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Birnbaum v.

Renata Adler

Our New Hampshire correspondent catches up with veteran writer Renata Adler to survey today’s journalism (when it seems like a PR agency for the government) and learn exactly why you don’t diss the Times book review chief.

“Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”
—G.K. Chesterton

Renata Adler, Rosie and I met on a sunny, breezy Labor Day (celebrated in Boston by vast convoys of moving vans, commercial activity and matriculations, none of which has anything to do with the spirit of the holiday) at Armory Park in Brookline, Mass. This conversation took place at a picnic table nestled in a shady corner of the park overlooking the playing fields. Adler has written A Year in the Dark; Toward a Radical Middle; Reckless Disregard; Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker; Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media; and recently Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Decision That Made George W. Bush President (one of three books Melville House published on the 2000 election), in addition to two highly regarded works of fiction, Speedboat and Pitch Dark. She attended Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Yale Law School and the Sorbonne. For many years, she was a staff writer for the New Yorker. She also worked for the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate era, was a film critic for the New York Times and has written for Vanity Fair, the New Republic and Harper’s. Currently she is a professor at Boston University.

In Canaries in The Mineshaft, Adler points out, “Almost all of the pieces in this book have to do, one way or another, with what I regard as misrepresentation, coercion, and abuse of public process and, to a degree, the journalists’ role in it.” In a way, it is a suitable bookend with Politics by fellow New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg, as its pieces range over topics including the real impeachable crime by Richard Nixon, genocide in Biafra, the shameful treatment of Wen Ho Lee by the New York Times, G. Gordon Liddy’s 1979 book tour and the Sirica controversy that was ignited by one line in her New Yorker memoir, Gone. As the revered writer and press critic A.J. Liebling once opined, “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” As I believe the conversation below shows, that is not a confusion that the heretical Renata Adler suffers.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: The book that has recently been published by Melville House [Irreparable Harm] is an extension of a piece you wrote in 2000 [published in the New Republic]?

Renata Adler: It was written, actually, right after Bush vs. Gore. It is one of the misleading things about the [book’s] jacket; it says it’s based on that piece. It’s not based on that piece. It’s that piece verbatim.

RB: That piece missed being published by a narrow margin, in the [2001] book that is now called Canaries in the Mineshaft.

RA: Yes, it’s true.

RB: That book was originally going to be entitled Politics—which I suppose is an irony of sorts since a former colleague of yours, Hendrik Hertzberg, has recently published a book called Politics.

RA: That’s right. I hadn’t realized until this minute that Rick’s book is also called Politics. Yes, it [Canaries in the Mineshaft] is very much that book announced as Politics so long ago. I have this quirk, this neuroticism, [pause] this habit—

RB: [laughs]
Adler, copyright 2004 Robert Birnbaum
RA:—of editing all the way down to the wire and past. And Michael Denneny—who is not only one of the finest editors I have ever known, but also one of the few fine editors I have ever known—maybe one of the very few—but anyway, he was going to be my editor for this collection named Politics. It was going to be the same as this [Canaries in a Mineshaft] except some pieces in this one had not yet been written. I said, “Michael, I can’t focus on it right now. I have this baby, and I can’t reread these pieces, and I can’t really pay attention.” He said what a dream friend and editor would say, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it. And at the end you can do what you like. You can write an introduction. You can change things. But we will just proceed as if we are going to press.” A lovelier, kinder, nicer thing nobody could say.

RB: That would explain why you speak so highly of him. [laughs]

RA: No, no, no, no, no. And now comes the awful part. So it was already in bound galleys. It had been reviewed by Kirkus and by Publishers Weekly. And I panicked, and I said, “Michael, I can’t do it. I can’t look at it.”

RB: This was in 1986?

RA: I think it was ‘87. I didn’t realize what an awful thing that was to do.

RB: [laughs]

RA: And Mark Danner, whom I met after I withdrew Politics but long before Canaries in the Mineshaft came out, said, “Whatever happened to that book Politics? I had it from the Times to review and I liked it very much and I was going to review it and suddenly it was pulled.” I didn’t realize what I was doing. I just had this panic that I hadn’t been able to look at it—

RB: I wonder if you could get away with that today? Or if any editor could count on being around long enough to allow a book to gestate in such a way?

RA: How do you mean, “gestate”?

RB: Well—

RA: Oh, we didn’t. We cancelled it. That was the end, finished.

RB: Simon & Schuster ended up publishing it?

RA: No, Michael Denneny and St. Martin’s Press ended up publishing it. Years later. It was a whole other time. We [had] just cancelled it. There was period of tension between us—no wonder. I mean, I can’t believe I did that.

RB: But he [Denneny] wanted the book. Clearly, he wanted the book.

