Why journalists should envy, heed Lillian Ross

September 21, 2017
Category: Newsletters

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A  pillar of literary journalism dies at 99

Lillian Ross had a helluva run with The New Yorker. She started the year (1945) Americans learned of President Roosevelt's death on their radios, we dropped the atomic bomb and the Japanese surrendered — and finished in a world of Snapchat, Martin Shkreli and Sean Hannity (human evolution is uneven).

And, through it all, she was a pot-stirring member of the literati.

"She was not just a contributor but a creator — one of those whose style and tone became a standard to which later writers aspired," writes Rebecca Meade in a tidy eulogy in the magazine after she died Wednesday. "That tone — acutely observant, intimate, and very frequently amused — emerged in some of her earliest and best-known pieces, including her Profile of Ernest Hemingway and the five-part series on the making of John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage." (The Xeroxes of her articles made for distribution in the nation’s journalism classes, if piled on top of one another, would reach to the moon.) She was a master of the Talk of the Town form, with its comic distillation of social mores."

Lest one think that Ross was a slave to a mythical literary past, it was only a decade ago, while closing in on age 90, that she profiled a 27-year-old named Lin-Manuel Miranda before he was, well, the Lin-Manuel Miranda.

And get this: "In her fifth decade as a staff writer, in the mid-nineties, she sat down with a bunch of private-school tenth-graders on the Upper East Side. Ross always had an ear for the weird rhythms of spoken English, and she captured their profanity-laced, world-weary, sublimely innocent conversation — in a notebook; she didn’t believe in using recorders — for one of her best Talk of the Town stories. 'The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue' was one of the earliest efforts among reporters to capture uptalk on the page: 'You three come to my house you know at five? You bring all your clothes? I take everything out of my closet and spread everything out on the floor? We try on all the stuff?'”

Her relationship to the publication was deep. She carried on for decades with William Shawn, the second editor, who was married. And she was apparently a very good mentor, which is not usually a reflexive trait of great talents who are aging in a fast-changing world.

"Lillian was a generous champion of younger writers at the magazine, especially younger writers who sought, like her, to chronicle New York’s human comedy. In them — in us — she surely recognized her mischievous, enduring, shit-kicking self."

Yup, like Miranda's Hamilton, she came from elsewhere (Syracuse, N.Y.) and flourished on the complex streets of the city. Her personal anthem, too, might have been, "I'm not throwing away my shot." For more than 70 years, she didn't.

'A lot more' fake Facebook accounts?

Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who co-chairs the Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Jake Tapper that he strongly suspects the 470 phony accounts that are cited by Facebook as tied to Russia is a low figure (that notion "doesn't pass the smell test.")

"He pointed to Facebook's removal of 30,000 fake accounts ahead of France's presidential election earlier this year as evidence that there were likely more than only 470 fake accounts used by Russia during the U.S. election last year."

So let's see some actual facts, Senator.

But when fake news gets serious

"An upsurge in fake news, hate speech and ethnic-profiling after Kenya’s Supreme Court nullified the presidential election risks undermining the East African country’s constitution and institutions, the embassies of the U.S., U.K. and 14 other nations said." (Bloomberg)

"Kenyan authorities should hold to account those responsible for incitement and ensure the safety of those wrongly attacked, including people working at foreign embassies, the missions said Tuesday in an emailed statement, without describing specific incidents. The embassies also condemned 'malicious' documents about the judiciary that have been publicly circulated and 'contain false statements that could endanger lives.'”

Paper protests reporter's arrest

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk was among those arrested Sunday amid protests that followed the acquittal of a former city police office. The paper asked for charges to be dropped as unjustified in a letter to top city officials.

Faulk was caught in a so-called "kettle," a tactic used to trap a crowd that won't disperse. By one account, "A line of bike cops formed across Washington Avenue, east of Tucker Boulevard and police in helmets carrying shields and batons blocked the other three sides of the intersection at Tucker and Washington. Faulk heard the repeated police command, 'Move back. Move back.' He had nowhere to go."

Axios on the media future

On the half-hour in Washington, there are media-sponsored events in the desperate search for branding and, more important, outside revenue. Smart newcomer Axios, started by several Politico founders, held one on the future of media and, if its own account is inadvertently accurate, it was a pretty uninspired affair, with talk of the need to "punch through" and find "audience," among other insights.

I showed the story to Steve Brill, the take-few-prisoners journalist-media entrepreneur, who found what Axios reported on its own gathering to be rife with banalities and cliches. "Media executives at a conference in 1945, '55, '65, '75, '85 could have said the exact same thing."

Yeah, probably throughout the talk of "vertical video," and it had a somewhat intellectually shop-worn air.

