Monday, March 30, 2009

The Last Great Editor Remembered

By Lawrence S. Dietz

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This piece was originally read at Jim Bellow's memorial service in Los Angeles, and later quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

I met Jim Bellows when he moved to the L.A. Times after the N.Y. Herald Tribune collapsed. Tom Wolfe had befriended me and gotten me writing for New York, the Sunday supplement to the Tribune.

Jim asked me to meet him at the Times; we’d go out for lunch from there, but we wouldn’t drive: we’d walk over to a nearby place, which turned out to be the dining room of the once splendid but by the 60s down-at-the heel, Alexandria Hotel.

It was drizzling, and to his surprise Jim slid on the sidewalk. I told him that L.A. sidewalks weren’t as gritty as New York’s – they weren’t constructed with inclement weather in mind. He filed that one away.

He filed a lot away. He was a sponge for information about Los Angeles, unlike subsequent editors from New York who came to the Los Angeles Times with the same air of pious certitude exhibited by missionaries going to Africa in the 19th Century to bring enlightenment to the savages. Of course, those editors were from the New York Times.

At the L.A. Times, Jim oversaw the “back” of the paper – the features and the Sunday magazine, West, the sections that “real” newspapermen sneer at as “soft.”

The guy who’d really made the careers of Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and so many others was clearly open and accessible to ideas. I was barely starting as a free-lance writer, but when I suggested West, which was drab-looking, could use great design (after all, New York and the Herald Tribune were sensational to look at) Jim hired a friend of mine, the brilliant and mercurial Mike Salisbury, to be the art director. Mike made West the best-looking magazine in the country.

I went to New York to edit a new magazine, and when it folded, Jim lured me back to L.A. to write for West. Jim personally worked with a few writers – I was lucky to be one of them – whose words could keep up with Salisbury’s graphics.

West was the first thing people turned to on Sunday. It even attracted the Holy Grail, younger readers. But editors in the vast Times bureaucracy opposed Jim getting the top job; so he left and went to Washington.

After his stint editing the Washington Star, throwing darts at Ben Bradlee, he came back to L.A. and took over the Herald-Examiner, the distant #2 paper in town. With slender resources he actually challenged the behemoth Times. Finally, though, it was time for him to move on.

No more newspapers to edit? He became the managing editor of “Entertainment Tonight”, hired after the show debuted to embarrassing, accurate reviews labeling it a studio flack’s wet dream. He brought in some of us print guys, and asked that field reporters ask real questions. What a concept. ET flourished.

Later he developed editorial content for Prodigy, a web service ahead of its time (a combination of AOL and the Huffington Post, with a stable of terrific columnists).

After Prodigy faded, some young Stanford grads hired him to create short reviews of websites to distinguish their new search engine, Excite. Again Jim turned to journalists, and we beavered away in the days of dial-up 14.4 kbps modems and pages that took forever to load. (A colleague wrote the best Excite web review, of a bestiality chat room: “Lassie! Go home! Quick!”)

Google proved that web surfers just want links, not reviews, so Jim wrote his autobiography, all the while looking for the next opportunity. It came from UCLA’s communications staff: perhaps a great magazine written by the faculty could move the campus up the college pecking order.

Jim turned to me and we developed the idea of mixing UCLA contributors with “real” writers, many from Jim’s enormous Rolodex. We created a smart and beautifully designed dummy and a business plan. The project made its way slowly, slowly through the bureaucracy; finally it won the support of the faculty Senate, but when it got to the then-Chancellor, who had come to UCLA from Harvard, he said that while he worried about the finances, it couldn’t succeed because no one in Los Angeles reads. I was too stunned even to sputter.

Jim’s health had begun to fail, so the UCLA journal would not be a terrific last hurrah for an editor who, most of all, revered talent. Even as he slowed down, though, he talked about another project.

I’ve written mostly about work. Jon Carroll printed some of this piece in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon, who worked for Jim at West, wrote: “Sooner than most of us, Bellows understood that information was fungible, and nostalgia for a particular medium was not useful.”

But beyond work, what a sense of humor Jim had. After ET, Jim was hired by ABC-TV to develop a news show, so he went back to New York for a while. As always, he liked working with the people he had faith in, and among the crew he assembled for the project was Jack Nessel, who had been Clay Felker’s #2 at New York. Jack sent me this e-mail message after Jim died.