RA: We forgot the book. We forgot all about it. There were intervening books. Right. And then suddenly we were talking and I said, “Michael, well what do you think?” and he said, “Let’s publish something now.” So we published this. But it’s funny because it shows you that Amazon.com—it shows you one thing about Amazon.com. [The book has] always been listed there as though it had ever existed.

RB: Politics?

RA: Yeah.

RB: [laughs]

RA: Of course, it did. It existed in bound galleys.

RB: You could continue to publish books in the future and in the front of the book where previously published books are listed you have a whole slate of phantom books.

RA: Well, it makes it sound as if I had written more books than I actually have written.

RB: Speaking of what you actually have written, have you totally given up writing fiction, which is what you published early on? Was Speedboat your first book?

RA: No, it wasn’t. What happened was my first two books were collections of pieces, one was a collection of New Yorker pieces. And one was a collection of New York Times movie reviews.

RB: What was it called?

RA: Well, the first one was just a mistake. It’s the kind of thing that happens only to me.

RB: [laughs]

RA: It was a joke. It was a provisional title. It was called Toward a Radical Middle. I used to refer to it as “radical muddle” and this and that and the other thing. And suddenly it turned out we were going to press, Random House, and it was too late to change it. I couldn’t believe it. I was horrified. And the other one was—because I had been, improbably enough, Bosley Crowther’s successor at the New York Times—a collection of my movie reviews, and there I think the main reason for publishing it, or a good reason for publishing it, was the title. That was a good title. It was called A Year in the Dark. It was a good title for what it was.


So I said to myself, “Wait a minute, the one thing you want to do is, if somebody has become head of the New York Times Book Review and you have something less than admiring to say about the period when he was an editor of the New Yorker, is perhaps suppress it.” And then I thought, “Oh no.”


RB: Have you given up writing fiction?

RA: Oh, no. That’s what I really, that’s all I want to do.

RB: Now.

RA: Now. Almost always. Almost always, it just—

RB: What got in the way? Have you published any fiction since the early ‘80s?

RA: No, but you know I am not a very prolific—well, I am certainly not a very prolific published writer. If I had a boarding house and family of 12, it would be, “She also has this hobby, she also writes.” I don’t publish that much. But fiction, no, I hadn’t given up fiction. There just started to be such tensions within—how to put it, it sounds so parochial—within the New Yorker with respect to my writing and me with everything that uh [pause] I stopped, not so much writing fiction, but publishing fiction. But it’s what I care about. It’s what I really do care about. And this other stuff, of course, I do care about, too, but in another way. In a completely other way. But politics or reporting of any kind, particularly now—you must run across this all the time. You can’t, whether you are on the left or on the right, you can’t choose some from Group A and some from Group B, you either have these solid positions in this column over here or you have these solid positions in this column over there. Or you’re really in trouble.

RB: [laughs]

RA: And I guess I’m quite often in trouble. Really in trouble and this is one of the—

RB: This is a very ideologically rigid time but I don’t see it to be necessary to adopt a kind of orthodoxy that springs from an apparently consistent program. I would have trouble using any of the words like “liberal,” “humanist,” “socialist,” other than “leftist.”

RA: I noticed that when I was reading you.

RB: I can say what I believe in. I would doubt that they [those beliefs] all fall out of one column.

RA: Here’s the other thing. It used to be I would say to friends, however unhappy they were, at whatever institutions they worked for, I’d say, “Don’t leave. Stay at the institution. It helps to have an institutional cover.” Right? Now your identity, as it is in your case, is also an institution—

RB: I could use health insurance, though.

RA: That’s interesting that you should mention that.

RB: [laughs]

RA: So then having been one who always has these wise words for other people, I then wrote a book about the New Yorker. So that was the end of that. I only worked there since 1963. So, speaking of health insurance, they then threw me off the health-insurance plan as well. And then of course the other thing you never, never, never, never do is, how to put this, be less than deferential to the press.

RB: There are two things you don’t do.

RA: The one thing you don’t want to do is—

RB: Is to piss off the New York Times?

RA: Yes. And one of the things that happened is that an editor from my time at the New Yorker had become head of the book review at the New York Times.

RB: Charles McGrath.

RA: So I said to myself, “Wait a minute, the one thing you want to do is, if somebody has become head of the New York Times Book Review and you have something less than admiring to say about the period when he was an editor of the New Yorker, is perhaps suppress it.” And then I thought, “Oh no.” So I didn’t. And that was insanity. Just insanity.

RB: By the way, it was Judith Shulevitz at Slate.com writing about the Sirica controversy, and your piece in Harper’s about it—the gist of her piece was that you are a meanie.

RA: That was one. But then she got her job at the New York Times Book Review. She said I had always been mean.

RB: [laughs]

RA: The Sirica thing was the most extraordinary thing that had ever happened to me in that line because it was—not only was it over nothing, but I was right. There is no question that I was right. It was one of those things—the line in question was only this, that in my time at the New Yorker, Mr. Shawn had given me Judge Sirica’s autobiography to review. And so I read it and it became clear to me that he had been a close friend of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s and that he had had clear ties to organized crime and that I didn’t really think it was a good idea to review a book of his at that time. So I didn’t.