Tweeting running amok

Readers have seen many mentions here about the tweeting of some reporters going overboard, with spineless editors looking the other way as some individuals become brands and the editors desperately seeking audiences anywhere they can find them. The decision by The New York Times' Glenn Thrush to bid farewell to the medium (he was prolific and often opinionated) was noted here yesterday. Now Poynter colleague Indira Lakshmanan, who writes smartly about ethics and other issues, talks to Thrush (who in part is clearing some professional decks to co-write a book on Trump with colleague Maggie Haberman) and writes about the general issue and frequent tensions:

"But with great power of a massive interactive soapbox comes great responsibility, and as countless cringeworthy examples prove, Twitter can be a minefield, with reputational and legal risks for individuals and newsrooms. It’s also an addiction that editors complain robs time from their reporters’ producing stories."

"In many newsrooms, even those that have some guidelines, the lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not are pretty fuzzy and subjective, and it’s easy to see where confusion creeps in. On one hand, newsrooms want journalists to show their personality and build a brand and following to drive traffic to the company’s site. The 140-character limit and Twitter’s community reward speed, brevity and cleverness with more followers, but the pressure to break news and the challenge of expressing nuance in brief statements is also a trap."

I wish I had suggested that Indira link to The New York Times obituary of Lillian Ross and this line:

"Ms. Ross preached unobtrusive reporting and practiced what she preached. She outlined her credo in the preface to her book 'Reporting' (1964): 'Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself.'"

The morning Babel

"Trump & Friends" heralded their guy, reaction to his UN speech, his take on the latest proposed repeal of Obamacare and a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll uptick in Trump support, especially the notion of his dealing with Democrats. Then it went to the disaster in Puerto Rico. It was soon back to politics and somehow finding ways to deride Barack Obama and Democrats, notably Obama's dealings with North Korea. Get it? All his fault. Roll tape of his speaking somewhere yesterday.

CNN "New Day" again opened with Puerto Rican elected official Jennifer Gonzalez, who yesterday called in from her closet, and she again updated by phone, as her island's  power is knocked out. The show returned to the Robert Mueller investigation and the request to the White House for documents related to the firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey. Some of the discussion (with thankful leavening from co-host Chris Cuomo) reflected recent hyperbole about the "news" of Mueller seeking White House records in a fashion that suggests, as one New York Times breaking news bulletin put it, that Mueller desires "a range of records that suggest President Trump's actions in office are under scrutiny." There is zilch that's a surprise with such a request.

"Morning Joe" on MSNBC was Trump,Trump,Trump, and more Trump and inside politics, including the Senate not following so-called regular order as the GOP proposes to fiddle with one-sixth of the economy. Co-host Joe Scarborough turned conservative philosophy historian: "That is something that Edmund Burke (1729-1797) would have called radical, something that Russell Kirk (1918-1994) would have called radical, something that William F. Buckley (1925-2008) would have called radical, something in his time Paul Ryan (presumably still alive) would have called radical, something Mitch McConnell (presumably still alive) would have called radical. You can't reorder one-sixth of the United States  economy without a committee hearing, without regular order, without a CBO (Congressional Budget Office) score, without being a dangerous radical. I don't understand how they think they're going to get away with that … and how some of my friends … are getting on TV and lying every day to the American people, lying through their teeth about what's in this bill and what's not in this bill."

A new free speech website

Georgetown unveiled (with Knight Foundation support) a website on free speech in America that, says director Sanford Unger (a good guy journalist-turned-academic) seeks to at least help "lower the temperature and improve the civility of the conversation about an issue central to the preservation of American democracy. As the Free Speech Tracker grows in size and scope in the months ahead, it should offer a reliable national overview of what is happening on campuses, in civil society, and in state legislatures. We'll also have video interviews with some of the highly influential behind-the-scenes thinkers about free speech."

The site itself notes that things are so bad, "One of America's great newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, (is) reduced to recruiting subscribers by promising 'We publish what's REAL.'" Yeah, that's weak. Here's the new site.

Russian fake news

"Drudge has for years used his site as a web traffic pipeline for Russian propaganda sites, directing his massive audience to nearly 400 stories from RT.com and fellow Russian-government-run English-language news sites SputnikNews.com and TASS.com since the beginning of 2012," according to a Media Matters review. "Those numbers spiked in 2016, when Drudge collectively linked to the three sites 122 times."

How Florida skirted real disaster

Just spend five minutes on this Tampa Bay Times recreation of how the state dodged a bullet as Hurricane Irma weakened. It's a good example of how a traditional newspaper can learn and execute new digital and video tricks. 

Lead of the day

"Increasingly optimistic that the callousness they required would be locked down by the September 30 deadline, GOP leaders were confident Wednesday that they will have the cruelty necessary to pass their new healthcare bill." 

MSNBC or The Onion? It's the latter.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

 

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