Leave our Journalists Alone!

Cartoon by Mohammed Saba'aneh in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.

Cartoon by Mohammed Saba’aneh in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015.

Long ago, I used to produce podcasts with my college radio station. Loved it. The attack this morning on a satirical publication in Paris called Charlie Hebdo had me thinking about the importance of journalistic freedom, and I wanted to put those thoughts into a podcast. (excuse a few hiccups, this is my first in a long time.) Holding in the light the victims’ families and their loved ones.

Music is “You Can’t Outrun the Radio” by Jonathan Byrd. Support good musicians, buy the album!

[transcription below]

I’m not really a journalist. No one pays me to report news, to ask tough questions, write articles and editorials, or keep deadlines. I have known people who are light-years better than I am at that game and have been doing it for years. Me, I managed to write a community newspaper in a poverty-stricken community for three months, and did student news for a bit. I’ve long fancied myself a journalist at my core, but I’m too shy, and intimidated by the standards and sheer output required by professional journalists. If anything, I’m a two-bit blogger and perpetually under-employed hack who writes as much as he can in his free hours. But damned if I don’t respect the real deal: the ink-stained truth-seekers with one hand on a pen and paper and the other on a bottle of stiff liquor, the tellers of true tales and chasers of horrifying realities in far-away lands, where the wars never seem to come to an end, whose role is to convey that to us civilians on our couches at home.

