by Pat Holt
Tuesday, February 12, 2002
JOURNALISTS BE SHAMED: THE (OTHER) ENRON SCANDAL
The Enron debacle keeps reminding me of the Ripped Lid Syndrome (#15), which makes itself known after catastrophic events such as the JFK assassination, Watergate or the Iran-Contra scandal.
That is, when a tragedy occurs, the ensuing investigation not only shows us how the event happened, it rips the lid off existing institutions to show us how business-as-usual was so inept, corrupt or foolish that some kind of collapse was almost inevitable.
Thus the Enron debacle may tell us as much about the inner workings of the Bush administration's behind-the-scenes manipulations and energy policy-making as about Enron's own massive downward spiral toward bankruptcy.
And, as we're beginning to see from online (Salon.com, TomPaine.com) and on-paper (Washington Post) revelations, Enron may also show us how prestigious journalists have been taking cash payments from companies they write about without regard to conflict-of-interest concerns.
That seems to be the case with Enron: "As one participant described it, Enron 'collected visible people' by gathering up pundits, journalists and politicians and placing them on lucrative retainers," the Washington Post reported over the weekend. "For a couple of days spent chatting about current events with executives at Enron's Houston headquarters, executives could walk away with five-figure payments."
And sometimes six figures: Named by Salon.com as recipients of "[Kenneth] Lay's obscenely generous checks" are these journalists:
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol ($100,000), CNBC host and National Review Online columnist Lawrence Kudlow ($50,000), New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ($50,000), Weekly Standard contributing editor and Sunday Times of London columnist Irwin Stelzer (approximately $50,000) and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan ($25,000-$50,000; apparently she cannot recall the exact sum."
Enron's strategy was simple: "To earn their $50,000 annual retainers, the company's clutch of pundits and commentators only had to make two brief visits a year to Houston" to participate in a group with other media folk and offer opinions," the Post explains.
"Lay called the group his advisory council, and he and then-chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling attended their gatherings, held in a boardroom adjacent to Lay's office on Enron's 50th floor. 'These are exciting times, and we need all the ideas we can get,' Lay wrote to council members in December 2000."
Or to put it another way, journalists with an obvious conflict of interest might have said, "These are exciting times, and we need all the cash from Enron we can get."
OK, maybe that's a little harsh, but not more than the remark made by one of the journalists: "Kristol said he saw no conflict in collecting $100,000 from Enron, likening it to pocketing a 'regular and generous' honorarium for speaking before a trade association."
Oh, right - I felt the same way when a Friends of the Library group once offered me $75.
Some observers believe that critics should go easy on Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who "cut his Enron ties when he joined the Times in order to comply with the newspaper's strict conflict-of-interest policy," writes Salon.
But let's remember that Krugman was an MIT professor of economics in 1999, "when he wrote a puffy Enron piece for Fortune magazine." He mentioned the Enron advisory board in that column, but not his huge paycheck of $50,000. "Even Fortune's white-collar readers would probably be stunned to read about that kind of pay for two days' work," Salon writes.
The Bigger Picture
It's all just another nail in the nobody-to-trust coffin that's getting larger and weightier every day in the minds of readers.
When the American press wonders why it's losing audiences, "Punditgate," as the Enron scandal has been called, is one more reason. The damage is more far-reaching than the sullying of a few writers' careers at one paper or another. Everybody gets tarred by this brush.
True, Americans know better than to trust advertisements, political speeches, book jacket blurbs, weather predictions, before-and-after photos of thin people, infomercials featuring The Perfect Pancake Maker and Cher's claims that she's never had plastic surgery.
But let's not add journalists to that group - especially columnists whose expertise may be bought off at five figures. Let's make "Punditgate" set the bar: When the appearance of impropriety on the part of a journalist is a possibility, let's make a rule that no cash changes hands, no appearance is made for an "honorarium" you'll have to defend later on.
And take a tip from independent booksellers: When the only thing you have to sell is trust, never, ever risk losing it.
EDGEWORK IV: 'MOON OF THE SWAYING BUDS'
I haven't meant to prolong this series on EdgeWork Books, but when an author breaks into a new form (or a centuries-old form that's rarely if ever used today) and for the most part succeeds, I want to give the book extended critical space.
Gail Sher's "Moon of the Swaying Buds" offers a memoir written in haibun, a combination of prose and haiku poetry that was used by the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694) in his travel diaries. Haiku, by the way, is a poem of three lines, written in a 5-7-5-syllable format (though Sher sometimes uses other forms).