“I brought my Akita [about 85 pounds] to a meeting with Bellows about the TV show we were supposed to invent. He said he supposed I thought my dog was tough, but he had a dog that could take mine in seconds, and he proposed a ‘dog-off’ the following Sunday in Central Park by the bronze sled-dog statue. At the appointed time he showed up with a dog the size of a large rat, on a leash that looked like a string. The two animals barely looked at each other. Whereupon Bellows claimed he won because my dog was clearly intimidated.”

Finally, much has been made of Jim’s mumbling. I think it was a brilliant strategy for dealing with writers who parse every word an editor says to them, and never forget what they deem criticism.

You knew when Jim didn’t like something from the shake of his shoulders and his pained expression. If you were any good, you didn’t need him to tell you exactly what to do to make your piece or editing job or headline better.

And when you did fix it, there was nothing better in this world than the smile that lit up his face.

Lawrence S. Dietz is the former editorial manager for

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

You Can Tax Away AIG's Bonuses, But Capitalism's Never Gonna Be Fair

By Richard Korman

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This piece originally ran on

Let's tax away AIG's bonuses because we now own AIG. And let's try to prevent Wall Street traders from running the world economy over a cliff. But don't pretend that we will ever tame big corporations or even bring executive compensation under government control through regulations. Business isn't fair.

After the crisis has passed, President Obama and the Democrats will have to step aside and let American business run on its own without trying to micromanage executive compensation, union organizing and other matters. Otherwise we'll waste years with experimentation and controversy, as FDR and the New Dealers did, instead of letting their sound reforms (the FDIC) and basic Keynesian stimulus do their work. The risk of a D.C.-centric economy is that investors will just sit on the sidelines.

We have a capitalist system that needs to be bailed out and re-regulated but sooner or later we must return to capitalism and all its potential excesses to produce more wealth and jobs.

For some perspective, let's talk about trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt. I love almost everything about him, including his personal bravery and environmentalist drive and his actual voice (but not his imperialist warmongering). I'll refer you to historian Richard Hofstadter, who pointed out that a lot of the trust-busting was not a true expression of class conflict and that Americans are basically at peace with corporate capitalism as long as the job-creation machine is keeping most everybody warm and dry. That populist rhetoric is a disguise for the accommodation we have with large corporations. And that there is more consensus in American life than class conflict.

Manhattan Island was settled by Dutch traders and the very first financial panic, in 1792, came only five years after the ink was dry on the Constitution. Changing the culture of Wall Street is about as likely as Bernie Madoff getting birthday cards from his former clients. Take the AIG bonuses as just another burst of excess that needs to be turned back. Right now I'm more concerned about keeping America out of the soup kitchen than whipping up a populist storm about the malefactors.

Richard Korman is the editorial manager for

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beyond the 'Rhetoric of Reaction'

By John Greenwald
(NOTE: This was originally published on Politico on March 11, 2009.  John is a member of the Gotham team.)

President Barack Obama’s sweeping plans to restart the economy and expand the federal role in education, health care and energy will either backfire, prove futile or destroy American values. Or maybe all three at once.

Sound familiar? It should, because these conservative lines of attack have been around for centuries in one form or another. Economist Albert O. Hirschman mined hundreds of years of right-wing polemics to show this in his 1991 book, “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” which sheds a revealing light on today’s political discourse.

Any reform can have both good and bad consequences, and which will prevail is uncertain at best. Yet both die-hard advocates and opponents of new policies tend to profess absolute knowledge of their outcomes and thereby create what Hirschman calls a “dialogue of the deaf” in which neither side hears the other.

Hirschman, now a 93-year-old professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., uses the neglected art of rhetorical analysis to expose standard conservative arguments as hoary “contraptions specifically designed to make dialogue and deliberation impossible.” He says the same holds true for knee-jerk liberal calls for government action. These contraptions come in three flavors, which Hirschman terms “jeopardy,” “perversity” and “futility.”

