has many highly-regarded graduate programs, including the journalism school; and I don’t know that the statistics for the journalism programs would bear out the assertion that one is more or less selective than the other. My choice–and here I am fortunate–was between two very good graduate schools. But throughout the process, the implication present in many of my discussions was that success at Columbia was more likely than at Berkeley. I often reminded myself that I could do as well for myself by choosing Berkeley than Columbia.

There are no guarantees, certainly. In fact, “no guarantees” is an appropriate motto for much of my life experience. When choosing, I considered that what happens in my life–my professional life, at least–is not determined solely by my school, but mostly by me. And that helped.

education, influence, journalism, photography, San Francisco

All Apologies: On Being a Bad Blogger

Dear Reader, I am sorry that I have not posted here for weeks–weeks! It’s not been for lack of content or interest, but merely lack of time and energy.

I have been trying to sort out the tangled decision about where to go in the next stage of life. I have made a handful of visits to Berkeley and its Graduate School of Journalism. I recently returned from New York City and its Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I have sought counsel from a long list of luminaries, including Adam Hochschild, Barry Bearak, Bill Drummond, John Lyons-Gould, Rod Mackenzie, Alisa Dichter, Vera Petkova, Gary Lenhart, Andrew Revkin, Tom Valtin, Nanette Asimov, Rebecca Solnit, Cynthia Gorney, my mother, Soon Hyouk Lee, William Pallister, Rob Gunnison, Jeremy Rue, Daniel Porter, David Perlman, Peter Alsop, Brian Chang, Adrian Cotter, Pat Joseph, Joan Hamilton, Ethan Klein, Mike Papciak, Jon Mooallem, and many, many others, and I appreciate very much their thoughts. I had an opportunity to ask Jon Stewart, but then his son began to cry. I think it is foolish to turn too inward when making a decision like this–I’ve been exposed to all kinds of perspectives and angles that did not initially occur to me. I’ve discovered extra information; for example, I scooped the San Francisco Chronicle by about two weeks on Orville Schell’s stepping down as dean at Berkeley, but had nowhere to publish it (except, I suppose, here). But I do risk the Clintonian trap of too much information, with its built-in delays and eventual paralysis by analysis.

It is, apparently, important to point out that these programs both are graduate schools, because they are the only two in the country. Nick Lemann, the New Yorker staff writer and Columbia dean, was careful to emphasize this. (City University of New York will be inaugurating a third graduate school this fall.) The rest are open to, and presumably overwhelmed by, the undergraduate mob.

But as for you, Reader, as a sign of my affection I include this photograph. A friend noted that it “looks like it’s leaning over to give the pole a kiss.” That is just adorable.

journalism, politics, success

A. J. Liebling, Just Enough

This weekend, I gave a friend Just Enough Liebling, a collection of New Yorker articles by A.J. (Joe) Liebling. In my inscription:

From one New Yorker reader to another, a collection of one of its legendary writers.

I’ve only read a little bit of Liebling, certainly not enough. For example, there’s the one about how he tried to get a reporting job at the New York World by hiring a man to walk past its front door all day while wearing a sandwich board with “Hire Joe Liebling” painted on it.

Liebling is highly readable, with a sometimes breezy, slightly arch style and an attention to detail—and the peculiarity of detail—that helps to define the style of a lot of New Yorker–style non-fiction. Despite the occasional tendency to make things up, Liebling is still regarded highly by the likes of David Remnick and Russell Baker. Baker writes

Liebling was almost always present in his reporting. It is a way of treating readers with respect. A glimpse of the party who is doing the reporting helps the reader judge how far he can be trusted. Liebling almost always made his presence felt, conceding that he was capable of error, sometimes winking to let the reader know he might be improving the story with a little original invention, provided the story was anything but serious.

Baker adds that Liebling was a journalist of the “modest style,” which he believes barely exists anymore, if at all. According to Baker, “The modest style required letting the reader know that the reporter was not godlike, as the old-time religion of ‘objective reporting’ presumed, but merely another frail human, maybe too woefully human to be entirely trustworthy.” And later,

The modest style meant reporting a great deal that was anything but serious. It assumed that life itself, while serious enough, heaven knows, was too intractable a subject for journalism’s paltry tools and was best left to clergy, philosophers, and poets, with occasional help from Henry Luce. Whereas modern journalism’s taste in subject matter runs to the cosmic, the modest style favored subjects of no great consequence.

