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February 19, 2006

Great Balls of Putty

I remember getting annoyed back in 1976 when journalism schools were filled with Redford and Hoffman wannabes, as opposed to Woodward and Bernstein wannabes, which would have been bad enough. It would have been hard to find a more self-righteous bunch of post-adolescents. Today, I long for those times.

Let me start by briefly telling you the story of Robert St. John, a true American hero. He started out as a kid with the Chicago Daily News. When Al Capone was forced to move his headquarters from the city’s lakefront to the western suburb of Cicero, Mr. St. John – who had graduated from nearby Oak Park High – moved out there with him to cover the biggest story in the city, and one of the biggest stories in the nation. He co-founded the Cicero Tribune, owning 49% of the venture, and started in on Mr. Capone and his friends. He was warned to back off, but he kept on pursuing his story. After doing an exposé on mob-controlled prostitution in the area, he was kidnapped and beaten within an inch of his life and dumped in a curb.

Miraculously, he survived. When St. John checked out of the hospital, he discovered his bill had already been paid by no less a personality than Al Capone, in person. Once again, it was suggested that he find other stories to cover and, once again, St. John stuck to his typewriter. After he published further anti-mob stories, he was told by one of Capone’s top lieutenants that his presence at the Tribune was no longer required. It turns out that in a triumph of capitalist ingenuity, Al had quietly bought out the other 51% of the paper.

St. John went on to an astonishing career with the AP and, later, NBC radio. He was on a Greek troop train in the Balkans that was strafed by a Nazi plane, and he carried a bullet in his leg the rest of his life. He remained on the war beat covering battle after battle, and handled Hitler the way he had handled Capone. He hid a Jewish family during the Romanian pogroms, he covered the Blitzkrieg and D-Day, broadcasting for 117 hours, and Hiroshima, broadcasting for 72 hours. He later covered the Arab – Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1982 – the latter when he was 80 years old. Sometime along the way, he wrote a couple dozen books.

In 2002, Mr. St. John was honored with an honorary doctorate by George Washington University on the occasion of his 100th birthday. He died shortly before his 101st.

I’ve thought about Robert St. John a whole lot during the past 61 months of the Bush – Cheney administration. As a reporter and as a publisher, Mr. St. John was everything today’s reporters and publishers are not. Robert St. John wrote with his spinal fluid.

After four years of treating the Bush – Cheney mob as though they had the cure for cancer, the press corps actually started to do their jobs, emboldened by the all too public antics of the most inept and most untruthful administration in American history. That’s nice, but it would have been nicer if these people had actually done their jobs before the election of 2004.

Now it’s the publishers’ turn.

Back when I was in journalism school, I was taught that you have to treat each story as though the reader had absolutely no previous knowledge of the story. Then, in the finest “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” City News Bureau tradition, you’ve got to give all the facts. Everything. It will be up to your editors and, if you’re unlucky, the publisher to cut what isn’t necessary.

No, scratch that. I learned that in my high school journalism course, taught by an old Hearst man who had been part of the legendary Front Page crowd.

No doubt you have been following the ongoing Danish political cartoon story – the ones that have inspired such revolt and repulsion all across the world that hundreds if not thousands of people have been slaughtered thus far, even though nobody objected during the first several months after these drawings were initially published. But unless you did some serious and inspired Googling, you probably have not actually seen the cartoons that are the source of the conflict.

My high school journalism teacher would have flunked me if I hadn’t included them.

Now you might take the position that it is not a newspaper’s position to show something that so blatantly attacks somebody’s religion, unless, of course, that religion has been decertified down to “cult” status. This was the position of many American Catholics when the child rape stories started to break; clearly, society and our children are better off with the stories having seen the light of day. But you might be surprised to know that Moslems aren’t objecting to the alleged derogatory depiction of their prophet: any depiction of Mohammed whatsoever is verboten, be it positive or negative.

Surprisingly, back in 1976 when Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas starred in “The Message” (a.k.a. “Mohammed, Messenger of God”), there was some minor hubbub and some demonstrations. Theaters showed the movie. It was nominated for an Oscar. The international death count as the result of this movie hovered around zero.

So I’ve been thinking of Robert St. John a whole lot these past five years. And I’ve been thinking of our spineless media. And I’ve been thinking that when I left this line of work the very same year both “All The President’s Men” and “The Message” were released, I made the right decision.