Take Rush Limbaugh’s claim that if Obama succeeds in getting “nationalized health care,” it will mean “the end of America as we have known it.” Limbaugh leveled this charge in a recent interview with fellow conservative talk show host Sean Hannity. The dire warning was a textbook example of complaints that a new course of action will have disastrous consequences — Hirschman’s jeopardy argument. Nineteenth-century British conservatives used the same rhetoric to oppose expanding the right to vote to the commercial and industrial classes on the grounds that it would jeopardize good government.

Limbaugh restated his point recently in an address to the National Conservative Political Action Committee, televised by Fox News. What is so strange about wanting Obama to fail, Limbaugh asked his cheering audience, “if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?”
For another form of conservative argument, consider the refusal of a handful of Republican governors to accept money from the $787 billion stimulus to extend unemployment benefits to more people. The defiant governors say this will force them to raise taxes to continue coverage when the stimulus runs out, which will in turn drive employers out of the state and worsen joblessness — the exact opposite of what Washington intended.

This is clearly a minority view, since most governors are delighted to get the money. And if a recovery is under way when the stimulus expires, the extra coverage will no longer be needed. But the unhappy governors nicely illustrate Hirschman’s perversity argument, which asserts that progressive policies always boomerang. To insist on this in all cases, however, is like claiming that seat belts and speed limits increase traffic accidents by making drivers less vigilant.

The libertarian Cato Institute launched another type of attack in a full-page ad in The Washington Post and elsewhere that challenged the need for aggressive government programs to jump-start the economy. Hundreds of economists signed the January broadside, which prescribed tax cuts and less, rather than more, federal spending. The economists offered the failure of government policies to lift the country out of the Depression or Japan out of its 1990s slump as proof that new programs won’t work, either.

This invokes Hirschman’s principle of futility: the notion that proposed actions will crack up against a law of nature that negates them. But this assumes that the cases are precisely parallel and that policymakers will simply ape what was done during the Depression. It also ignores the lasting benefits of New Deal legislation, including Social Security, federal deposit insurance and the minimum wage.

Is there any hope of moving beyond the dialogue of the deaf? Columnist David Brooks recently took a step in that direction in a New York Times piece that invoked another side of the futility argument. Brooks said Obama’s agenda seems doomed from the start because governments aren’t smart enough to engineer large-scale social and economic programs that work. But for the good of the country, Brooks added, he hopes Obama can prove him wrong.

This was a stab at putting aside what Hirschman calls “the rhetoric of intransigence,” which finds conservatives and liberals “on the lookout for arguments that kill.” By opening our eyes to these rhetorical practices, Hirschman hopes to replace the dialogue of the deaf with a more constructive and “democracy-friendly” discourse.

John Greenwald is a former senior writer for Time magazine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Literary Events this month at 92nd Street Y

By Blog Runner

Thursday, March 12 - Rae Armantrout and Cole Swensen
Friday, March 20 - Ann Beattie (1 p.m.)
Monday, March 23 - An Evening of Shakespeare: Hamlet
Thursday, March 26 - The Critic's Voicer I: Daniel Mendelsohn on Cavafy
*Monday, March 30 - Gogol at 200 with Ken Kalfus, Gary Saul Morson, and Gary Shteyngart

For more details, check out:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Poet's Shrine Destroyed

By Blog Runner
(NOTE: This post originally ran today on The New Yorker's blog, posted by Shahnaz Habib)

I had never heard of Rahman Baba before militants blew up his shrine in Pakistan a few days ago.  I now know that he is a beloved Pashto mystic and poet.  He lived in the seventeenth century and, legend has it, wept so profusely that there were wounds on his cheeks.  Though he did not compile his work, it survived the ups and downs of history and continues to be recited today.
Taliban members are suspected to be behind the attack, having previously objected to women visiting the site.  Would Rahman Baba have cared about the destruction of his tomb?  As a Sufi who wrote verse after verse about craving the annihilation of the self that occurs when the human encounters the Divine, he probably would not have had strong feelings about a pile of stone erected in his memory.  On the other hand, it is the fundamentalists who, in their search for religious purity, become obsessed with the materiality of bodies and shrines.  And by banning, by destroying, by killing, they make the material immortal.
Hours before the attack, a blogger on a Web site dedicated to Rahman Baba's poetry asked, "Are there a few people in Pindi right now who would be interested in meeting together over chai and reading Rahman Baba in a group?"
This is how poetry survives -- over chai, on YouTube, in spirit.