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Writing That Matters: Censorship, Journalism, Politics, and Art

From a speech that Rothmyer, managing editor of The Nation and former reporter at the Wall Street Journal among other places, gave to the National Writers Union, October 16, 2004. Edited by Shel Horowitz. Note: This is a highly opinionated piece and contains profanity.

When you talk about writing that matters: they think it's about politics. But short stories, poetry…when you try to write a poem, you try to find just exactly the right word.

I was in college when my 12-year-old sister died unexpectedly, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. When I was done, I had made what I needed to happen, and I could move on. We're trying to make sense out of the world. So my trajectory from religious poetry to journalism maybe wasn't so odd.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, I started a newspaper for the school. I forgot to put the numbers into the crossword puzzle, and there was a huge reaction. People are interested in lots of stuff, including being entertained. At the Wall Street Journal, I interviewed the New York Times crossword puzzle editor., it was the most fun of anything I've ever done. And there was a huge reaction.

Writing that matters may be giving people a laugh or help them through their day.

After the Peace Corps, I went to Columbia School of Journalism, got a job with the Associated Press. I got a lesson: if it matters to certain people, watch out! [During the Nixon years, when the U.S. invaded Cambodia,] I was on the radio desk, writing the rip-and-read summaries. I used the word "invasion" instead of "incursion," and the White House was on the phone right away. The AP was an organization that people paid attention to.

Our union, the Wire Service Guild, was completely in support of the war. Some of us started meeting with each other, starting an internal publication, AP Review. It was not meant for outside consumption but to help the AP be more interested in women's issues, be better journalists. Maybe because of my incursion problem, the people at the top decided I must be the ringleader. So after, I don't know, four issues, I got a call from the top guy, Gallagher. I'd never been to the executive suite. He said because my work was excellent, there was no way they could fire me, but if I stayed there for the rest of my life, I'd never do anything more than exactly what I was dong then.

It was an unsettling period. I'd gotten whacked around the ears. But I got a job in New Jersey, despite that the AP was trying to blackball me. Eventually, I got a job at the Wall Street Journal. It's got high standards, smart people, and it does some great journalism—but I quickly began to feel that for me, it wasn't writing that mattered. It was helping rich people to get richer. I had no complaints apart from their editorial page. A lefty journalist from Prensa Latina [a Cuban wire service] told me it was my place to be a progressive voice there. But you have to do things that feel right for you. I left and again was at loose ends. I wasn't sure what kind of writing I was supposed to be dong. But I knew I liked to teach. [She taught at Columbia and was an editor at The Village Voice.]

I had done an article about a publisher who was mixed up with the South African apartheid government, and I came across a guy named Richard Mellon Scaife. I decided to look more into who he was. He had a strange connection with the CIA. I started looking into him. He kept a very low profile, but by luck, I came into some papers that described all the groups he was funding. They all sounded like Americans for Freedom, innocuous names. I would write for more info, and gradually I got dozens of letters back. This guy was funding very conservative organizations, like the Heritage Foundation, which was just then getting going. He was affecting pubic opinion and collectively these organizations were having a big impact on legislation and on the media. I worked on this story for a year and a half. I had a small grant, was teaching and freelancing a little but I was obsessed with the story. But I didn't have an interview. I'd even gone to Pittsburgh; he didn't want to talk to me. I found out he was at an annual meeting in Boston. I know that journalists always go to the meetings to report on them. So I dressed in a suit and sat with the other reporters. The chairman of the board came up to me, "I don't believe we've met." "I'm Karen Rothmyer," period.

But Scaiffe didn't come to the meeting. I called his office and determined that he was in Boston and was gong to the luncheon. I called him from a phone booth. He slammed the phone down on me. I rushed to the front of the building and he's at the top of the stairs. I said, "I just want to ask why you give so much money to the New Right." He said, "You f**king communist c*nt, get out of here!" I'm chasing him down the street. He was apoplectic. I let him go, and I called the editor, and said, "OK, now we've got a story." It ran in Columbia Journalism Review. Two days after, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post called me up: "we want to reprint the whole thing, but did he really say that?"

It was the first time anyone had laid out the contours of what became known as the New Right. Scaife funded the Arkansas Project to dig up dirt on Clinton, he had something to do with the Vince Foster episode. I felt it was important for people to understand there was a whole movement, a collective thing. But the interesting thing was that it was that little interchange on the sidewalk that everybody remembers. My hairdresser told me she read about it in Al Franken's book.

This whole story shows me that you've got to find a way to engage people, and Richard Scaife did me a huge favor.

[Later she was working at Newsday, a well-respected New York suburban daily, and New York Newsday, its now-defunct city paper.] There was an effort [by the New York City government] to establish "empowerment zones," it was a bullsh*t thing from start to finish. People who are well-connected make a lot of money, and those who're supposed to benefit almost never do. So I was covering a meeting in Harlem on a Saturday morning. Afterward, a quite elderly man came up to me, I don't even know how he knew I was a reporter, and said "I just want you to know how much it means to me that New York Newsday has covered the empowerment zones." He took a dog-eared clipping—it was mine, but he didn't know—and showed it to me. I thought, this is writing that matters.