RB: And he was the most reversed judge in his circuit.

RA: I didn’t say that. Although that is [chuckles] also true.

RB: You wrote that somewhere.

RA: Later, later. Because such all hell broke loose. That is, his son wrote an outraged letter, his son who works for Newsday. Well, I mean, you open the book and he is talking about his close friend Sen. McCarthy and how he nearly got Roy Cohn’s job. How they used to double date. It just leaps up at you. And so does the organized crime thing and there was more to it than that. You could write a book about Sirica that would really be a very interesting book. But I wasn’t about to do that even in response to what in due course became 12 pieces, 12 negative pieces in the New York Times.

RB: And then interestingly Shulevitz takes [Harper’s editor] Lewis Lapham to task for publishing your piece.

RA: Yes, that’s right.

RB: And then I thought, why not take Michael Kinsley [formerly Slate.com’s editor] to task for publishing this store-window piece of job-hunting journalism?

RA: Soon after that she had a regular column in the New York Times Book Review. But you couldn’t really take Lewis Lapham to task for that because he—he actually was so wonderful because here’s what happened. So suddenly this stuff begins to happen. Twelve pieces in the New York Times is a lot, in the end.

RB: [laughs]

RA: Including on the editorial page. And a piece by John Dean. The caption, in its entirety, read: “John Dean, an investment banker and the author of Blind Ambition, was counsel to President Richard M. Nixon.” Isn’t that wonderful? That was the description of John Dean. So I thought, “OK,” but then even on television there was somebody who said I owed an immediate apology to the family of Judge Sirica and to the American people.

RB: [laughs]

RA: By this time there were more attacks on that book and that sentence than there were readers. So I was talking to Lewis about it and he said, “Look, here’s the thing. Don’t get drawn into this. Don’t find yourself writing one thing more than what you need to do.” And it was very wise and sensible and very good. And I did it, and they went berserk again. It was just very odd.

RB: Recently Jack Shafer at Slate.com, who is their press critic, did a piece on [New Yorker press critic A.J.] Liebling and a quickie overview on the state of press criticism.

RA: I’ve got to read it because when he is good, he is really good.

RB: North Point Press is publishing a collection of Liebling introduced by David Remnick [Just Enough Liebling]. But I thought, “What a very small group, who review the press.” There are, I suppose, lots of commentators but not very many critics. Plus who cares, who pays attention?

RA: Other journalists.

RB: Does the general public pay attention to [Washington Post media critic] Howard Kurtz?

RA: I sometimes read Howard Kurtz and I think maybe journalists pay attention, but that’s about it.

RB: That was the prognosis for Brill’s Content when it came out—who would care about the backstage inside stuff about media and journalism?

RA: That’s right and then, of course, it’s very, very hard in writing about journalism to be incorruptible.

RB: Sure.

RA: In fact, [pause] it’s very hard because though it’s spoken of as the first draft of history, it is also the last word. And you see it all the time in Supreme Court decisions. They are quite often—when there are First Amendment decisions, whom are they playing to? It’s hard, it’s very hard to find good press criticism. There is a man named [David] Shaw at the Los Angeles Times who is really very good, sometimes. Nobody is very good always, about anything. But he is very good. Shafer is very good sometimes. Lars Erik Nelson, when he was alive, was very good. He is the one who took on reporting about Wen Ho Lee. He took it on in the New York Daily News.

RB: By the way, did the New York Times ever apologize to Lee?

RA: No. A lot of the rest of the press greeted it as though it were an apology. It was far from an apology and it led to other things that I think were—well, there is nothing worse than putting a man in jail for nine months in solitary, for nothing.

RB: One could argue it led to Jayson Blair.

RA: Jayson Blair. Their sense of proportion is all wrong. What you do with someone like Blair is, you quietly fire him. Here they loaded all their guns and fired on him and he was just doing pretty much what they do. He wasn’t placed to do it. He wasn’t famous enough.

RB: I think Michael Thomas who was at the New York Observer, was good and fun. Do you know of him?

RA: Well, I do, and when he is right, he is really very good. There is this problem of being eccentric. He’s very good. There used to be a place you could count on. Or there was a voice you could count on.

RB: Where? Who?

RA: Once upon a time it was the Times. You read Arthur Gelb’s book, City Room. It’s like reading about another—it’s not just another time, it’s another moral system. It’s another type of human being. It’s another profession. It’s honorable. It’s modest, ambitious in the right way.

RB: It must be symptomatic of some degradation that there actually is more attention paid to inside baseball media and so-called press criticism and less creditable stuff being said. More people are aware and are critical, but it seems not to affect the remediation of the problems.

RA: Because there is not—

RB: That dependable place?

