The Secret Life of John Schmid/News Media Missing in Action | Media | Chicago Reader

The Secret Life of John Schmid/News Media Missing in Action 

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The Secret Life of John Schmid

The pseudonymous author stands on shaky ground indeed in the straight-arrow fellowship of journalistic scriveners. The Reader's own policy on pseudonyms is clear and unnegotiable: only when appropriate.

It's that way throughout the business. For instance, pseudonyms are common in the monthly journal Outlines and weekly entertainment guide Nightlines, publisher Tracy Baim tells us, but the big reason is beyond reproach: it's to protect contributors who are in the closet. A second reason is also unassailable. It's to be sneaky.

John Schmid began writing drama reviews for Gay Chicago in 1988. A year ago he asked the entertainment editor there, Rick Karlin, if he could free-lance elsewhere. "Of course," said Karlin, "you're free-lancing for us." In short order Schmid's byline showed up in Nightlines. Karlin then explained to Schmid that his blessing on free-lancing did not extend to doing it for a competitor.

What was Schmid to do? You guessed it. He persuaded himself that Nightlines wasn't really competition—"I thought working for both papers would if anything encourage people to read both," he tells us. And he concocted a nom de plume—one Diane Levy Walls, who took shape in Schmid's imagination as the wife of a Cook County state's attorney seeking her doctorate in Victorian women's literature at the University of Wisconsin, a woman in the process of discovering "another side of herself."

Tracy Baim thought the whole thing was pretty funny. "He started out as a straight woman," she said, speaking of Schmid and the formidable Mrs. Walls. "It was done very tongue in cheek, obviously a pseudonym for somebody."

By no means a master of deceit, Schmid reserved theater tickets for Nightlines under his own name. Soon rumors of duplicity reached Gay Chicago, and Karlin began making what he calls "discreet inquiries." Schmid's downfall was his review of A Lullaby of Murder at Tommy Gun's Garage, a dinner theater. Panning the evening for Gay Chicago, Schmid described his steak arriving with long slivers of wood buried within. Writing for Nightlines, gourmet columnist M.J. Hochberg told the same story but, alas, assigned the skewered meat to her dinner companion, the by now self-realized and amicably divorced Diane Levy.

It is a tribute to Schmid's powers of improvisation that Karlin, after confronting Schmid with the two articles, did not banish him at once. Schmid tells us, "I said, 'Yeah, I went with Marcy Hochberg and that happened to me—and I told her she could use the story but not my name.' Because I thought that would get Rick very upset. Because the one time my name did appear in Nightlines he was upset."

Not that Karlin swallowed this malarkey. But wanting to be absolutely positive, he continued his inquiries another two weeks before he sent Schmid packing.

Karlin tells us, "He said, 'I'm trying to get my career started as a writer.' I said, 'You don't do that by screwing the people you've been writing for for the last two years.'"

Schmid will now write for Nightlines under his own name, and Tracy Baim feels better for that. She was never totally comfortable having a male ghostwrite a lesbian sensibility. In fact, she'd decided to retire the Diane Levy byline regardless and send Schmid out in masculine disguise. "They were leaning toward Leslie Waters," says Schmid, "but that sounds like a pseudonym."

News Media Missing in Action

The war is over, and journalism is not proud. Last week Washington bureau chiefs meekly addressed the secretary of defense: "We are apprehensive that because this war was so successfully prosecuted on the battlefield, the virtual control that your department exercised over the American press will become a model for the future."

Columnist Otis Pike snickered at the low estate of the petitioners. Where are the voices of the "media barons"? he wondered, for no one will pay attention to mere bureau chiefs. "The power of the news media is being abdicated," he lamented, observing that "apprehension is too puny a reaction to a certain tragedy."

Anthony Lewis in the New York Times called "most of the press … a claque applauding the American generals and politicians in charge." Lewis applauded an article by the editor of Harper's, Lewis Lapham, who sneered, "The Administration … knew that it could rely on the media's complicity in almost any deception dressed up in patriotic costume."

And in Tikkun Jay Rosen, perhaps thinking slightly beyond the others, argued that "the real bias of television &8230; is not prowar, but protheatricality … . The real problem with TV's packaging of the war is that it fails to assist us in experiencing a national crisis as citizens, rather than as spectators."

The latest issues of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Extra! (published by the liberal watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) arrived at our desk together. Each dwells on ways in which the media skewed the war as they described it.

