BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Friday, July 9, 2010 — “Get Schooled” was the columnists’ theme this year, our conference hosted at a university for the first time, Indiana. Appropriately, our informal welcome Thursday night was at one of the town’s oldest college hang-outs, Nick’s Pub.
The meat of a conference like this is made up of lectures and panel discussions, and this meet was one of the most abstract held by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. A few people were disappointed and I could see what they meant, but most loved it. Russell Frank of Penn State called it mind-expanding. For the first time, My Beloved attended nearly every session, because the schedule looked promising and it fulfilled that.
What was it? First, what it was not. There were neither one-hour how-to’s on writing and publishing or state-of-the-business/craft analyses, which are our norm. Bloomington’s Mike and Mardi Leonard instead found people to talk about creativity itself, with a couple of insightful tangents.
This and the next Brick are on the long side, but they’re not complete. More than ever this year, reportage and comment can be found at a special page at Columnists.com. The page is being updated as new blogs and columns come in, and will be archived indefinitely. It’s not just that every conferee got something a little different from the next fellow from the presentations, but also that the writing is fine.
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Leading up to the conference every year, one program whets my appetite. This time it was “Choosing the Right Words,” with three published novelists who are former reporters or columnists.
Scott Russell Sanders, a novelist but mainly a memoirist. For him (and me) columns are essays: “Montaigne created the word essay, defined as a trial, an attempt, and it also survives in the word ‘assay.’ It looks for understanding that we don’t yet have,” he said.
Historical novelist James Alexander “Jim” Thom, participated with his wife in all conference events. Thom finds a famous moment to weave fictional pieces through: “The historical incident defines where I can go in my story, its boundaries.”
“We columnists — and I am a former columnist also — are the first historians of anything that happens,” Thom said. “Compare something present with something in the past. To get the reader’s attention, you have to connect [it] with the big picture.”
The celebrity role was played by Michael Koryta, whose latest novel, So Cold the River, has been well reviewed this summer. He cited storytelling techniques, the narrative toolbox, pointing out “the visual points of contrast: “All this [the tools of the novelist] can be helpful to columnists. Showing place, story and character in short fashion.”
“As long as the protagonist wants something, even just a cup of coffee, the audience will go along,” Koryta said. “A novel always starts with character. I want to mirror the internal battle of the character with the plot, which is external.”
“I’ve always want to write fiction,” Koryta said. “But took Hemingway’s advice to heart, about any fiction writer should first work for a newspaper, for as short a time as possible. [My] working for a small paper was especially useful, because it was small: Not too much exposure. Plus close witness of great writers” at their craft nearby in the newsroom.”
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The communications-research presentation was near and dear to the NSNC, a presentation on a content analysis of Bill O’Reilly. Let’s put “near and dear” in quotes, that’s it. O’Reilly spoke at our Philadelphia conference in summer 2007 and his talk was, shall we say, consistent with his cable talk show.
Two IU academics, Mike Conway and Betsi Grabe, explained their award-winning paper, which studied the language O’Reilly uses on his program The Factor. Grabe and Conway believe O’Reilly employs propaganda tools, and cited two books from the 1930s, when Fascism and Naziism surged, with the great help of radio. In this country was the periodic growth of isolationism and hate speech. The volumes are The Fine Art of Propaganda: A Study of Father [Charles] Coughlin’s Speeches — edited by Alfred McClung Lee and Elizabeth Briant Lee, and The Fine Art of Propaganda by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis.
From these Conway and Grabe told us of the Seven Propaganda Devices: Name calling, glittering generalities, transfer, plain folks, bandwagon, testimonial and card stacking. Their definitions are self-evident and, while I’d agree, to me it’s also an applied form of rhetoric, which debaters, lawyers and even spouses use to enhance communication as well as to game it. My conclusion is the scholars have a point, now what? O’Reilly ain’t going anywhere, and there’s more where he came from. Importantly, it’s nothing new.
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Dinner was at the nearby Oliver Winery, with largely organic, locally raised food from the Farm restaurant. The Friday night event was highlighted by Ed Grisamore of the Macon, Ga., Telegraph accepting the 2010 Will Rogers Award for humanitarian works by a columnist. Grisamore said, “Once I might have said I was lucky, and now I’d rather say I am blessed, that I always wanted to be a writer.”