I continue to buy newspapers, but now I’m thinking of getting a bird.

Posted by Mike Gold at February 19, 2006 03:53 PM

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There are Woodward and Bernsteins out there nowadays. What there aren't are Washington Posts.

Posted by: Glenn Hauman at February 19, 2006 04:57 PM

I'm with you. I looked, but couldn't find a single copy of the offensive cartoons anywhere. And you can bet the folks burning embassies and rioting in the streets haven't seen them either. If the barn is being burned down to eradicate rats, show me a rodent before you torch the place.

Now, we all know that cartoonists are among the most dangerous people on earth, right up there where journalists used to be. We tend to point out that the Emperor not only has no clothes, but delight in pointing out that he also has a tiny little winkie. It's practically in our job description.

Not being much of a student of the Quran (or Koran, as it used to be spelled), I'm not familiar with the exact wording of the particular passage that says it's okay for religious leaders to enter into what amounts to conspiracy to commit murder by offering a million dollar bounty for the death of a cartoonist. I don't think they even covered that one in Leviticus, but I may be wrong.

I do understand that, if you are a devout muslim, you do your best to adhere to the precepts of your religion. But your rules don't apply to the rest of the world any more than Protestants are going to hell for eating meat on Friday (According to the nuns who taught summer school when I was a kid, they're going there anyway, but for entirely different reasons.) You are not entitled to dictate what can and cannot appear in a free press. That's one of the fundamentals of American liberty and I'm stunned that President "God told me to invade Iraq" Bush never mentioned that. Never said, "While we, as a nation, may not agree with the content of the editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet, we recognize the rights of a free press in a democratic society to express their opinions." Instead, he offered a statement that basically blamed Danish newspapers and cartoonists for exercising one of the most essential rights of any free nation.

That worked out real good... the American Embassy in Pakistan was attack today. Could it be that the problem goes a bit deeper than a few cartoons? Hmm. That would mean that there's an fundamental flaw in the Bush adminstration's approach to relations with the Middle East. Nah!

But then, until Dick Cheney winged Harry Whittington, our own press seemed almost reluctant to point out the Emperor's obvious shortcomings. Maybe now the kid gloves will come off. Maybe a few journalist actually saw "GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK" and vaguely recall a time when the only thing that stood between the American people and a reign of paranoid delusion (I'm talking about the 1950's here... just thought I'd point that out.) were a few people with the balls to speak up.

I'm trying my best to be a good rightwing conservative, but they're not giving me much to work with.

Posted by: MIKE GRELL at February 19, 2006 06:50 PM

It's interesting to me that there is so little media attention paid to the Danish publication that printed the cartoons. Apparently, it is a right-wing, anti-immigration paper that had previously chosen not to publish cartoons critical of Christianity and Judaism.

Posted by: Martha Thomases at February 19, 2006 09:27 PM

60 Minutes did a segment last night about the Danish paper/publisher. They did, not, however show the offending cartoons -- and I don't think there is anything to be gained by anyone else publishing the cartoons because, IMHO, the content of the cartoons is largely irrelevant. I don't care how tasteless they may be. I don't even care if the ones being distributed in Moslem countries to fan the anti-western flames aren't even the ones that were actually published -- because in the final analysis, they're just cartoons.

Islam is no better or worse than Christianity when it comes to intolerance and a fervent believe that everyone who doesn’t follow your god should either be converted or destroyed. These are not “live and let live” belief systems. After a brief lapse into sanity, extremist Christianity, as practiced by rabid, uncompromising zealots, is making a big comeback in this country -- and it would appear to be officially sanctioned and encouraged at the highest level of the U.S. government.

But this is not news. IMHO, the real story overlooked by the media is how the Bush administration ignores deadly Moslem protests/riots by our supposed allies (Pakistan) or strategically non-critical countries (Indonesia, Algeria) and then expresses shock and dismay at the protests in Syria and Iran, warning of deadly escalation and dire consequences.

Saudi terrorists, trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, blow up the World Trade Center. Let’s invade Iraq. Moslems around the world go on a rampage because of some Danish cartoons. Let’s invade Iran.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at February 20, 2006 10:35 AM

The cartoons have been available on my site since October:


I think the editors behind the original stunt each deserves to be lined up and kicked in the nuts by every single worldwide protestor, as the publication was unnecessary and provocative, arrogant politics masquerading as "drawing the line."