In his review of the collection for the Nation, David Thomsen highlight’s “Westbound Tanker,” Liebling’s account of his 1942 trip across the Atlantic to New York on a Norwegian Tanker. Thomsen writes, “…it is the marvel in Liebling’s touch that no Norwegian could be offended by his treatment of that dry nation and its drier phlegm, just as no one of any other tongue could resist the hilarity of the deadly end-game that the Norwegian captain keeps for any attempts at small talk, that civilized gesture Liebling practiced just because he and the captain of the tanker took every meal together and because Liebling believed in talk with food, just as bees are meant to attend new blossom.” Thomsen punctuates his point with the following passage:

Once, in an effort to make talk, I asked him, “How would you say, ‘Please pass me the butter, Mr Petersen,’ in Norwegian?’ He said, “We don’t use ‘please’ or ‘mister.’ It sounds too polite. And you never have to say ‘pass me’ something in a Norwegian house, because the people force food on you, so if you said ‘pass’ they would think they forgot something and their feelings would be hurt. The word for butter is smor.”

I recently read Liebling’s “Letter from Paris, December 22, 1939.” Early in the dispatch, he describes a French character, “a petit bourgeois called Bajus…shown in a recent comic strip listening to a radio address by Hitler.”

At each howl from the radio set (“I will destroy England before breakfast,” “I will show the French what total war means”), little Bajus’s hair stood on end, and at the close of the speech he turned to his radio, saying, “Oh, please, Adolf, don’t stop; frighten me again.”

For some reason (probably a misreading), this reminded me of an article I read a few years ago called “The Morning Quickie.” No, it’s not what you think. It’s by Alma Guillermoprieto, who writes about Latin America for the New Yorker and, in this case, the New York Review of Books. “The Morning Quickie,” is the translation of the title of a Mexican television show called “El Mañanero.” Writes Guillermoprieto:

Four years into Mexico’s newly minted electoral democracy, all is not as it should be with the body politic. One indication is that the host of the most influential news show in the capital is a clown. Another is that the clear front-runner in the unacknowledged race for the next presidential elections in 2006, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, is currently embroiled in a scandal that first saw light with a secretly filmed video released in March. It showed the mayor’s all-purpose political operator, René Bejarano, who has served as his campaign chief and government minister for the city and was at the time the majority leader of the capital’s Legislative Assembly, receiving enormous amounts of cash from a notorious empresario, or rich businessman, whose face was blacked out on the film. The video was first broadcast in March on the clown’s television show.

Guillermoprieto then launches into an excellent piece of cultural and political reporting sparked by the scandal—the videoescándalo—precipitated on El Mañanero by Brozo the clown: “The cameras in Brozo’s studio closed in on a grainy black-and-white video with terrible audio quality, in which the glum, balding Bejarano, wearing a dark suit, opens a briefcase, lays it flat, and proceeds to stuff it with wads of US and Mexican currency. Weeks later, the bit that was still getting replayed was the sequence in which, having tried and failed to close the case, Bejarano hurriedly stuffs his pockets with more cash.”

The article owes something to the New Yorker non-fiction style I mentioned earlier, influenced in part by A.J. Liebling. And in some ways, I like to think this is the kind of story a writer like Liebling or Joseph Mitchell might have been interested in, one of hustlers and fixers and frauds. Certainly this is a kind of story I’m interested in. Maybe I’m just looking for something we have in common.

But if that’s all I wanted, I need look no further than Hanover, New Hampshire, because A. J. Liebling went to Dartmouth, my old alma mater. There are two reasons I remember this: 1) because I always latch onto arcana like this (apologies for the tautology), and 2) because relatively few Dartmouth alumni show up in fields like writing (and art and music, etc.). Some very talented people attended Dartmouth: Meryll Streep, Fred Rogers, even Robert Frost. None of them, of course, stayed at Dartmouth. Frost told the Paris Review he “ran away from Dartmouth,” which may be a little over-dramatic (even Frost’s interviewer noted, “His special resemblance to New England, however, is that he, like it, has managed to impose upon the world a wholly self-created image.”) Liebling was kicked out of Dartmouth, the claim being that he missed chapel “once too often.” Although if he was Jewish, like his mother and father, that might be part of the reason why.

I’m writing about this subject in light (or rather, in the the shadow) of a recent journalism school interview that did not go well. The examples of Frost and Liebling leave me with a worrying realization: If I want to be a successful writer, I should have gotten kicked out or run away from Dartmouth. Just that easy.