RA: There is no place like that dependable place, but also you sometimes have to start over. I have a friend—sometimes sloppiness gets out of hand in my house, or anywhere, and I said [to him], “What shall I do?” And he said when that happens, you have to start with a little corner. And I think that’s what’s happened in journalism. What’s wrong is so completely out of hand that you have to start at a little corner and work away. And it’s not that easy because they are very vengeful. By the way, that’s why Canaries in the Mineshaft came out. I said to Michael Dennehy, “You know, whatever happens, I am not going to get good reviews on the next book. So why not just publish these?” He said, “Yeah, those pieces will stand up. Let’s just publish those.” So we did.


Almost every time you hear an anonymous source cited in any newspaper now, it’s an official. Why? It’s a way for the police to speak.


RB: What are your students like?

RA: Some of them are really quite wonderful.

RB: And they are looking for careers in journalism?

RA: I don’t mainly teach journalism. I am in two departments. I am in the University Professors department, in which I have a course called “On Modernism and Feeling,” which is mainly a fiction course. And then in the journalism department, I have a course called “Misinformation.”

RB: [chuckles]

RA: So it’s a different thing. But as always, some of them are really, really good. And then the ones that are to me something new, which took me too long to understand, are people who wouldn’t think of reading what they have been assigned. I mean, it can be a four-page story and they won’t read it. They go directly to the Internet. I hadn’t realized this until the middle of the second semester, when I had just assigned Bartleby and I got the strangest papers, including one about Eros and Thanatos.

RB: [laughs] They wouldn’t think about reading the assignment because—

RA: It’s completely new to me, about three generations away from what I remember. I assigned a short story. There was no way to get it wrong. It was Salinger. And I got this piece in which everything was totally, inexplicably wrong. I thought, how can you get this wrong? I kept noticing that the footnotes were to people, critics on the Internet. And it turns out they are people with ‘blogs’ and they have theories—about stories they may not have read either. It would have been so much easier to read the original story, instead of these web commentaries. So I said, “OK, no more quoting from anything but the text for while.” And things have looked up.

RB: Jim Shepard told me that he ran into one of his students who commended him on a story that was in Esquire and the student told him he couldn’t wait to finish it. Shepard says the story was only three pages long.

RA: There you are. That said, there are really, really good ones. So it’s like teaching, I suppose, in public school, or perhaps any place. That is, what do you do about the ones that have read everything?

RB: Where are they going to go?

RA: The ones that have read everything?

RB: The good ones.

RA: I don’t know. Where did they end up in my time? I don’t know.

RB: In your time, our time, there were still places where people wanted to do good work and appreciated it and were appreciated for it, and celebrity was not yet the coin of the realm.
Adler, copyright 2004 Robert Birnbaum
RA: It would be hard for me to generalize about my students because I haven’t been at this place very long. I taught once at City University, at Hunter College. I used to say that in fiction it was so remarkable an experience. The place was accepting people who came, in good faith, under open admissions, and then teaching them nothing. Well, it doesn’t count; it’s a whole other story. But you know this press thing is very serious. I am supposed to be giving this paper, right? And it’s supposed to be about New York Times vs. Sullivan. I don’t think anybody really cares about New York Times vs. Sullivan, nor do I particularly. But it’s a sort of a place from which you can get to any place in the alphabet. But—what was my point?—beats me , what was my point?

RA: You are to give a speech on—

RA: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You see in New York Times vs. Sullivan and until, for me anyway, the last two weeks, at least the court believes in New York Times vs. Sullivan, and certainly I believed until I was thinking about it two weeks ago.

RB: Explain the case, would you.

RA: It’s the one that defined libel in such a way that it’s gone. OK. And it’s also a very crazy decision and the press likes it. Although it doesn’t do the press any good either. Nothing good has come of New York Times vs. Sullivan.

RB: [laughs]

RA: Nothing whatsoever except some interesting cases for [First Amendment attorney] Floyd Abrams, whom I love, and various libel defense lawyers. But nothing good has come out of it for journalism, for society, for anything. But anyway, when this paper came up I felt why not try to define it more broadly. And I suddenly realized that the assumption in New York Times vs. Sullivan and perhaps in the world since is that the press is a form of speech. And I think that is no longer true. The press in many ways is antagonistic to speech. Everything that is assumed in New York Times vs. Sullivan—remember it’s the case where there was an ad in the New York Times. And it said “Heed their Rising Voices.” Such a wonderful title. And the ad was [something like], “Help Martin Luther King and all these wonderful folks in the South and do your bit.” And it described various atrocities that had been committed in the South and a lot of it was just plain false. And the police commissioner of Montgomery, Ala., sued. That was [L.B.] Sullivan. And he said, “I have been defamed by this. A lot of this is not true; I have been held responsible for this,” and he won judgments straight up through the courts of Alabama for $500,000. And so the Supreme Court was faced with this question “Do you decide for the good, the true, these brave gentle clergymen, and this right-minded newspaper or this almost certainly racist person who has gone through these biased juries with their racist verdicts?” Other suits were pending. So they [decided in favor of the Times and] said much, much more than they should have or needed to [including a new definition of actual malice to claim libel]. So that’s what happened and they defined libel in such way that no one can possibly understand what is meant by it.

