Sunday, January 20, 2008

An Appreciation for our Times

Given how good a job The Wire is doing at examining the deterioration of the institution of journalism, Alan Feuer's "appreciation" of Jimmy Breslin for The New York Times could not be better timed. If that "old school" journalism that was so important to Mr. Dooley really does have at least one foot in the grave, then Breslin's own words capture, in his characteristic style, why this piece is worth reading: "I'm the last guy left." This grumble, provoked by the number of reporters bugging him for stories about Norman Mailer's outlandish behavior in the wake of that author's death, becomes Feuer's point of departure:

After all, Jack Newfield, that old bum, was dead. Murray Kempton, the Henry James of the newsroom, was dead. George Plimpton was dead, old Arthur Schlesinger was dead — even Jose Torres, the champ, was almost dead, living down in Puerto Rico now with half an addled brain. “Everybody’s dead,” Mr. Breslin said, and soon enough the phone rang yet again. It was NPR calling back, and he shouted at his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, “Tell ’em I died.”

At 77 and in truculent good health, Jimmy Breslin has clearly not died and has even, with some notable exceptions, managed to avoid that quasi death by documentary, a process by which an otherwise vital personality is turned into a bag of talking bones on PBS.

Well, one good grumble deserves another; and, for my money, Feuer hit the nail on the head with that last sentence. Nostalgia is a dangerous disease, and we tend to contract it earlier than we think. I was only a graduate student when my crowd would reminisce about "back in the days when Mad Magazine was funny;" so here I am, many decades later, having the same feelings about "back in the days when PBS was witty and informative." Both institutions, of course, caved in to the need to address "customer satisfaction" with deluded visions of solutions. PBS, however, had the problem of being a public institution under an administration (Reagan's) that was not that all hot on wit or information. (The running joke was that Barney was added to the lineup because the President needed one PBS program that he could watch!)

So, yes, there are times when the "good old days" really were good; but, since this is a grumble being written under the influence of a profile of Breslin, I think it is time to recognize the extent to which PBS has become a veritable cesspit of nostalgia. Just how many of these loosely assembled collections of old footage held together by those "bags of talking bones" are living room audiences expected to endure! Of course there was that time (before Reagan) when television executives were wringing their hands over the prospect that PBS channels were eating up the "big three" network channels for lunch. By the time we had slouched our way into the Nineties, cable (with HBO leading the way) was emerging as the Grendel bursting into the mead hall and eating everyone for lunch. At the peak of their game, HBO could sell the slogan, "It's not TV, it's HBO;" but no one stays on top for ever. HBO is now under fire because it no longer has the "audience magnet" that The Sopranos was; and Showtime, enjoying the popularity of shows like Weeds and Dexter, is now peddling their own slogan, "It's not HBO, it's Showtime." Is it any wonder that PBS has faded into insignificance?

It all comes down not to my own nostalgia but to what I used to value. The whole point of my caveat lector rant is that the responsibility for being properly informed now falls entirely upon the reader; and, like it or not, the Internet provides one of the few aids in bearing that responsibility. So, if you want informative sources, you have to find them yourself.

What about wit? There I fear I may be wallowing in my own nostalgia. Reading Feuer's piece became a harsh reminder not just that no one writes like Breslin any more but that no one would even think of writing that way. Consider one of the examples Feuer provided:

Among the great education achievements of the year not commented upon by such as James B. Conant was the performance of Fat Thomas’ brother in the Dale Carnegie course at Attica State Prison. He is doing a short bit in Attica for poor usage of a gun.

His very subject matter now languishes in obsolescence; and, while his style is probably exactly what we need at a time when the Associated Press seems to have made it a policy to provide all-Brittany-all-the-time, no one seems to know (or care about) homing in on the most artful way to stick a pin in the balloon of triviality. Every now and then David Simon rises to Breslin's level in The Wire; but, even when he does, he still has to labor under the dubious distinction of "critical acclaim." Meanwhile, far more feeble attempts, like those of Bob Franken, are praised for "a sardonic style that looks for irony, and finds it" (a turn of phrase that may well be a product of Franken's own word processor).

On second thought I do not want to be accused of "wallowing in my own nostalgia!" At least I still have the ability to rant and to apply what I have learned from those who write far better than I to the texts of my rants. The important message of Feuer's piece is that Breslin in still going at the age of 77 in his "truculent good health." Thus, there are life lessons that I can take away from reading his piece:

  1. Look after your own health.
  2. Keep reading the good stuff.

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