If I could have only one journalism book on my shelf it would be Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking.
Witty, acerbic Mitford was a British investigative reporter working in the U.S. through the 1960s and ‘70s and because she’s such fun to read it’s easy to forget how significant her work was. Her breezy magazine articles and books took down corrupt companies and whole industries while making everyone laugh.
In Poison Penmanship -- which should be subtitled the best journalism education anyone can get -- she tells us how she did it in an essay following each piece. She spills it all: how she did the digging, how she set up the interview questions to progress “from kind to cruel” and (the best part) what she learned from what she did wrong.
This roster of articles includes the forerunners of what became The American Way of Death, a remarkably funny investigation into the corrupt funeral trade that made her career. The 1963 book exposed how cynical undertakers exploited the grieving public and spurred changes in legislation all over North America as well as sparking a boom in memorial societies.
The book also includes my favourite investigative piece -- “Let us now consider Famous Writers” – a 1970 article in which she takes on celebrity writers who lent their names (and their mugs) to advertise one of those overpriced correspondence schools. Ads for the Famous Writers School were a staple in most magazines of that era and their travelling salesmen were bilking money out of little old ladies who might (charitably) be described as functionally illiterate.
The piece itself is a delight, detailing the publicly traded corporation’s greed in glorious, mind-boggling detail. But it’s the backstory about how wealth and power kept the article lingering in limbo for months that is the real eye-opener.- Read more
Would-be journos often ask what they should read to get a feel for the business and I always point to Never Shoot a Stampede Queen. Mark Leiren-Young’s memoir of his first year as a reporter in B.C.’s Cariboo region won the 2009 Leacock Medal for humour, and it’s a great primer on what it’s really like to be a reporter. It belongs on the reading list at every school for ink-stained-wretches.
Mark’s year at the Williams Lake Tribune was a news junkie’s dream. While his pals interning on the big city dailies were assigned to cover that 65th wedding anniversary in the ‘burbs, he was in cowboy country covering multiple homicides, train wrecks, and a court case involving a bomb-toting defendant.
Of course, he learned one sorry truth of the news business. You’ll never get as much (hostile) attention for your work as when you run an unflattering photo of the local beauty queen.- Read more
My antipathy to cell phones is legendary in my small circle, but I decided to come out of the… er… phone booth recently because I’ve found there are now few phone booths around. So I needed to know how my fellow cell phone resisters were coping without a ready supply of Superman’s change rooms.
But I’m not just having trouble finding payphones, I’m having trouble finding fellow travellers. Three of the legendary phone-haters had succumbed to shiny new iPhones mere weeks before I contacted them. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve already been seduced by the smart half of the smartphone myself, in the form of an iPod Touch. It turns out I like being able to contact the world; I just don’t much like it contacting me.
Still, I reported the collective wisdom of The Resistance over at TheTyee.ca, but I know it’s really just my last hurrah. Since smartphones are about to double as wallets it’s a certainty that my phoneless reverie is now measured in weeks rather than years.- Read more
It’s such a retro Monday. It’s like 1933 all over again. This morning politicos at either wing of the spectrum are using the Oslo terrorist to prove that the other side is evil, while reports that the U.S. is flat broke leave us all thinking were about to enter a global depression.
All-in-all, it’s like listening to Stalinists and Nazi-sympathizers of the last century screaming at each other hysterically while the economy tanked.
Reading the media of the day, I used to wonder what the hell all those scribes were thinking as they babbled about who was more guilty – were they really hoping for some Unified Field Theory for life if they could just prove communism or fascism worked? Why were they defending the horrific actions of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, et al? Were they stoopid? I often wonder the same thing as I listen to the shrill, asinine views of people on either side of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Are they stoopid? Or just poorly educated?
Echoes of the 1930s are everywhere today. You know radio is booming in popularity? And let’s not forget Afghanistan. That’s our Spanish Civil War. And we appear to be screwing up in much the same way.- Read more
I guess the Apple slogan “there’s an app for that!” is true for just about anything you can imagine – there’s even a propaganda app. Blobster lets aspiring activists play at defending the world from pollution – a goo spread by “the evil Big and Powerful Corporation.”
The 99 cent game is obviously mocking BP and the Gulf spill. On the app store’s Facebook page, two of the first critics of the cheeky little app were, not surprisingly, from Louisiana and Texas. Well, according to their avatars anyway.
“Really stupid attempt to vilify business,” says Brenda Price of El Paso. According to her avatar she’s a largish middle-aged lady with a stars-and-stripes sweatshirt.
Louisiana’s Katrina Banks Foard calls it a “stupid eco crap app.”- Read more
In the no shit Sherlock department, news media have just learned that a major ballet company is fuelled by cocaine.
According to the Copenhagen Post the Royal Danish Ballet has done an internal report that found a “widespread and growing cocaine problem in the corps and erratic, abusive behaviour by artistic director Nikolaj Hubbe.”
Yeah, there’s a shock. As a dance critic, I encountered more then one artistic director I resorted to describing as “mercurial.”
What is surprising is that news media do sound shocked, shocked that those transcendent willies are not quite so pure of heart as they look. Did they assume people really stayed that thin and had that much energy sans chemical helpers?- Read more
I refer to my jewellery designer pal Anne Carson as The Reluctant Entrepreneur. Her career stringing bijoux was forced upon her by a determined first customer who bought Anne’s own rope of gems right off her neck at a cocktail party.
“I told her I just made jewellery for myself – but she wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Anne recalls, laughing. “Finally, I named a price and she whipped out her wallet. That’s when I thought I could maybe sell a few pieces.”
We’d all been telling her that for years. We told her people had tried-to-buy the earrings, bracelets, and elegant ropes of jewels decorating us (I never sell; each piece is unique). She would just wave a dismissive hand in the air. Or agree to do some custom pieces for our pals. When we insisted this was a viable business, she protested that she only started making her own jewellery because she couldn’t find anything she liked in the shops.- Read more
To find the Twitterchat about your riding, visit PoliTwitter.ca where they have come up with riding ID #hashtags to replace those long, unwieldy names. As they admit, the federal riding ID numbers are not exactly user-friendly, but they’re short and will be easy to retweet. I’m in Vancouver Centre where the hashtag is #r59029.
PoliTwitter also has a detailed list of politicians’ twitter handles. Follow them today; you’re going to want to yell at them very, very soon.
Google’s (often) ironic adverts are an endless source of amusement for me.
Last week I got a sly email from a friend who asked why the algorithms had decorated my site with ads on a dating service featuring “mature women looking for young men.”
“Because I wrote a testimonial for them, of course,” I told him.
Oh yes, I’m long past being embarrassed by the curious assumptions the GoogleBots make about me and my readers. Or so I thought until I spotted the ad for "Getting Book Reviews" aimed a self-publishers hoping for attention in the shrinking media market. - Read more
Well, the New York City Ballet can’t say my blog didn’t warn them about the hazards of letting dancers speak. A year later, they’re negotiating a social media policy to cope with dancers whose tweets are even more pointed than their feet.
Did Cassandra feel this tingly when her predictions came true? Would it be wrong to hang out a shingle as a psychic? Fifteen years of interviewing the pointe-shoe-and-tulle crowd taught me that every tight corps harbours many a loose cannon, so I was amused when company publicity hounds were trumpeting their on-trend dancers to the New York Times last March. - Read more