The society created a new honor this year, to thank longtime NSNC members for service to the organization and to mark their successful careers. The inaugural recipients of the Legacy Award were Bob Hill, retired from the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal, and George Smith of the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Smith said, “What we do is not rocket science. What we do is tell stories about real people … just like Ernie Pyle did.”
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It may have little to do with creativity, or come to think of it quite a lot, but the most-anticipated speech of the weekend did not disappoint. Debra “Debby” Herbenick, Ph.D., talked about her place of employment on campus, the Kinsey Institute, its history and its founder, Alfred Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson in the 2004 bio-pic.
She noted the importance of Kinsey’s champion, late IU President Herman B Wells (no period after B). Oliver Platt played him in the movie. Wells’ name came up other times during the weekend. As a resident of the University of Arkansas’ home town for over a decade, I couldn’t help but admire Wells. Indiana is no more liberal than Arkansas, which is to say not much, so his successes in promoting academic freedom to state officials is impressive. I wondered about the forested look of the campus — that was Wells’ environmentalism. He fostered a top music school and campus art museum (so fine I hope the curators of Bentonville’s coming Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art have studied its collection and presentation), as well as recruiting international scholars, such as the brother of the current Dalai Lama and refugees from Nazi Germany.
Back to Herbenick. How she steered a middle course in communicating itself provides a writing lesson. She could’ve made this a biology lecture. After all the institute studies biology and behavior. Or we could’ve watched her channel a routine by Chelsea Handler. After all a research facility not only gathers but distributes data. After her engaging talk she answered written, anonymous questions from us, demonstrating a Kinsey principle that she said began in the 1960s: “We provide information, not advice.”
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My friend Bill Tammeus guided the remarks of Alvin Rosenfeld from IU’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, an on-stage interview, as seen on BookTV. Bill having left the Kansas City Star has continued a religious journalism, exploring spirituality. Nearly every year he gives a program at the conference, and it’s always worthwhile.
Rosenfeld hit all the expected marks, and that was disappointing. Bill and colleagues in the audience kept after him with close questions, but he kept to his lines. Washington politicians these days are accused of working from the same scripts. Late night comedians feast on showing clip after clip of Democrats and Republicans using identical catch phrases. I never thought of pro-Israeli Americans doing that but gosh, Alvin, we’ve heard all this before, for 62 or more years. The same people are listening — well, dozing off because they’ve heard it before — and the same other people still refuse to listen. The victim-to-underdog “shtick” no longer “kills,” to channel Jackie Mason (Am I the only Jew never to have found Mason funny?).
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Speaking of humor killing, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett is hard. Talking with him the evening before then after his presentation, he’s a quiet, gentle soul, reminding me of our mutual friend, the cartoonist John Deering. But when Pett runs his slideshow then easel-and-marker live-show, I found refreshing his undisguised rancor, anger and hostility. I enjoy lots of editorial cartoons online and haven’t seen in contemporary editorial panels venom like Pett’s. It’s old-fashioned and in the best way. Where Deering is thoughtful and pointed, Pett doesn’t bother cleaning his knife in-between.
Opening for Pett, if that’s what it was, was NSNC member Rick Horowitz of Milwaukee. Besides his print work, my friend Rick creates video columns for public TV in Wisconsin, often employing song parodies, perhaps the Jewish Mark Russell? No one then may have been surprised when he asked for volunteers to sing with him, a childlike round about the BP oil gusher, “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”
It closes, “There’s a risk to the pol in the poll of the gasp at the slick from the plume from the spill / In the hole in the bottom of the sea.”
These are the sorts of insights that help columnists. Just like hearing fiction writers. We have no limits, except the ones we put there. Pett — and Carl Hiaasen — have publishers who understand readers want strong, unique voices and not timidity. Lesson: You can blame economics and it wouldn’t be wrong, but we do have other avenues if we choose. That’s why the Internet in general and blogs in particular are growing.
I had a question of Pett, “You’ve said you’re the only employed cartoonist in Kentucky, We columnists have noticed that cartoonists are the canaries in the newspaper coal mine.”
Pett’s answer: “If you can’t bite the hand that feeds you, … it’s not real, it’s not fun. There were 250 of we cartoonists and now 54 of us — with jobs, that is. Democracy will survive without cartoonists, but it will not survive without reporters. The bastards will get away with even more.”