"On each page," Sher explains, "the haiku (or, in some cases, the 5-lined tanka) mirrors the emotional underpinnings of the journal-like prose, thereby deepening, focusing and stretching its implications."
At least that's the theory. One does worry that in our modern era of self-conscious spirituality and therapy-oriented language, an author could get a little touchy-feely about this kind of book. A look at the entries in the Table of Contents (chapter 10: "I Fully Accept the Beauty of an Elephant Eating a Boa Constrictor Being Mistaken for a Hat") doesn't bode well.
However, Sher, who was one of only 96 people ordained by Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen master who was credited with bringing Soto Zen practice to the West, seems very much up to the challenge.
The narrative follows Sher's own story in a loose chronology that moves quickly through her childhood as we get used to the newness (for us) of haibun.
Early on (page 20), she describes baby-sitting in a house where several paintings of Jesus surround her. While the children are asleep, she writes, "I notice the muted coloring (green and mustard) behind the fleshly glow of Jesus' body. Shocks of hair fall to his forehead while the nails through his limbs are thick and intrusive."
One can see her - almost feel her - sitting in the quiet house trying to "absorb the presence of Jesus" from these paintings.
The entire vignette is told in six lines at the top of the page. White space stretches out below, giving us time to take in the scene she describes, until our eye falls on the three lines of poetry below:
flipping the channel
Well, this is quite arresting: It could refer to the bored babysitter surrounded by paintings she's only glanced at, flipping channels on the TV (not mentioned above) but still affected by a Jesus that somehow has moved into consciousness far more personally ("your face") and deeply than she has realized.
Or the "flipping channels" could be the teenaged babysitter's mind fluttering about, not wanting to land on something so deep and serious as the Christ image, yet struck by the split second's, and again the deeply personal, image of "your face."
That is one page in the 410 pages that make up this book, and like many of the others, it causes us to pause for many seconds as we are pulled between narrative and meaning, event and reflection, text and white space.
Later, Sher as a tenth-grader is praised by a teacher she doesn't like - yet a teacher whose comment makes Sher think "perhaps I could be a writer. I have never thought of being anything." The teacher has praised Sher for "my effective use of 'parallel structure,' " though Sher doesn't know what "parallel structure" means. "My use of it must come from some natural ability. I am deeply moved by the idea that I have a natural ability because I always feel so unable."
Once again, the writer makes it easy, in the vignette at the top of the page (this one 9 lines), for the reader to stay immersed in the scene and feel the environment (classroom, stern teacher, graded paper) she describes.
And once again we have the luxury of space that follows the vignette - time to think about Sher's story before we get to the poem below:
picking a slug off a tender leaf
Many of the poems refer to nature as if the answer we're all looking for may be found in the organic world. Here "picking a slug" - one's own lack of confidence perhaps - "off a tender leaf" (the fledgling self) that now shows "its dappled rib," its resilience under the tear, is something any of us could do walking in nature.
We can see our fingers, the slug, the transparent, green leaf and the strength that resides in it, in us. The juxtaposition between the personal and the universal creates as much tension as the pull between Sher's story and that of the "tender leaf."
Not every page works perfectly, nor is Sher's story as compelling as the form that houses it. Too often she dwells on the surface of events that go on too long about her anorexia, fashion fears ("am I dressed okay?"), kleptomania, dependence on lovers, petty jealousies and complaints rather than true insights about the Zen process and its masters.
We wish for more about Shunryu Suzuki, the Tassajara retreat (in which she was founding baker and author of "From a Baker's Kitchen," a small classic published in 1984). When she leaves the Zen Center (told she must go "unless my attitude changes") we're not sure why, nor does her idea of a "yes practice" gain real substance on paper, even as it seems to save her life.
Nevertheless, "Moon of the Swaying Buds" is an exciting foray, sometimes surprising us with narrative vision, other times leaving us stunned by the author's poetic insight.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Does Mr. Yardley know how many books are published in just one year? How could he think it possible that any store, of whatever size, could adequately stock or promote even a fraction of the books available in our country? We won't even get into out-of-print books. Our literary culture, our politcal debate, our social struggles, and our right to freedom of expression all require thousands of gatekeepers, in our case booksellers, in order to thrive and to flourish. I greatly prefer shopping from the collections of books in our town--my stores, Moe's, Cody's, Diesel, among many others, than having to rely on the one collection presented by Barnes and Noble. That store would be wholly inadequate to my needs. More to the point, that one set of bookbuyers would not satisfy my interests in books.