RB: [laughs}

RA: Ever, ever, ever. Ever. But their assumption was that on one side was speech and the press and on the other side was the state and power, the police state and power, and that was true then. But now, on the one side is the state and police power and the press. And on the other side we don’t know, because we have no way of knowing. Whistleblowers. It’s so hard. The myth was that the reason you have a privilege for journalists is that so whistleblowers can, without retaliation, speak anonymously, right? Almost every time you hear an anonymous source cited in any newspaper now, it’s an official. Why? It’s a way for the police to speak. If you want to go that far left with it—it’s a way for power to cover over what it wants to say and they have really learned it. It’s a public relations game. And there is no way an individual can play. Those poor whistleblowers, the FBI ones, in Minnesota and Arizona, they had to get past their own bosses. They had to somehow get into the press. And of course they were punished. That’s not whom the press shields.

RB: I was thinking Michael Mann’s The Insider.

RA: That was a real whistleblower, for whatever his motives. We can’t go to motive there. That’s the one important case above all, isn’t it?

RB: The Lowell Bergman/60 Minutes producer character [in The Insider] speaks about the difficulty of having your phone calls returned after he quits and can no longer say, “Lowell Bergman, CBS.”

RA: Well, that’s it. That’s very scary. Particularly at a time like this. I don’t know why I say at a time like this. No matter how you define this time.

RB: Do you think I.F. Stone even used the telephone, or did he just did scrutinize the public records?

RA: I don’t know how he did it. That’s where the Jayson Blair thing comes in. They all—it’s now known as footwork shoe leather or whatever, to sit at your desk and talk to whoever your source is.

RB: Your so-called anonymous sources.

RA: Who are CIA or FBI, disenchanted or it doesn’t matter. But they are official sources and they are going to mislead you. And then being a journalist you are going to stay loyal to them, no matter how they mislead you, and you are going to become very proprietary about the information they give you.

RB: What do you mean?

RA: Here’s a tiny instance that by now sounds like a kook instance but it isn’t. Why am I going into Mohammed Atta and the story of 9/11? Well, why don’t I go into it for a minute. Two mysteries about Mohammed Atta: Why did he drive to Portland on the night that he had to catch a flight from Boston to crash into the World Trade Center? And the other, about these meetings in Prague, which he had, and there can be no good-faith doubt about this. He had more than one meeting with an Iraqi case officer in Prague. Now, you would think either that’s true or it’s not true. Or it’s unknown whether it’s true or not. As it happens, everyone who says that they did meet, goes by name, gives evidence, stands by the story—which is very hard to do by this time. There has been so much pressure. The fact that they met is thoroughly discredited because the New York Times came back to it again and again and again and again, anonymous “official” sources insisting that there had been no such meeting. Here is what happened. The story originated with the CIA. The Czech secret service was surprised, but the CIA, wanting to say, and the FBI wanting to say, “Look, we were not so dumb. We knew about this meeting,” leaked this story and they suddenly thought, “If we knew that, aren’t there certain things we should have done?” So they began to deny their own story. And so the New York Times, with its high officials, kept saying, “according to this or that (nameless) official the meeting did not take place.” But there is no question, the records exist. So the Times has come back to it again and again. Then unfortunately Bill Safire picked it up on the side that they clearly did meet. When it was so clear that they did meet. But he thought that the meeting proved a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq. But we didn’t know that it had anything to do with al Qaeda. It proved a connection between Atta and Iraq, and not improbably 9/11.

RB: It could have been Atta and his Iraqi cousin.

RA: Anything. But why so adamantly, in story after story including an editorial deny, that they hadn’t met? It’s crucial to some American agency or bureau, some “official” source that they should not have met. And the Times is just so adamant and by God they got it into the 9/11 commission report. With an entirely new non-fact. First, they had said it was impossible for Atta to have been in Prague on the dates in question. There’s really no doubt he was in fact there on those dates. Now they coined a brand new non-fact, just in the last days as the report was going to press. They suddenly said [Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir] al-Ani, the [Iraqi government] case officer, was out of town. When Atta was allegedly there. It seems tiny, but why grow so proprietary that you have to keep propping up your prior non-facts? The reason is they had said it once. It’s like Wen Ho Lee. In fact, one of the same Times reporters.

RB: What’s to be said about this ongoing insistence about things that have been discredited—WMD, al Qaeda, and so on? And then they deny their insistence.

RA: Yes, exactly. Or insist in a new way.

