Black and White and Read Hardly Anywhere | Media | Chicago Reader

Black and White and Read Hardly Anywhere 

Good Old-Fashioned Socialism

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By Michael Miner

Black and White and Read Hardly Anywhere

It's not a question of them being uninformed. They're not," Mitch Duneier was saying, speaking of his students at the University of Wisconsin. "But it's a question of where they get their information. And these are issues Jack Fuller touches on in the back of his book. One of the points he makes is that you can't necessarily extrapolate from the habits of college students what they'll be like later on in life."

Let's hope not.

In his recent book, News Values, Fuller writes, "It is always tempting to look at young people's behavior and project it out in a straight line through their advancing age. Using that methodology you would have said that the Baby Boomers would still be playing with drugs and radical politics." The Tribune's publisher was contemplating the slow, steady decline of newspaper readership and a generation of kids with "attention spans that it would be charity to describe as flickering." Heroically, he found reason to hope.

Duneier teaches an undergraduate course in ethnographic writing--observing people closely and sympathetically and writing it down. The other day in class he happened to point to an article in the International Herald-Tribune. "And I digressed. I said, 'I realize none of you read this newspaper, but what newspaper do you read?' And there was complete silence in the room. But there's often silence in the room, so it didn't necessarily mean anything. Then I asked, 'How many of you read the New York Times every day?' No one raised their hand. 'How many of you read the Chicago Tribune every day?' No one raised their hand. 'How many of you read the Chicago Tribune once in a while?' One person raised their hand. 'How many of you read one of the local Wisconsin papers every day?' Four people raised their hands. So I said, 'Only four people in the room read a newspaper every day?' They were a little embarrassed and acknowledged this was true. I said, 'How many of you read a newspaper once in a while?' A couple more hands went up."

Duneier made his reputation in 1992 when his doctoral dissertation, which he'd researched by becoming one of the regulars at the Valois, a working-class deli in Hyde Park, was published in book form as Slim's Table. At the moment he divides his weeks between Madison and an apartment on the north side of Chicago; he calls himself an "urban field-worker" who finds both pleasure and wisdom wandering the city's streets. "One of the things I always notice in Chicago is its newsstands," he told me. "They're always open early. When I talk to the people at them they say the newspaper business is worse than the fish business. A fish lasts two days. A newspaper lasts a few hours. A newspaper spoils faster than a fish. One of the things I noticed in Madison when I arrived is that the biggest and best newsstand doesn't open until nine in the morning. I just didn't get it." Not until he realized it wouldn't matter to his students when the newsstand opened, since they weren't going there for the morning papers anyway.

Duneier's class happened to meet again on election night. "I said, 'First of all, you all do know there was an election today?' They all laughed hysterically at that. They were laughing at the thought that I thought that they might be disengaged because they didn't read newspapers. Which they were not. A very large number of them did vote."

At my request he asked his students more questions about newspapers. "I started out by saying, 'How many people saw today's Wisconsin State Journal or Capital Times?' Two people raised their hands. This, by the way, was at nine o'clock at night. Then I said, 'How many people saw today's Chicago Tribune?' One person raised her hand. 'New York Times?' Two raised their hands." A total of four hands had now been raised.

"I said, 'Where do you get your information?' Somebody yelled out, 'Local TV news.' I said, 'How many people get information from local TV news?' Six people raised their hands. Then I said, 'Where else?' Somebody yelled out NPR. I said, 'How many of you are getting your news from NPR?' Nine people raised their hands. They said they have it on all the time. Somebody yelled out computer. I said, 'How many get it from computers?' Eight people raised their hands."

Duneier asked how many students read Isthmus, the local alternative weekly. Fourteen hands went up. And the Onion, the humor paper? Sixteen hands, most of them the same ones.

Duneier calls his course "Studying People at Firsthand." He invented the course to teach the process of intimate observation that made his months at the Valois so rewarding. He told me the class attracts "a good number of people interested in literary techniques of nonfiction writing, some sociology majors trying to fulfill a requirement, and some journalism students interested in kinds of nonfiction writing. We do things in class like trying to describe a setting, analyzing gestures, analyzing conversations, depicting variations in a population, using visual evidence, and thinking about research design." Without being a writing class, "it emphasizes the craft of writing and the method of good social-science fieldwork."

If students such as these rarely read daily papers, it's unlikely other students read them at all. Alternative newspapers and NPR aren't primary news sources, and God save the undergraduate who thinks they are. "I'm a person who reads six or seven newspapers a day," Duneier said. "I'm 35, but I see a big gap between myself and my students in this."

But Duneier, like Fuller, hopes. And if his students won't read Fuller's newspaper, Duneier told me, they will read Fuller's book. Fuller dwells on a newspaper's obligation to provide a trustworthy daily report, and Duneier thinks this discussion is extraordinarily good. "For the purposes of my class he really understands the importance of detail, of getting little things right. I think he deals more realistically with issues of objectivity and bias and authority and deception and also with literary technique than any manual of the methods of field research."

Duneier's cited News Values frequently this semester at Madison. In the spring, when he teaches the same course at the University of California-Santa Barbara, it'll be required reading.

Good Old-Fashoined Socialism

James Weinstein wants to reach back in history and dust off a political philosophy some say was born in 1917 and others say died then. Weinstein, in neither camp, intends to examine that era's "ideas or alternatives to capitalism, most of which called themselves socialism, and see which of those ideas are still useful or might be part of a popular movement that would put human needs above corporate profit."