From there, it was an easy road to The Nation, founded as a progressive publication in 1865.

They wanted somebody who knew economics and business stuff. Of course, it meant a pay cut and took me off the ladder in the major media world. But I've never regretted it. I became Managing Editor after a year. I do feel the writing we're doing there really does matter. I know this because in the last 4 years, our circulation has doubled. A few months ago, we passed the National Review. Our circulation has continued to rocket.

When things started taking off was not when Bush came to office, but before that, when the Clinton impeachment fever was at its height.. That was the genesis of MoveOn. We were writing about the constitutional issues, we were saying we need to keep our sense of proportion. We had never been a supporter of Clinton but we were saying things the mainstream media were not saying. People know when they're getting the right stuff, and they started turning to our website.

Then came the 2000 election. There was general agreement among politicians, led by Al Gore, that we should agree to move on. But in the Nation, Vincent Bugliosi, a constitutional lawyer, made a long piece about the constitutional issues, and argued that the Justices should be impeached. I thought it was kind of over-the-top and we should tone it down. But it practically brought down our web servers. It touched people.

In the run-up to the war, we wrote a lot about what we believed to be the truth about WMDs. When people say we didn't know, we did the best we could, I said that's baloney. In September 2002, we ran an excellent piece by Stephen Zunes, 'The Case Against War.' He laid out all the arguments:

"A recent CIA report indicates that the Iraqis have been consciously avoiding any actions against the United States or its facilities abroad, presumably to deny Washington any excuse to engage in further military strikes against their country.

"UNSCOM was unable to provide any evidence that Iraq had been concealing prohibited weapons. "

Was this in the New York Times? The Washington Post? If it appeared anywhere, it was on page 40 someplace. We ran an editorial that said Iraq has no demonstrated ties to Al Qaida or 9/11…the intention to do otherwise is murky.

In October 2002, we ran an interview with a UN weapons inspector: By 1998…100% of the WMDs had been eliminated; there's no debate about that….they'd have to build enrichment facilities that cost tens of millions of dollars, require massive amounts of electricity …" If no one were watching, Iraq could do this. But they'd have to start from scratch. They would be detected.

We went to war because the Bush Administration people were determined to go war, no matter what—and because the media were asleep at the wheel.

Journalists did a terrible job, and those deaths are on our conscience.

Despite the last few weeks, people haven't changed that much. I looked at the front page of the Washington Post, "Election officials and law enforcement officials are making contingency plans" for terrorist disruption of voting.

It takes until paragraph 13 to say that civil liberties groups have expressed concern that higher police presence could stifle turnout. The story should have started out that there had been this notice and the second sentence should have noted that the latest developments appear to be very similar to things that have happened many times before when the administration was losing popularity. You can say, many observers believe. But the little puppy dogs take the announcement from the White House, take it in their teeth, and run back to put it in their computers. It's criminal.

But there is still that kind of writing too. In my spare time, I'm researching a historical novel. You can't tell all the truth in nonfiction writing, in journalism. There are other things that you have to find a different way of saying them. So I'm going back to where I started out, to do writing that matters.

[From here on, Rothmyer responds to audience questions (in italic).]

What are your favorite sources?

Manchester Guardian, BBC, The Independent; I tend to go to the British ones because they're in English. But I go around the Web a lot: Truthout, Portside, Alternet—that's how I keep up. But I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal every morning.

How can we wake up mainstream journalists working for organizations owned by non-journalist corporations?

I part company with everyone else who works at the Nation in that I don't think corporatization is [the problem] I've worked for family-owned newspapers where the interests of the family come before all. I also don't know if it's a solution, as the St Petersburg Times is, to be owned by a foundation. The foundation is very conservative. People like all of us, we try to tell the truth, and if we're consumers of news, we complain. I've made an effort to send e-mails when reporters do something great. They come in for a lot of sh*t. I shoot him off an e-mail, great job—because he's going to get to his office and have five people from the White House screaming at him.

Things go in cycles. When I came in to journalism after Watergate, everyone wanted to be a crusading journalist. Then I remember how surprised people I knew were that Reagan had won. A lot of reporters felt out of touch. I felt a real shift. There's a book, On Bended Knee, by Mark Hertsgaard. It started there, and continued because journalists want to be seen as in tune with their constituents, so they bend over backward. But after 9/11, you could be accused of aiding the terrorists, being unpatriotic. But something will happen, there'll be another Watergate, the wheel will turn again and it will again be the coolest thing to go out raising hell.

The best reason I've heard for not impeaching Bush is Cheney. I saw a button: Impeach Cheney first.

I lived in South Carolina for a year. Those people are not stupid and not crazy, and they watch Fox. We've got to explain why it is that so many people do like Fox, why Bush got elected. Those of us who are critical have to do the research to find out why.

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