RB: I think I understand the tactic. But what must the public be thinking about this?

RA: I think it’s terrible. Certainly the administration does it as matter of course. Deny what’s true, insist upon what’s false. They’re politicians. And it works. It works in the sense that sooner or later, people lose interest or they get it wrong or they say, “Leave me alone.” For example, the only way to answer this is in the political way. But we don’t have any leaders. So people use the same strategies, but if the press is going to use the same ones, which is, “We stand by our story” or “We’ll retract our story and return to it again and we’ll win with it,” then it means that sooner or later you just can’t as a citizen cope on the basic public information that you need. The business of the press was to provide that information. That is what the honorable press set out to do. The Court, in New York Times vs Sullivan, thought that’s what the press was doing and would continue to do—just as free speech is supposed to do. But, in recent years, apart from a few superb reporters and fine editors, for the most part, the profession and its agenda have gone another way. There’s not a chance.

RB: Reading your piece on the Bush vs. Gore decision, one is struck by your horror with it and what flows from it. No one else seems upset about it.

RA: Or if they got upset, they got upset because of the way it went. Not the arguments. And because 9/11 and so many other things intervened, it’s not important. But you know, I was looking at the arguments before the Supreme Court in the cases of Hamdi and Padilla, these two American citizens who were denied right to counsel and their other constitutional rights. The argument that the government was making was beyond belief to make before an American court. They say they have the right to hold these people and the courts have no right to intervene. Several of the justices are quite disdainful in their questioning of the other side. Taking just the justices who still have their Constitutional bearings, they say, “What about the right they have to a neutral tribunal?” The government argues the president is the neutral tribunal, the commander in chief and that authority flows all the way down to the lowliest interrogators. And the justice says, “You mean the local interrogator is a neutral tribunal?” And the government argues, “Yes, what interest would they have except to—” I didn’t think I would ever say this, but luckily the case of Abu Ghraib came out then. Because it was hard to describe those interrogators as the neutral tribunal to which everyone is entitled. One of the justices said, “Usually when we have had wars, we knew that one day they would be over. But you are talking about a war against terrorism which may last a hundred years. How will we know when your right to—?” “ That is correct. We can’t tell you that.” So one justice says, “You are telling us, ‘Trust us, we’ll let you know?’” And the government says yes. It was unthinkable to make an argument like that before an American court. And of course they didn’t quite win it, did they? Just because of Abu Ghraib. Or maybe they wouldn’t have won it anyway.




Adler, copyright 2004 Robert Birnbaum

RB: This Supreme Court could get more regressive under a Republican president [in the next four years].

RA: I think that’s right. It’s almost certain.

RB: Two judges, at least, are ready to retire?

RA: You never know, and you never know how whoever you appoint is going to turn out. However, President Bush having said he was going to be a uniter and so on has chosen, almost without exception—I know of no exceptions—the most abrasive and contentious judges. This new thing, it’s like with Clarence Thomas, you take ethnicity and—I must say I voted for Bush’s father but when he said this was the most qualified judge—There’s a lot of spite, a lot of spite politics and there is a lot of spite journalism. It’s not necessary. It’s not good and it’s incompatible with good faith on either side. But, yes, there will be new appointments to the court. And Lord knows what they will do.

RB: You said we can’t tell but certainly one argument people proffer for voting for John Kerry is the fear of Bush Supreme Court appointments. You can tell something.

RA: You can tell something. Justice Stevens was appointed by a Republican [Ford]. Justice Souter, who has been honorable and a hero, was appointed by another Republican [the first Bush]—and yet you can’t count on that—

RB: Clarence Thomas has stayed true to his clumsy, embittered view. [He also was appointed by the first President Bush.]

RA: Although he may turn around. Who knows? But it’s funny, this business of wanting to slam the door that let you in.

RB: [laughs]

RA: Those anti-affirmative action positions are morally abhorrent. May I just mention something here about those little books published by Melville House, including mine, about the decision [in the Bush vs. Gore case].

RB: Sure.

RA: If you read, for example, Dennis Johnson’s book about the demonstrations [The Big Chill], there were at the time. I almost didn’t read it because I don’t believe in demonstrations. But it’s stunning. Those demonstrators, apart from everything else that happened to them, when the press bus went by, they were shouting, “Shame, shame, shame” and they weren’t covered. They weren’t covered anywhere. There was a time when demonstrators were over-covered. But it’s stunning—I still don’t believe in demonstrations but you can’t make yourself heard.

RB: Why are you against demonstrations?

RA: Because they turn people off, and turn them to the other side. That’s all. But you can’t not cover them. You don’t have to turn to weirdest-looking demonstrator and put that on the front page. But you have to acknowledge that it took place.

RB: There is some evidence for your concern that journalism is no longer about gathering and presenting facts but about opinions and attitudes.