If you’ve known me a while, you know I used to do radio. These were in the starry-eyed days of college, before my reality came spinning apart. This’ll be the first time I’ve produced a radio piece for many years, and it feels good to be recording my voice again. It’s symbolic, really. Like, I’m officially reclaiming my voice again by recording it and streaming it into the aether. Best of luck to you, voice!

~~~

But, right now, it feels pretty important. There was an attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo this morning. This, coming off a year of executions of journalists, suppression of free speech, and countless lost lives in pursuit of the right to making unheard voices heard. It feels like where we in the U.S. have declared “War” on concepts as diverse as drugs, terror, and communism, folks elsewhere have taken up arms against expression.

It’s probably just the fact that I’m an absolute media junky, lost in the meandering corridors of the web, but events like this seem to blur together. I’m the modern equivalent of a HAM radio operator with aluminum foil on my head, tracing one conspiracy disaster after another from the safety of my home. But, the right to express myself freely is a pretty big deal to me, and these clear and explicit attacks on that right are far from victimless. I do not believe that violence creates productive solutions, and it is so many light-years away from my conception of religion that I can hardly even conceive what might inspire an attack like this. However juvenile the piece of writing, and whatever the depths of poor taste these writers’ jokes may have explored, no way is it worth shooting up the place. My feeling is that faith is a thing of joy and gratitude and peace. And something is awry if faith results in persecution, division, or subjugation. I’ve been through some tough stuff, and faith is what carried me through that. Never, ever, ever would I want my religion to justify brutality, even when the media can get pretty offensive.

[While studying at journalism school in Kansas, I had some experience with religious extremism.] Boasting a long history of radical politics, Kansas today is moving toward the reactionary. One of my interviews [as a student journalist] was with the guy behind a display of 20-foot-tall dead aborted fetuses. Turns out this guy was not a raving nutjob, much to my surprise and chagrin. We had the stations of the cross acted out on campus, we had evangelists screaming guilt-trips at students on the regular. Not only that, we were a mere 30 minutes away from the ultimate test of free speech, the Westboro Baptist church, only half an hour away in Topeka. Mind you, these guys have values that are about as far away from my own as it is possible to be. But grudgingly, I’ll give them their ten minutes to spit vitriol in the public space. I do have beliefs of my own, but I am also a huge believer in the power of the public forum. I have been told that that makes me ideologically cowardly. Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as being open-minded. You of course, can say and think what you want about me. I’ll do the same. Only I’ll try to be polite.

Later on, in Georgia, I was asked to say a few words at a community ribbon-cutting for refugees from Darfur that I was reporting on. Seriously, though, can you believe that? I was writing an article on the event, and had the proceedings translated to me by a friend. It was one of the greatest honors I’ve had, thinking back on it. And I remember, my speech was awful. I said the first words that came to my mind, something garbled related to making people’s voices heard. A simple enough concept. But, then again, not simple at all. Folks from Darfur in the U.S. experienced diaspora, or a forced migration and loss of a historic homeland. They described it to me as a feeling of restlessness, of deep sadness, and loneliness in the face of an unknown future. A loss of identity. A loss of cultural agency, and ultimately a shattering of community. I’ve been thinking about it, and I feel like that parallels what we’re facing here with the attacks in Paris. These attacks make people fear to speak their minds.

A friend’s son [had a close friend who] was taken captive in Yemen. He was a journalist, and I recently found out that he lost his life. Eleven more people lost their lives today. More than that, they lost their futures, their stories, their identities, their cultural agency. I may not be a real journalist, but I hold most dearly and close to my heart, the right, privilege, and responsibility, to express who I am, and to do so even when who I am, and what I believe, is less than popular. So, I’m gonna say it once, and I’m gonna say it a million times: Leave our journalists alone.

Thanks for listening,

Justin

Committee to Protect Journalists is a great organization working to protect journalists’ safety and freedom of speech around the world. Here’s a some information they put together on journalists killed around the world in 2014.

Also, check out this defense of satire by former Onion editor Joe Randazzo. He says, “The most responsible thing we can do is be aware that the most likely threat to freedom will now come from within. We cannot, should not, police our own thoughts – or the thoughts of our fellow citizens. Because the First Amendment does not just protect our free speech; it protects all expression, including religion.”

Reflections on “Capote”, after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing

The day that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was browsing devices in a Verizon Wireless store. I picked up a random tablet and the first thing that popped into my view was the headline on a news app. Hoffman’s face stared out at me from the glowing screen of the device. “PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN HAS PASSED,” it read. Something snapped inside me. I nearly dropped the tablet.

He was found in his hotel room, surrounded by little bags of heroin with the images of playing cards printed on the outside of them. I never even knew that he had been struggling with drug addiction, and it destroys me inside that someone so accomplished, by all outward appearances, could be tortured in this way. It is horrible to see such a talented performer pass at the hands of the hovering specter that is drug addiction.

It is always a shock when one of your idols dies. But when they die alone in their hotel room, a needle in their arm, surrounded by little envelopes labeled  with images of the Ace of Spades, it becomes so much worse. And I could barely make myself read more deeply into what happened.

I know he relapsed. And I know that he overdosed. And that is all I want to know.

The man was well-respected by nearly everyone I spoke to, and to serious movie fans he was a household name. He took on the difficult roles;  the understated, supporting roles that others wouldn’t.  Seeing him in The Big Lebowski, of course, made me smile, because that has always been among my favorite films. And his appearance in the new Hunger Games movie was a good break for him into the mainstream (I have no idea how they could hope to replace him.) But his real genius lay in lesser-known, more challenging films, such as Doubt and The Master. Here, I am going to focus in one in particular… the classic for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005, Capote.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie, "Capote", for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie “Capote”, for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Capote was the story of the accomplished novelist Truman Capote, who decides to write a true-to-life biography/true crime novel about a pair of grisly murders in rural Kansas. In the process of writing it, Capote struggled with the line between author and subject, and the difficult ethical questions presented by an artist’s attempt to mix reality with fiction techniques in his writing. Hoffman’s portrayal cast a vivid impression of a man of ambition, a gifted writer, and a flamboyant socialite, who became obsessed and deeply involved in the lives of a pair of troubled murderers, and in particular, with the kindred spirit of Perry Smith.

As much as Hoffman was a hero of mine in the world of film, so was Capote a hero of mine in the world of writing. He could draw you in, shock you, fill you with wonder, and transport you with the depth and poignancy of his writing. But when the techniques of fiction blur with the outcomes experienced by real people as a result of a piece of writing, and suddenly lives are on the line, quality fiction just doesn’t cut it. Trenchant reporting, and world-changing writing, must be grounded in a solid understanding of ethics, intentionality, responsibility, and dare I say, consequences. In deepening his relationship with Perry Smith and providing the doomed man and his partner in crime with hope that he could not ultimately fulfill, Capote overstepped the bounds of a responsible writer.

Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote was flourishing, nuanced, and ultimately brilliant. He showed a man losing himself to the struggle of what good gonzo writing really is and should be: significant and reflective of reality, while at the same time fascinating, mind-bending and addictive. Capote knew all along that In Cold Blood would be a classic in the canon of modern literature. But the book nearly killed him, and while it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of its genre, it would turn out to be his last book published in full.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman embraced the roles that dismiss the simplicity and shallowness of black-and-white ethics. The great performances of his career reflect a reality that is beyond good and evil, right and wrong, happy and sad. He tussled with the fullness of reality, the world where things are not what they seem and stories don’t always end with the heroes living happily ever after. He tussled with complexity. And he lived the life of an artist, giving us the gift of consistently stellar performances throughout his life.

But his true legacy, which will certainly be colored by the ignominious circumstance of his death, will be the face and voice of the strange and challenging minority. He was not like the others. If there was one thing that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t, it was one-dimensional. And perhaps that is part of what tortured him so, and repeatedly led him to the false comfort of hard drugs. He was an outlier, an idiosyncratic face and voice that would be impossible to pin down, and a consistently brilliant actor.

He will be sorely missed.