Weinstein, who's 70, is a trained historian with books such as The Decline of Socialism in America and The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State to his name. To write his next one he must clear his desk, which means stepping down as publisher of In These Times, the journal he established in the wake of Watergate on the dubious premise that "the Left would start reviving." In These Times advocates socialism with a human face and has always lived hand-to-mouth for its troubles.

"Nobody on our part of the Left ever thought of the Soviet Union or communism as an alternative," Weinstein told me. At the last turn of the century "opposition movements among working people to the growing corporate domination of American life took what we would call today the social democratic form. That was the meaning of socialism in its early incarnations among the so-called European socialists--people like William Morris and William Blake, whose vision of a socialist society was essentially a kind of artisan community--but also even Marx and the early Marxists, who believed the state would wither away."

The ideal back then was of a working class blessed with enough leisure time to participate fully in civic society. Reality turned out to be very different. "The communists take control and find they have none of the social prerequisites or economic prerequisites or technicological prerequisites for a decentralized democratic society." With the Russian Revolution, "the meaning of socialization gets changed to a forced march under a one-party, increasingly centralized and bureaucratic state."

Even the Bolsheviks were deceived, says Weinstein. "Lenin had taught the Bolsheviks to take power in the hope it would spread to Germany and throughout the world, and leadership of the world socialist movement would revert back to the German working class where it belonged."

From Lenin's hands to the German masses? He must have been kidding.

"You're probably right," Weinstein said. "But that was the argument he made. That's how he convinced the other Bolsheviks. They all looked around and said, 'What? Socialism in Russia! You've got to be crazy. This is supposed to be a postcapitalist society, and we haven't even entered capitalism.'

"You get this ironic kind of thing that the communist model, instead of being an inspiration to the working class in the capitalist world, is inspirational only to the revolutionary nationalists in the third world, who looked at it as a model for forced industrialization. And of course it didn't work too well in the third world either."

Weinstein perceives the old socialist ideas just beginning to reemerge, reworked into an "idiom" the world might find useful. "But it's at an early stage," he says. "That's why I want to do the book."

Weinstein founded In These Times 20 years ago this month--the celebration is Friday night. He launched it in Chicago because San Francisco, where he lived, was "too countercultural and marginal" and New York was too expensive. "Chicago had no negatives. It was a major city located right in the middle of the country." Chicago's only drawbacks were that unlike San Francisco it was flat as a pancake and it was an icebox in winter. The first couple of years Weinstein hated it.

"After a few years we had Harold Washington, which was a wonderful experience. He was a reader, a subscriber, a supporter. We were very close to him. That was an inspiring period."

Since his father died in 1986 and Weinstein came into his inheritance, he's been pumping about $100,000 a year into the magazine. But he complains that there's never enough money, especially for promotion. "Our original plan was to have a $300,000 capitalization," he said. "I spent a year raising money. We ended up with $120,000. We decided we could spend another year trying to raise another $100,000 or we could start it anyway, and if we were any good our subscribers would keep it going."

But because you were undercapitalized, the wolf was always at the door? No, he replied. "If we'd had the full $300,000 the wolf would have been at the door six months later."

News Bites

The breach between Medill professor David Protess and three former students over movie rights to their Ford Heights investigation may be about to close--if not happily. Protess and four men imprisoned until this year for two 1978 murders they didn't commit have been waiting for months for the students to sign on with Disney and get the project rolling. Though Protess now minimizes the role played by the young women in clearing the men's names, it was the notion of spunky innocents braving mean streets in quest of justice that got Hollywood interested. And once the film deal goes down, the freed prisoners will come into several thousand dollars they badly need.

In a gesture of independence from Protess, the three students asked the William Morris agency to represent them in selling their "life rights." But late last week the agency's Aaron Kaplan dropped the young women as clients. A spokesman for Kaplan said that when he took them on he didn't realize how far along negotiations between the students' former lawyer in Chicago and Disney had advanced. Memos had gone back and forth, specifics had been hammered out, and contracts had been mailed if not signed. Getting out from under the Disney deal at this point could have meant "a lot of litigation," and Kaplan wasn't interested.

With Kaplan out of the picture, the students' sole legal adviser became Ed Sullivan, a San Francisco lawyer who's the father of Laura Sullivan, the most outspoken of the three young women. Ed Sullivan indicated the students would sign with Disney.

The death of Cardinal Bernardin early last Thursday morning found the Sun-Times ready to go. The paper not only tore up pages one, two, three, four, and six of its final edition, but substituted a new lead editorial and Higgins cartoon. The Tribune simply replaced its page-one coverage of Bernardin with an updated story and left the rest of the paper intact.

The Sun-Times's response came at a price: stories that got in the way of the expanded Bernardin coverage had to be thrown out. These discarded stories included the paper's original lead, President Clinton's decision to send troops to Zaire, plus--ironically--news that the cancer death rate was dropping in the U.S. and that at the request of Cardinal Bernardin the logo of the House of Blues had been redesigned.

What really ticks off some people I know is when they spot the Sun-Times Madline in the Sunday paper and call it because they're going totally postal, and it rings and rings and rings and finally there's a little beep and a disconnect, because it doesn't work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mitch Duneier photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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