As charmed as Mr. Yardley was in finding his books in his local chain store, he should not let himself be so blinded by that unusual event that he is willing to give over all bookselling to these giant corporations, forever.
I have shopped at Home Depot, Target, and Trader Joe's, and on more than one occasion they have absolutely not had what I went there looking for, or they had an utterly inferior version. If Mr. Yardley prefers lamps that last about six months, cupboards with shoddy hinges, or cans of refried beans that taste like cat food, then he would be satisfied by a very limited range of choices. But I think I'll stick to my routine of shopping at Pastime Hardware, Berkeley Bowl ) in rotation with Monterey Market,naturally), and any of our fine and reasonably priced clothing stores. If your readers outside the Bay Area don't know those places, that's the whole point--they have their own special, competent interesting and stimulating local equivalents, and that is as it should be.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your comments about Yardley do reveal the ignorance of the man, but also his arrogance, developed, I assume, after years of being the unchallenged arbiter of literary taste in the nation's capital. Last summer, Yardley took the occasion to promote his biography of Frederick Exley in the review of another book. Well, this happens from time to time, but the fact that a small Maryland publisher had reissued the book in paperback -- it had been out of print -- shortly before his review ran struck me as more than a coincidence. But, Yardley seems to operate without a gatekeeper.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As I read your article on Jonathan Yardley, I clicked on the link to his Washington Post diatribe. In his next-to-the-last paragraph, he mentions a visit to Kepler's "in Palo Alto". Oddly enough, Kepler's is in Menlo Park, where it's been located since its inception.
As has been true of almost every newspaper story I've read over the past two decades about which I've had some previous knowledge, I once again encounter at least one factual error. Consequently, I read newspapers for their (marginal) entertainment value, and not for credible reporting.
Also, as one who embarrasedly admits he once worked briefly for one of the chains, I can attest first hand that they do not usually "stock many marginal, special-interest backlist titles," as Yardley asserts. The first time I had to pull inventory for the chain store, to return to the publisher for credit, I was appalled at the number of serious books removed from inventory after only two to three months of exposure. This rarely happened during the time I worked at a leading independent store - Left Bank Books - in St. Louis.
I still browse in our local chain, once I wade past all the crap that publishers have paid to display near the entrances, but the bulk of my purchases are made through the several independents I patronize in person or online.
Yardley should work a few weeks in a chain, and then in an independent. I'm willing to bet he'd reverse his arguments pretty rapidly.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Jonathon Yardley has been a neocon for years. His attitude towards bookstores is completely consistent with his tastes as a reviewer. I'm shocked only at the naiveté that would not have expected this all along.
My own definition of a good bookstore can be traced directly to its willingness to carry small and independent presses (the kind distributed, say, by Small Press Distribution of Berkeley). A poetry section that isn't 75 percent small press isn't a good poetry section regardless of how large it may be.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I sent this to Jonathon Yardley in response to his column about independents:
"As the owner of an 11-year-old independent bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina, I'd like to point out a few things I think you've overlooked. You've dismissed the things that most independent bookstore customers value, because you're a book reviewer and not an average book buyer.
"The core of our customers shop with us because we have a tremendously knowledgeable staff of people who read for pleasure and love to recommend and discuss books. On a daily basis, we are told by customers about experiences they had with the unknowledgeable staff at our local Barnes and Noble (our biggest competitor). I doubt that you, Jonathon Yardley, go into bookstores looking for advice about what to read. From what I gather, you're just looking for the best price and a huge selection.
"Certainly, we can't carry every book that's published. However, we do a much better job than our local competitors at getting books we may not have in within one or two days because we care about pleasing our customers. And our BBLC discount club often affords our members the same or better prices than they'd get at Barnes and Noble or "Amazon.com plus shipping" anyway.
"In addition to the price and selection question, many independent bookstores, certainly ours, are considered a creative cultural addition to our community. From our active author events schedule to visits by children's book characters to our new "Family Games Night" where customers can come and play Scrabble and chess with their kids, we have helped to entertain and inspire our town's residents for over 11 years.
