Turning to arts, history to understand journalism

Here’s my column in today’s Daily Herald. Space limitations didn’t allow me to go into much detail, but I thought each of the items referenced deserved attention. So, let me emphasize here, how much I urge you to either read the play “Little Murders” or look up the movie, starring Elliott Gould, Alan Arkin and others.  It’s unforgettable and a stark commentary on our own time. Ditto on the book “Bully Pulpit,” but I won’t go into detail on that here.  If you’re interested, see my review elsewhere on the website. Sorry for all the preface, here’s the column:

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As we prepare to cross the threshold of another year, I want to take a slightly different tack from my usual focus on the Daily Herald’s decision making and the workings of journalists and encourage you to look to some other sources in 2016 ‐‐ specifically a novel, a history, a play and a movie ‐‐ for insights into both the role of news media and the effects of news reporting on the social order.

First, the play ‐‐ which, to be thorough, also became a stark and disturbing movie in 1971. It is “Little Murders” by Jules Feiffer. I think of it now every time we have to report a new mass killing at a church or a movie theater or a holiday party. Set in New York City, the late cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s dark comedy centers on a presumably fictitious time when random, inexplicable, motiveless murder is so common that traumatized and grief‐stricken citizens become numbed to tragedy.

“We are involved here in a far‐reaching conspiracy to undermine respect for our basic beliefs and most sacred institutions,” decries a police investigator. Then, as if to prove the power of this “conspiracy,” the central figures, once peace‐loving members of a quirky but everyday family, are themselves gleefully picking off strangers who walk by in the street below their apartment.

OK, so it’s not a laugh riot, but the play eerily foreshadows some of today’s madness and vividly portrays the mass hysteria it creates.

Which leads us backward another 40 years to a novel worth your attention. Written in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” describes the rise to power of a blustery, no‐nonsense politician, who exploits the fears and prejudices of a gullible public frustrated by crime, unemployment and a changing social order. Ultimately, he twists the nation’s own fundamental values and institutions to impose a Nazi‐like dictatorship.

As the eventual dictator campaigns for election, another character, a newspaperman, contemplates how effectively the politician employs “something of the earthy American sense of humor” and “could be ever so funny about solemn jaw‐drooping opponents.” He wonders if that buffoonish facade makes the politician “less or more dangerous.”

It’s a question many seem to ask about Donald Trump today, but Trump isn’t the only contemporary politician you’ll see in this novel, and inasmuch as one of its primary themes is the damage that can happen when well‐meaning but disinterested citizens have ‐‐ as the newsman says ‐‐ “only my own timid soul and drowsy mind” to blame for what happens to their government, “It Can’t Happen Here” may well deserve your attention before you start evaluating any of next year’s candidates.

For a more reality‐based exposition of some of these same themes, I direct you to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2013 history, “The Bully Pulpit/Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.” You will see in this reflection on events primarily from the first decade of the 20th century stark parallels to the issues, the politics and the journalism of our own time. You may find consolation, as I did, in the final sentences of the book, in which an alumnus of a muckraking magazine that helped produce historic social reforms “hoped that other ‘times of awakening’ lay ahead, that a new generation of journalists would be drawn to the work that ‘seemed once almost a mission and a call.’ ”

Which brings us at last to the movie and to our own time, or very near it. “Spotlight,” now still playing in many local theaters, describes as accurately as I’ve ever seen the way newspapers, editors and reporters operate. And it shows how those following “a mission and a call” can still make important things happen.

To deepen your engagement and understanding of Daily Herald journalism, I hope you’ll continue in 2016 to read my column ﴾and that of fellow editor Jim Davis on Sundays﴿. But you’ll also be richly rewarded, occasionally amused and often moved if you add “Little Murders,” “Bully Pulpit,” “It Can’t Happen Here” and “Spotlight” to your reading and viewing plans in the new year.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.