Still, strident dumbasses get free speech protection, too, and after something becomes worldwide news WITH THE CONTENT OF THE PHOTOS A KEY AND IMPORTANT ISSUE, everyone should feel compelled to publish just as they would with any similar issue that balances upsetting imagery with the public's need to know.

Posted by: Tom Spurgeon at February 20, 2006 12:38 PM

Damn, Tom. I SAW those cartoons on your site, back in October. Memorable, weren't they?

Having said my piece about these cartoons and our current crop of newspaper publishers, I'd like to point out that the Tribune family of newspapers seems to be systematically eliminating their own editorial cartoonists from their papers; a fact that I believe you've been covering on your first-class site.

When I was editing his autobiography, Stan Lynde told me his first wife thought newspaper continuity strips had become buggy whips. Turns out that was a pretty accurate prediction. Now, we're seeing the editorial cartoon going down the same path.

Oh, and if strident dumbasses didn't get free speech protection, this would be a very boring world indeed.

Posted by: Mike Gold at February 20, 2006 04:59 PM

Either Mike already knew about this when he invoked the Watergate imagery, or it's just one of those odd cases of synchronicity:


But whenever I hear about Watergate now, I'm reminded of a line from the introduction to Greg Palast's book "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy". Palast constantly ridicules what passes for "journalism" in this country and notes (I'm paraphrasing here): "Remember, the Watergate investigation was so unusual that they made a movie about it."

Posted by: Rick Oliver at February 21, 2006 01:26 PM

I find the coverage of the cartoon riots more interesting than the extremism itself. I believe the intention is to make us see all Muslims as intolerant lunatics. It makes no difference whether or not American newspapers publish the cartoon--Americans are ipso facto targets.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at February 21, 2006 05:53 PM

I don't think Muslims are any more prone to intolerant lunacy than Christians are -- or were at a comparable point in there history, which would be roughly the 13th century, or sometime between the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

But although I may personally dislike and distrust Islam, I don't think we accomplish anything by attempting to subdue Muslim nations through military action, and I accept the apparently heretical notion that foregin cultures should be allowed to pursue customs and goals that may seem...well...foreign to us.

But I don't want them running our major sea ports either. Call me a cranky old xenophobe.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at February 21, 2006 07:40 PM

Posted by: Mike Gold at February 20, 2006 04:59 PM
When I was editing his autobiography, Stan Lynde told me his first wife thought newspaper continuity strips had become buggy whips. Turns out that was a pretty accurate prediction. Now, we're seeing the editorial cartoon going down the same path.

While the continuity strip is making a back-door return -- "Luann", "Funky" and "9 Chickweed Lane" have all morphed into more-or-less continuity strips (and there are others) -- all perched somewhere between gag-a-day and continuity, and more on the side of continuity than not, especially "Chickweed". (Then there's "Pibgorn", which is pretty much full continuity -- the last adventure took eight months to play out, and he's just begun a new one, putting "Midsummer Night Dream" into a "Guys & Dolls" setting, featuring the casts of both "Pib" and "Chickweed" in character roles) though, as a web-only comic that was created to be ahumourous continuity strip, i'm not sure it counts...)

Posted by: Rick Oliver at February 21, 2006 07:40 PM
I don't think Muslims are any more prone to intolerant lunacy than Christians are -- or were at a comparable point in there history, which would be roughly the 13th century, or sometime between the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

Actually, look back to Rome, when, under thr grip of the Saulist Heresy, which transformed a vaguely Dionysian and pretty placid sect into a rabidly iconoclastic Apollonian nut cult, "Christians" (as Kate says, i doubt the carpenter-rabbi would acknowledge them as any followers of his) disrupted others' worship, invaded their temples and shrines and destroyed their holy paraphernalia.

Posted by: mike weber at February 28, 2006 02:12 AM

I didn't mean to imply that Christianity only had a brief period of intolerant lunacy. Most of the history of Christianity is, in fact, a case study in intolerant lunacy. I merely pointed to the period from the Crusades to the Inquisition as a particularly odious phase of a generally blood-spattered legacy.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at March 1, 2006 11:21 AM

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