"I think if you step outside the Beltway or New York and visit the smaller communities across the country, you'll find that independent bookstores are indeed a competitive and vibrant part of the bookselling community. It's sad and unfortunate that influential people like yourself are so caught up in that Beltway mentality that bigger is better."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for letting me know about Jonathan Yardley's piece - here is a letter I sent to the Post.
"To the Editor: I disagree with Jonathan Yardley (Feb.4) when he says independent bookstores cannot match the chains. Our local bookstore, Reader's Oasis, has a good selection of fiction and nonfiction, and can get almost any book in print for me within a week without any shipping or handling charges.
"More importantly, its owners and staff are very knowledgeable about books, which is typical of independent bookstores and NOT typical of chain bookstores. If you read the Consumer Reports article closely, it says they were surprised by how much people value independent bookstores even though they do not always compete on price.
"In particular, if you are hunting for an obscure book that you cannot find anywhere else, consider the service you will get from an independent bookstore. This is not warm and fuzzy. This is intelligent customer service. As Eric Schlosser points out in 'Fast Food Nation,' our consolidation of retailers makes it possible to go from cradle to grave without spending a nickel in an independently owned business.
"I am offended by Mr. Yardley's fatalistic view that 'that's the way it is' in America today. It does not have to be this way. I go out of my way to spend my money in independently owned businesses of every kind. I am perfectly happy to pay retail prices for books, food, hardware, haircuts, etc., in order to have a mutually satisfying transaction with someone who is not a disposable employee of a large corporation sucking money from my city and state.
"I feel insulted by Mr. Yardley's comments on behalf of the knowledgeable booksellers I have spoken with at Powells, at The Tattered Cover, at Elliot Bay and dozens of other fine stores. For years I have asked my friends to buy their books at independent stores rather than saving five or seven bucks at Costco, which skims the cream of the book market by carrying only bestsellers.
"If you want a book on arid land farming, or game theory, or Victorian textiles, will Costco (or Walmart,etc.) order it for you? No. Will B&N? Yes, but their staff won't know what you're talking about. I think Mr. Yardley owes an apology to independent stores everywhere."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
At what independents does Mr. Yardley shop? Since he writes for the Washington Post I assumed that he lives in the D.C. area. If that's the case I suggest that he check out Politics and Prose or one of the Trover Shops (one on the hill and others closer to the White House and federal office buildings) for a selection of political and government interest titles that I dare say cannot be found at the chains. Or how about some of the indies which, by design, cater to special interests and customers whom,I'm certain, find a range of mystery, African American, Gay/Lesbian, travel, Judaica, etc. titles which cannot be found at the so named sections in the chains.
As for sending titles back quickly and without regard to interest, I would venture that the chains manage to do this quite well. I had a gift card to spend at Border's the first week of January and wanted to find the sequel to Roddy Doyle's "Giggler Treatment" titled "Rover Saves Christmas." I have read excerpts of "Giggler Treatment" to hundreds of kids and sent it to a friend so that he could read it to his nephew, a reluctant reader. The clerk pulled it up on a screen along with dozens of other holiday titles which had been returned. O.K., so I am biased toward Roddy Doyle, but I noticed that there were at least five copies of the first book on the shelf so why couldn't they make room for the second one? I wonder if "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is only sold from the day after Thanksgiving until December 24. I could go on and on...
Holt responds: I think Yardley's mistake was not appreciating how precisely independent bookstores understand their markets and how personally they serve customers. Apparently Yardley wanders into a store, as he did Kepler's in Menlo Park one time, browses a bit and makes a pronouncement. He even pronounced (favorably) on Tattered Cover, which he's never visited. It did seem that he targeted the famous D.C. store, Politics & Prose, by omission, but as Publishers Lunch noted last week, P&P co-owner Carla Cohen has made a (typically gracious, I must say) comment on the Yardley piece, which will appear in an unpcoming store newsletter, as follows:
"It came to our attention that a well-known book reviewer proclaimed that independent bookstores are obsolete, in his words, 'superceded' by the chains and 'poor alternatives to them.'
"This book reviewer confesses that he receives most of his books free from publishers. He doesn't need a place to recommend a stylish mystery or the best book on Japan. Since his job is reviewing books, he doesn't crave a good discussion around a table in the coffeehouse. He may even spurn the opportunity to meet an author and ask her questions. A book reviewer may want to 'bowl alone,' but most of us need a physical community with neighbors we know and a place we feel at home.
"He doesn't get it, but you do, and we thank you as always for your support for your independent bookstore."
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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