Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.
It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.
Tom Swick was the travel editor of a “medium sized newspaper in a small Florida city,” an envied and somewhat trivialized position, until it wasn’t. In LARB, he considers his career and the role travel writing plays for an audience that doesn’t get much vacation — and doesn’t share his inherent curiosity about the world.
9/11 brought a temporary end to envy of my job — suddenly nobody was jealous of frequent flyers — while at the same time elevating my status. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political.
Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? What was the last travel book you read?” The memoir had long been in the ascendant, which was strange; if anything, 9/11 should have made us fervently, desperately curious about the world. But as a nation we seemed to be turning our gaze inward, to our childhoods, our relationships, our obsessions, our phobias, our disorders, our illnesses, our addictions. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots?
There are countries whose citizens, without ever leaving, can’t help but be exposed to the foreign; in the United States, the exposure frequently never goes beyond the table. Years ago, the Travel Channel devolved into a kind of offshoot of the Food Network, more or less proving that, here, abroad is acceptable only if served on a plate. We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. It is said that one must first love oneself before one can hope to love another, but the United States seems dangerously stuck on itself. Yes, there’s France and Italy — the book publishing darlings — but they’re viewed, because they’re so often depicted, more as pleasure gardens than real countries.
“This story happened because a generous colleague, Dana Priest, pitched it downstairs to my area of the newsroom. She had finished a series on the country’s aging nuclear arsenal and a shorter news story on security lapses at the site in question, and she thought this nun might make a good feature story. So I started to report it out, because how could I not? A nun? Nukes? Sign me up.
“In October I had lunch with Sister Megan in Rosemont, Pa., where she was convalescing after wrist surgery, and I was kind of spun around by the precise way she lives: With utter intent and compassion. What had been billed as a kind of Keystone Cops episode (old folks bumbling into a nuclear facility) took on this new, almost primal logic in my mind after talking with her. After reading the transcript of a confounding congressional hearing on the break-in and having long phone chats with the activists’ lawyer about the legal knots of the case, I started envisioning a broader, longer piece that would attempt to wrap its arms around the past, present and future of the country’s nuclear identity—and all the legal, bureaucratic and theological complications therein.
“By the end of January, when I called the security guard who was first to respond to their intrusion, I knew that the story was riddled with paradox but felt like a classic, simple parable. The trick was to narrate the parable without sacrificing the nuance or paradox that governs the real world. I’m not sure I was successful, but I thought it was worth a shot.”
This week’s Longreads Member Pick is the first chapter from the best-selling memoir After Visiting Friends, GQdeputy editor Michael Hainey‘s story of his father’s death and his search for answers. Hainey was 6 years old when his father, newspaperman Bob Hainey, died suddenly, but questions remained about the circumstances around his death.
We’re proud to feature the book. Thanks to Michael and Scribner for sharing this story.
I work in sports media and read and think about sports A LOT. So the task of boiling the year in sportswriting down to some kind of best-of list is daunting indeed, and I won’t do it. Nor am I going to name my favorite sportswriter or piece of sportswriting in general, because I’m sure to overlook someone or something and probably offend my employer (USA Today Sports Media Group!), and I’m unwilling to do that.
But I will tell you my favorite athlete in 2012 was Robert Griffin III, who is suddenly playing quarterback at an extraterrestrial level for my favorite team, the Redskins. Of all the words spilled over RGIII’s emergence, none struck a chord in me like those in Charles P. Pierce’s piece for Grantland, “The Head and the Heart.” It touches on the phenomenon of this young athlete, the burden of great expectations met by even greater talent and the horrific brain injures caused by pro football. The last line will linger for a long, long time.
My favorite team in 2012 was the Orioles. The longtime doormat of Major League Baseball’s AL East, they somehow pieced together a playoff run for the ages, banding together like grown-up Bad News Bears before falling to the mighty Yankees in October. Before all of that, though, Tom Scocca wrote “‘Motherfuckin’ Shit! Take Your Ass Home!’ Or, Why the Baltimore Orioles Matter” for Deadspin, predicting it all, sort of. I thought then that it was a beautiful sentiment wonderfully expressed but also kind of sad to hold out for a team so hopeless. I was wrong, though, because anything can happen, and eventually does.
On the 1962-1963 printers strike in New York that effectively shut down the seven biggest newspapers in the city, killed four of them, and made names for writers like Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Nora Ephron:
A city without The New York Times inspired rage and scorn, ambivalence and relief. A ‘Talk of the Town’ item in The New Yorker lamented a weekend without the ‘fragrant, steamy deep-dish apple pie of the Sunday Times.’ James Reston—pillar of the Establishment, Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Times, and intimate of the Sulzberger family, to whom he directed a controversial entreaty to use non-union shops—was allowed to read his column on New York’s Channel 4 in early January 1963: ‘Striking the Times is like striking an old lady and deprives the community of all kinds of essential information. If some beautiful girl gets married this week, the television may let us see her gliding radiantly from the church. But what about all those ugly girls who get married every Sunday in the Times?’
A city without newspapers was a city in which civic activity was impeded, as two out-of-work Times reporters hired by the Columbia Journalism Review soon documented. Without the daily papers, the Health Department’s campaign against venereal disease was ‘seriously impaired.’ So was the fight against slumlords: ‘There’s a distinct difference,’ the city’s building commissioner said, ‘between a $500 fine and a $500 fine plus a story in the Times.’ The New York chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality discovered that, without newspaper attention, its boycott of the Sealtest Milk Company was considerably undermined. The newspaper strike, the C.J.R. study concluded, had ‘deprived the public of its watchdog.