"War reporting usually turns the enemy into the incarnation of absolute evil," reflects Daniel Hallin in the Bulletin, "and one of the reasons the Gulf War played so well in the media is that Saddam Hussein's regime fit the image better than most.

"Nevertheless, the tendency to portray war as good versus evil distorted Gulf coverage in important ways.

"The enemy is considered to practice a kind of evil we could never practice: his actions and ours belong to different moral orders," continues Hallin, author of the 1987 book The "Uncensored War": The Media and Vietnam. "Reporting on the release of oil into the Gulf, Alan Pizzey of CBS said on January 28: 'This is the first time in history that nature has been a direct target.'

"He forgot that the United States defoliated nearly five million acres of forest during the Vietnam War, spraying almost half of South Vietnam's forest area at least once."

The editor of Extra!, Jim Naureckas, observed reporters reducing the war to the elements of "us" versus "him"—the "us" binding the journalist to the American forces and cause, the "him" being the demon Hussein. "Journalists constantly asked, 'How long will it take to defeat Saddam Hussein?' or "How badly are we hurting him?' as if wars are fought against single individuals, rather than nations."

Not the least of the reasons why Hussein could be so easily demonized was the arsenal of biological and chemical weapons he was understood to have—not that they were ever used. One enemy weapon did make a name for itself in combat, and Extra! spotted journalists cloaking it in its master's iniquity. NBC's Arthur Kent called the Scud missile "an evil weapon, but not an accurate weapon," while to ABC's Peter Jennings it was "a horrifying killer" and to CNN's Richard Blystone "a quarter ton of concentrated hatred."

What then of America's vastly more lethal bombs and missiles? No, there was nothing evil about them—for they were ours, and they were humane. While Hussein's Scuds terrorized innocent Israeli civilians, the allies' high-tech arsenal attacked military targets with astonishing accuracy. Or so the media wished to think and chose to report.

"One little-known fact is that of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped, only 6,520 tons—7.4 percent—were precision-guided ordnance, according to official Pentagon figures." We're now quoting from a Bulletin article written by Paul F. Walker and Eric Stambler. "Most of the weapons used were conventional, and very destructive, bombs and artillery."

Walker and Stambler describe some of this weaponry, such as the CBU-75, a "cluster bomb unit" that can rain shrapnel across an area the size of 157 football fields, and the BLU-82, a fuel-air explosive that detonates just before it lands, "producing blast overpressures of 1,000 pounds per square inch and disintegrating everything within hundreds of yards."

These are weapons of wholesale death, a concept reporters weren't eager to explore. "Again and again," says Naureckas, "the mantra of 'surgical strikes against military targets' was repeated by journalists, even though Pentagon briefers acknowledged that they were aiming at civilian roads, bridges and public utilities vital to the survival of the civilian population … . The U.S. media's most effective—and offensive—tool for dismissing civilian casualties was to treat the whole issue as a propaganda ploy on the part of Saddam Hussein. As Bruce Morton commented: "If Saddam Hussein can turn the world against the effort, convince the world that women and children are the targets of the air campaign, then he will have won a battle, his only one so far."

Both Extra! and Daniel Hallin point out that none of the nation's major media joined in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights challenging the Pentagon's restrictions on the media, or even filed friend-of-the-court briefs. "The networks," says Hallin, "may well have been so wary of appearing adversarial that they were happy to be able to put on the screen, 'Cleared by the U.S. Military.'"

Why such docility? Aside from fear of the White House, aside from fear of the public, aside from the fact that journalists by and large accepted the war's premises, there may be the reason that cooptation suited the media's purposes. Clearly censorship played to the strength of print journalism, which is analysis. But the restrictions may even have served television. Extra! traces the roots of "the Pentagon's successful efforts to control the flow of information" to the invasions of Grenada and Panama. But back in 1982, when the British reconquered the Falkland Islands, TV discovered what a tidy little show an inaccessible war can be. Against a field of crisis, impose stricken diplomats patched together by satellite, official footage of the weaponry in action, and "military analysts" jabbing at maps, pondering strategies, and issuing sweeping generalizations about national character. The result is pretty riveting TV that's cheap too. And in the Persian Gulf, TV could add to the mix interviews with drilling GIs and correspondents clamping on gas masks while anchors halfway around the world beg them to be careful.

In retrospect, the gods of war punished the White House by giving it the journalism it prayed for. The chivalry of the reported war felt like a con when reality drifted in: a hundred thousand dead, a million refugees, Saddam Hussein still in power, the American Army mired in Iraq. Neither the president nor the media had prepared the people for such results. We'd gone to war to do only good.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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