RA: And solidarity with power. It used to be that journalism, as a reflex, was too counter-administration. It used to be so. Now it isn’t so. The administration of Clinton was a very peculiar turning point in that the people who hated him, hated him so much. And the reporters who hated him, hated him so much for very much the same reasons, which we don’t even want to go into. One subject that I hadn’t thought of until now. I think that the way the world divides at the moment—or at least the country divides right now and the way that people who are thinking, do divide—is according to mean and not mean. And it’s surprising who is mean and not mean. I hope I would count myself among the not mean.

RB: I was hoping to talk with Donna Brazile when she was going around for her political memoir and in reading up on her I was struck by her mentioning that after the election the only person who called her to ask after her was Karl Rove.

RA: Well there you are.

RB: He has been demonized, but that gesture says a lot.

RA: It says a lot. But in thinking about this other thing, one of the things I have been attacking, when I attack, for quite a long time without realizing it, was inaccuracy. I have been going after people and saying, “This isn’t true and this isn’t true and that isn’t true.” And so the two things they came right back with is, inaccuracy and meanness, and, of course once you say that about somebody, if you can get that to be the received wisdom, then of course they are in trouble for a good long time.

RB: Someone mentioned Joan Didion in one of your conversations at Salon or MobyLives and she plays the same tune as you.

RA: Well, Joan Didion is wonderful.

RB: Yes and she often is credited with that statement about how writers are always betraying someone.

RA: I don’t even think that’s true, always selling someone out. In a way it’s true. That’s true for certain kinds of writing. But look at [the New Yorker’s] Janet Malcolm. For years [she was attacked] and all she had said was a sentence about “Any journalist that wasn’t so full of himself.” [The full quote is: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”—ed.] It was like saying all happy families are alike. Nobody says to Tolstoy they are not alike. But they went absolutely crazy and they went after her for a long time. Funnily enough, you can take all kinds of positions and not be cast in that role. But there is this question of there are some things you are not allowed to do in a certain way. Because Janet is an extremely nice person and a very, very accurate reporter and a very highly conscientious reporter. And in due course, by the way, it passed and she is accepted. So there it is.

RB: Two things that I find remarkable personally. Do you have a friendship with Henry Kissinger?

RA: I do, yes.

RB: How is that possible?

RA: Well, I admire, on balance, him enormously and so that’s a long story. I think he is a statesman and a man of intelligence and honor. That’s saying a lot isn’t it? Even on balance. I do have that friendship. I do.

RB: Me, not having a friendship with him, I think of him as a war criminal.

RA: You see, there again, something took hold, which once it takes hold, it’s very hard to say, “No, no.” That’s presposterous. It isn’t true at all.

RB: And I must admit envy that you knew Hannah Arendt.

RA: Oh, well, she was a really close friend. And a very important friend to me and I must say, not always an approving friend, by any means. And her husband, too, while he was alive. She was the most extraordinary person. And very wise and not always right either. So what made you think of Hannah Arendt? Why?

RB: I have always admired her and recently I read a recap of the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy and there is a new edition of Origins of Totalitarianism.

RA: That’s right. Everyone turned on her for the Eichmann book as well.

RB: She, of course, suggested it would have been better had people criticized the book she had actually written.

RA: That’s always asking too much. But Origins of Totalitarianism is such a major, major, major book.

RB: And of course the phrase “banality of evil” has entered the popular lexicon.

RA: And that’s the least of it. It’s a useful phrase but it doesn’t cover it. It just doesn’t cover it.

RB: What is it about smart Jewish women that seems to spark antipathy? Arendt had problems. Susan Sontag is dumped on. She won a major German peace prize last year and no one paid attention to it except for the L.A. Times.

RA: I like Susan very much. I certainly don’t agree with her about a lot of stuff, but then, why would I? It’s OK.

RB: Imagine that, she wins a major prize and no one pays attention and she gives a very interesting speech and the American ambassador, who as a matter of protocol would normally attend the award ceremony, does not attend.

RA: Very interesting. I missed it.

RB: And a few years ago I saw the president of Barnes & Noble insulted and tried to embarrass Cynthia Ozick on a TV panel by dragging out her small sales figures.

RA: I don’t think there is something about Jewish women. I don’t. Do you?

RB: I don’t know.

RA: About women generally, no, I don’t think that either.

RB: Well, that’s good.

RA: I haven’t thought about it. It may be so. But it certainly never crossed my mind.

[Conversation interrupted by young stray male dog’s insistent and ardent pursuit of Rosie at our feet]

RA: [to stray dog] Listen, mister. You can’t do that. Your attentions are unwelcome.

RB: Yeah. She [Rosie] will teach him soon enough.

RA: Well, now he has the leg of the table.

RB: [laughs]

RA: He’s not well. He really isn’t.

RB: He is just hyper-hormonally ardent?

RA: There is something definitely wrong with him—luckily he hasn’t started on us.

