Tag Archives: journalism

Constitution Day at Stockton University – Joan Biskupic lecture on Chief Justice John Roberts

This year, Stockton’s celebration of Constitution Day fell on the actual anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia. This being one of my favorite holidays, I attended the plenary lecture which followed a day of activities with guest speaker Joan Biskupic.

Biskupic is a journalist (CNN), lawyer and biographer. Her talk focused on John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Her biography entitled The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts was released in March of this year, and already Roberts has served up more surprises, particularly blocking a citizenship question on the US census. His opinion was based not just on the question of whether the agency involved had the right to add a question, but also whether the reasons for making the change were “contrived”.

Biskupic emphasized the importance of the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals as a “pipeline” to the Supreme Court.

During his years of private legal practice (1992 to 2003) Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court.

Roberts is a conservative, placed on the Court in 2005 by GW Bush and, unusually, elevated directly to Chief Justice, rather than serving as Associate Justice first. Some of his opinions reflect his attitude that the Supreme Court is “not a legislature” and many matters must be left to the states.

What interests Biskupic most is judicial PROCESS – the “horse trading” and “sausage making” behind the decisions which often (as in gay marriage) have huge impacts on American life. Much of this is reflected in drafts that are circulated as justices develop their opinions. How does one justice influence another? Justice RBG warns observers “it’s not over ‘til it’s over”. The Supreme Court sometimes surprises even the most sophisticated analysts.

Biskupic says that in her next life, she wants to be an archivist. She loves pouring over documents. I consider this a very valuable contribution to society (and I never met anyone else who shared that aspiration).

I didn’t stay for the entire Q/A session, but it got off to a good start due to excellent moderation. The first question was about whom she interviewed for The Chief. Roberts is a persistent interviewer. She describes Roberts as “inscrutable”. He never permitted recording of their conversations. Other questions directed to Biskupic pertained to “sleeper decisions”, decisions of greatest consequence and “term limits” for the Supreme Court.

Biskupic published three other Supreme Court biographies and additional related books, some coauthored by Elder Witt (C-Span). I’m most interested in Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice (2014). I believe I read Biskupic’s 2006 biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, though my memory is uncertain, and perhaps I read a different author.

“Under the Wire – Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment” by Paul Conroy

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Final Assignment

Journalist Marie Colvin (1956-2012) was an American war correspondent who reported on some of the most violent conflicts of our times – in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Libya. By the time she reported on the Syrian Civil War with photographer Paul Conroy, she had achieved iconic status. Blinded in one eye by a grenade in 2001 in Sri Lanka, she wore an eye patch and had a reputation for courage and fierce, incredible persistence. Her story has been told in books and a movie.

Conroy’s account of the Syrian Civil War (from the rebel viewpoint) is hard to read. The statement “war is hell” hardly begins to describe the conditions and suffering Colvin and Conroy saw and ultimately experienced. They escaped from the besieged rebel city of Baba Amr, but returned at Colvin’s insistence. She and a French photographer died there. Conroy escaped a second time, with terrible injuries and severe PTSD.

For another look at this book, see this blog entry. The author highlights important aspects of the narrative that I won’t attempt to cover.

Why do journalists do expose themselves to such nightmarish danger? Their answer is simple. They do it to bear witness, to see and to tell the terrible story of human suffering and in particular the suffering of non-combatants and the innocent – children in particular. Throughout Conroy’s book runs outrage and the frantic hope that someone is listening, that someone will intervene on behalf of 28,000 civilians trapped in Baba Amr.

Less idealistically, war zone journalists are adrenaline freaks, hooked on the chemistry of fear and often on other chemicals as well – alcohol, nicotine, etc. But where would we be without adrenaline freaks? Who would rush into burning buildings or fly into space? I don’t “understand” this behavior, but I respect it.

In this blog, dated October 9, 2013, you will find my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why does Baker choose that date as the end of civilization? Because it marked the end of a distinction between soldiers and civilians during war. He blames the change on the emergence of aerial bombardment as a primary military tactic.

  • Aerial bombardment was rarely accurate.
  • Each side killed civilians.
  • Accusing the foe of breaking the old “rules of war”, both sides proceeded to bomb cities indiscriminately.

The climax was the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action was NOT unanimously approved by American citizens.

The Syrian Civil War may be (almost) over, but peace is not assured and any form of “reconciliation” seems remote. The magnitude of human suffering is staggering.

If civilization ended in 1945, what has been going on since then? Civil wars seem more and more common. “Guerrilla” war is a new norm. Wars are no longer declared, and are not fought by countries, but often by “non-state entities”. There’s a great deal of “proxy” behavior. Superpowers are competing for influence and access to resources. The invention, production and distribution of weaponry has become a large and permanent feature of the global economy. What else? I’m not educated enough to take this analysis further.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“A Conversation with David Sanger About Today’s Global Realities and America’s Next President”, a lecture by David E. Sanger

The college where I work has a partnership with The New York Times. Students (and others) receive The Times free of charge, and it is used in various ways, in various classes. I think this is great! And the paper generously sends us a distinguished guest speaker annually.

David Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. His speech (title given above) was well worth my time. He also discussed the question of what kinds of issues can be addressed during the Presidential campaign. He thinks the campaign is NOT a good forum for analysis of international affairs, which are a major focus of his reporting.

That said, he gave his list of the three global challenges our next President will face. It turns out I have been worrying about the wrong problems! His big three:

  • Terrorism, or “the forces of disorder”
  • Cyber attacks
  • Dealing with a China (as a “rising power”) and the former Soviet Union (still capable of causing trouble)

Sanger had the luck (good or bad) to speak a few days after the Paris terrorist bombings of November 13.

He considers these problems challenging but manageable, pointing out that we survived the shocking instability of the Cold War and other very dangerous situations over the past decades.

Questions were taken in writing, and I handed in the following: How will climate change impact these global issues? He answered that its major impact will be in the arena of terrorism, because populations may be displaced and having masses of (desperate) people on the move is destabilizing. Some “climate refugees” (my term, not his) may be susceptible to recruitment by extremists.

I was/am completely uninformed about cyber attack. This I will continue to ignore. If my computer at work gets crotchety (it has happened three times in the past month), I will call Computer Services and leave it to the experts.

Sanger’s cautious optimism was a balm. I don’t have to build a fallout shelter immediately. Wait, that was the 50s! What is the equivalent in this year of 2015? I don’t have to give up air travel, stop using a computer or panic about “communists”. Whew! I will continue to nurse my personal concerns about climate change and racial justice.

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.