Rosie: [barks]

RA: The leg of the table?

Rosie: [barks a few more times]

RB: Who knows? Rosie, go away. [To RA] Are you aware of any response to these there Melville House book[lets]? How did they come about?

RA: Dennis [Johnson]. He just said, “Why don’t we do them?” Mark Danner’s is very important, too, because he went down there [to Florida]. This is what the press used to do. This is what especially the Times would have done, is go down there. Look at what is happening. And I must say to the enormous credit of Marty Baron, who is now the editor of the Boston Globe, when they asked the Miami Herald to join the consortium [to recount the Florida ballots] he said, “No, this is our backyard.” It was everybody’s backyard, that recount. And you know what, according to Mark Danner there were no Democrats watching the recount either. Only Republicans.

RB: There was a fact checker at the New Yorker named Marty Baron.

RA: Marty Baron is a wonderful fact checker. What are the odds that the editor of the Boston Globe would be—

RB: Are you called upon the way certain pundits are asked to pronounce on various matters? Are you looked upon as one of those reliable talking heads?

RA: Never was. Once long, long, long ago, Joan Didion was asked to be on a television program and she said she would only do it if I did it. And I said I would only do it if she did it.

RB: [laughs]

RA: But I can’t remember what it was. But it’s not what I did or do. Or even have been asked to do. I have never been asked to do a book tour. Even, as they say, in my prime. To do a piece on Gordon Liddy, I went with him on his [book] tour. That was so interesting.

RB: That piece was interesting. I formed a very negative impression of him at the time of the Watergate hearings and then the only modification of that was when he began to do his whatever you might call it, with Timothy Leary. Which made me rethink him.

RA: That was interesting. When I first met him he really was an interesting guy. And I think perhaps still is. But there are these things that happen, these postures that people get forced into and then they either act them with all their heart or not or whatever. Well I haven’t seen him in a long time but when I was following him around he was really good. And his wife was good and his kids were good.

RB: That piece was not published.

RA: No, I guess I mention this in the book. What happened was that it was scheduled to be published right away. And then there was an uprising within the New Yorker.

RB: [laughs]

RA: So I went to see Mr. Shawn. He said, “This has never happened before. But I just can’t.” It was when the hostages were still in Iran. And then years later he said, “OK, we can publish the Gordon Liddy piece.” I said, “No, no, I don’t think so.” Then Ronald Reagan was president. And things were quite different. And he said, “Well, what difference does it make? A piece is a piece.” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And I think that was right. It was one thing to write about G. Gordon Liddy when we’ve got hostages in Iran and Jimmy Carter is president and another when Reagan is—it means something totally different, I think, then later it doesn’t mean anything.

RB: If you were to put together a collection of your essays today, you would make that selection based on what your grasp of what the current climate is?

RA: No, because I think a book is different. But a magazine piece is so topical, in a way. It was fun and it was correct even, because I was thinking “G. Gordon Liddy in America”—to see how Americans react to Liddy when there are hostages in Iran was interesting. But then to see how they react when Reagan is president and Liddy is famous and touring with Timothy Leary is another matter.

RB: He had the view that had Nixon been president there wouldn’t have been any hostages because the Shah would still be in Iran.

RA: Yes, he may have been right. I think he was right.

RB: There are a number of newspapers and magazines, not a lot, that have a long history in this country. But none of them seem to get the kind of attention from readers that the New Yorker and the New York Times get. Harper’s has been around for years, as has been the Atlantic; in fact, they precede the New Yorker, but they don’t have the same kind of intense interest in where every move that is made is one in which the readers seem passionately involved. Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor, making some remarks about the fiction slush pile that results in a furor, at least on the Internet—

RA: I missed that. There is this funny thing. There are some publications and not just publications, some products for want of a better word. Or things, for want of a better word, that people define themselves partly in terms of being consumers of. And there is a Times reader. And there is also a [Wall Street] Journal reader. It’s funny because the Washington Post has gotten so much better than the Times. And the Wall Street Journal has, too. But it’s not the same thing. It just isn’t the same thing and it won’t ever be the same thing. Which is why we all have a lot invested in what has become of the Times and that investment has turned out to be a very sad one, I think. There is not going to be another. There is no way you come back from that.

RB: When I was reading it, I really liked the New York Observer. Arthur Carter, its publisher, had made a lot of money and started a publication and it was not guided by maximizing the bottom line.

RA: It was very, very good.

RB: So such a publication is still possible, though unlikely.

RA: Yeah, that’s still possible and new things may happen. All kinds of things may happen. And the New Yorker whatever it has become, has become something else. It certainly has become something else. It’s become something completely different. It’s not valueless. The Times is not valueless.

RB: Right. One can bemoan whatever changes take place, but I still think that the New Yorker is a better magazine than most magazines out there.

RA: Oh, absolutely. Or maybe not absolutely.




to be continued…


biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum