Mark Danner in Conversation with Robert Hass

UC Berkeley


Mark Danner, Robert Hass Event, 4.12


Genaro:           All right. Well, I’d like to welcome all of you to a conversation this afternoon between Professor Robert Hass, who is the Distinguished Professor of Poetry and Poetics here at Berkeley and for our department, and Mark Danner, who is Chancellor’s Professor in Journalism and English.  

This conversation will focus on the writing of politics and the writing of war, the intersection between political writing, journalism and narrative and novels, so sort of the relationship between descriptions of torture in both style of journalism as well as recuperating that through literary imagination.

So I’m very happy to introduce Mark. He is, as I said, Chancellor’s Professor of Journalism and English. He has been a frequent teacher in the department over a number of years, and he is, as I think many of you know, a world renowned journalist who deals primarily with conflict, with war, with torture, with the exploitation of the human body across the globe, for purposes of exploitation generally.

He has been a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books since 1993, as well as a contributor to The New Yorker from 2001 to the present. He’s been a story editor at the New York Times Magazine  for a number of years as well as a general editor at Harper’s magazine. He is prolific as a writer. His books include the very recent “Torture and the Forever Wars,” 2016—I think it just came out, right?

Mark:              “Spiral.”

Genaro:           “Spiral.” And then “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War,” “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror,” and a compelling description of murder in the Southern Hemisphere, “The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War.” This book won a New York Times Notable Book citation in 1998.

Among his honors and awards, and there are quite a few of them, of course, is that Mark is a recipient of  MacArthur fellowship in 1999 and brings that, I think, to our conversation. He has taught a number of courses in the department. Some of these are titled From Centaurs to Superheroes: Metamorphosis, Monsters and the Supernatural Everyday. Portraits in Black: Dictator, Autocrats, Cuadillo. Was that a team taught course?

Mark:              No, that was just me.

Genaro:           Just yours? Another is Self-Creation: Confession, Memoir, Autobiography. And Tolstoy and the Birth of Literary Realism. So once again the relationship and the overlap, the imbrication between literary narrative and narratives of documentation of war. So with that let me just turn this over to Bob and to… [Applause.]

Robert:            Thanks, Genaro. So there’s so many things it would be interesting to talk about, but I thought I’d begin with Mark’s literary career, and maybe for some of the students I need to say a little bit about that. During a civil war in El Salvador—the reason is I thought I would ask him about the first sentence of this book, “The Massacre at El Mozote,” which I read last night online was described as probably the most taught book of investigative journalism in this country, and it’s an amazing and terrifying book.

And in 1981, in December, in the hill country in El Salvador, covered to some extent by the press, a terrible massacre occurred, something awful. And some of the story came out and it became an early example of one of those obfuscation narratives—is that right, did it happen, did it not happen. There became propaganda wars about what we now think of as what’s false news and what’s not false news.

It took…this book was published in 1993, in which, drawing on a truth commission that was established in the Clinton administration to look at American foreign policy in the Reagan years, uncovered, through exhumations of bodies, this small village in which almost everyone was killed. The end of this book is a list of 800, 793 men, women and children murdered in a mountain village. And Mark, given the assignment by The New Yorker magazine—

Mark:              Yeah.

Robert:            Went to do a short piece on this and ended up writing a long essay that became one of the three in history, I think, stories that took over a whole issue of The New Yorker, alongside James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and Jonathan Schell’s “The Fate of the Earth,” “The Massacre at El Mozote,” which is where I first read it and first heard of him. So that’s the background. Let me read you the first paragraph—or let me read you the first paragraph. [Laughter.]  

                        “Prologue: the Exhumation. Heading up into the mountains of Morazan, in the bright, clear air near the Honduran border, you cross the Torola River, the wooden slats of the one-lane bridge clattering beneath your wheels, and enter what was the fiercest of El Salvador’s zonas rojas—or “red zones,” as the military officers knew them during a decade of civil war—and after climbing for some time you take leave of the worn blacktop to follow for several miles a bone-jarring dirt track that hugs a mountainside, and soon you will find, among ruined towns and long abandoned villages that are coming slowly, painfully back to life, a tiny hamlet, by now little more than a scattering of ruins that is being rapidly reclaimed by the earth, its broken adobe walls cracking and crumbling and giving way before an onslaught of weeds, which are fueled by the rain that beats down each afternoon and by the fog that settles heavily at night in the valleys.”

                        That is quite an opening sentence.

Mark:              They wanted to break it into three sentences persistently. It was a long fight with The New Yorker editors.

Robert:            So you had a career out of college as an editor before you became a writer.

Mark:              That’s true.

Robert:            You were then one of those editors who would have tried to break your sentence up into three sentences.

Mark:              Well, I like to think I wouldn’t have touched that sentence. [Laughter.] It was too perfect, you know. But yeah, that was my career out of college. I worked at The New York Review of Books, and then Harper’s, and then the New York Times, and then became a staff writer at The New Yorker.

                        And thank you for doing this, I should say, first and foremost. And thank you to Genaro for the really flattering introduction. Yes, I have a lot of trouble starting pieces, as most…as a lot of writers do. It’s not uncommon. But I seem to only be able to start at the beginning, and only when I have the kind of taste of the first bite in my mouth can I seem to go on. That’s gotten a little less over the years, but it certainly was true in that case.

                        And I’ll tend to wake up or have some revelation—it’s kind of a romantic idea of writing that’s not really accurate, but there it is—that suddenly I’ll feel it and the sound will be there. And that much, that kind of plunging the reader in with the second person, which is an unusual thing to do, to kind of plunge the reader into the place just as I arrived at the place.

                        I mean, I tend to tell my students a lot that what you have in your quiver, or in your tool box that’s most valuable is the ignorance with which you meet a place or a situation, that is, this kind of blank slate on which you can record things that other people who might know the territory won’t notice.

                        And it seemed to me one of the remarkable things about El Mozote is that looming sense of place. Later, in the next paragraph, someone, one of the ex-guerillas there, calls it espantoso, spooky, ghostly, it’s full of ghosts. And I definitely, before I heard it characterized that way, I definitely felt it. Because you go to investigate a story—and this was investigating a massacre that had killed a thousand people, including a couple hundred children, including infants and an unborn child—and you have a sense of apprehension and spookiness before you reach the site as you’re doing this preliminary reporting. And I certainly had that as I was reaching the site.

                        So I think I was trying to convey that to people, that that’s how I felt, and that’s what the place is like, and to try to plunge them into it. You also, you know, the motor of prose is suspense, and you’re trying, I think, as a writer, to grip people in a kind of vice of suspense from the first words, from the first sentence. And that’s one of the attempts, one of the things I was trying to do, I think, with that sentence, is pull them in so they couldn’t leave.

Robert:            We’re saying again to the students that this particular attack was carried out by death squads that were financed by a special committee of the American Congress that was very enthusiastic about supporting the Salvadoran military against communist threat in our hemisphere. Is that accurate?

Mark:              Well, it should be said that this massacre was carried out by conscripts of the Salvadoran army. And indeed, when the forensic anthropologists who were exhuming the site—it was highly controversial because it had been claimed that this was actually a battle between the guerillas and the Salvadoran army, there was no massacre and so on. And the book begins with the discovery of the 128 children, the bodies of the hundred, which were these little coffee colored bundles of material that were buried in the earth.

                        And the opening description is a description of finding those children, which finally proved that indeed it couldn’t have been simply an encounter between the guerillas and the Salvadoran army. But at the bottom, underneath those layers and layers of children, at the very bottom the anthropologists found bullets in the earth, right?

                        So one of the, actually a Berkeley artist, Claudia Bernardi, was there to draw these, where all the bodies were, and she did it on vellum. So you’d see layer after layer of bodies, and then at the very bottom she marked where those bullet holes were. And the bullet holes—or excuse me, the shell casings—were stamped when you reached the very bottom of this deep pit with all these children, those bullet casings were stamped with two words: Leavenworth, Kansas. They were supplied by the American taxpayer.

                        And it was as if at the end of this long search through claims, counterclaims, controversy, lies, you found at the very end the signal tiny object that led you back to the beginning, to how this had actually happened. And it was an amazing, incredible story that showed, among other things, that, you know, it had been originally reported on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the government, that is the government of the United States, denied it—this was during the Reagan administration—and effectively made it go away.

                        And I realized then a lesson I’ve learned many times since, which is when you become a journalist or think you want to become a journalist, very often it’s on the partly idealistic view that if you simply expose to the world the things that have gone wrong, the horrible things, the world will make it right. That is, that what stops terrible things from being made into, you know, evil from being eliminated is people don’t know about evil, and it’s a journalist’s job to show evil. And this was the first major lesson to me, that it’s not information, it’s politics, and that this was about, indeed, politics, not simply information.

Robert:            You can see why this conversation can go a bunch of different ways because we can go straight to, as we were talking about, whether there was nerve gas used in Syria. But I want to stick with the literary thing for a minute and ask you—

Mark:              Sure.

Robert:            You had to have some kind of model for the kind of sentences that you were writing. I mean, writing about…I think where would you go for this? Conrad, Graham Greene? This was not your first overseas assignment. Haiti was?

Mark:              Haiti was, yeah. Well, Conrad, Graham Greene, that’s very flattering. I’ll just let that hang in the air. [Laughs.] Hang in the air a moment. Where’s my mother? [Laughter.]  My mother isn’t here. Yeah, Conrad, Graham Greene. Well, I don’t think either of them would have written a sentence that long, I don’t know. Not Graham Greene, certainly. I don’t know.

                        Part of my teaching is based on the idea that you learn how to write with your ears. You read and read and read, and you have voices in your head, which is the premise of your question. I know that V.S. Naipaul was a kind of idol of mine, although, indeed, the sentence is nothing like anything he would have been gauche enough to write. His model certainly is Conrad, if there is one, although he would never admit it. But I don’t know if I could identify specifically.

                        I mean, you and I have taught courses together on Tolstoy, as Genaro mentioned, on Dostoevsky, on Chekhov. These are all writers who I admire deeply. I mean, Tolstoy, that was the most wonderful class I think I’ve ever given. It’s just, you know, I learned so much in that. But I don’t know whose particular voice I could identify behind it. I just don’t know. There’s so many people I’ve read.

                        I know that the former editor of the New York Review, the late editor of the New York Review I think had a lot of influence on my writing, and I worked for him as an editorial assistant right after college. It was my first job. And I watched him take these manuscript sheafs of pages that seemed fairly well written to me, and he would go through with a pencil and rewrite them extensively.

                        And it was my job to retype the manuscripts, so I got this course in how to tighten up your prose, parallelism, very basic things that Orwell writes about in “Politics and the English Language,” among other places. And he did a great deal to teach me how to write. But I don’t know how to identify the sort of voice behind that. I’m not sure.

Robert:            I just spent some time with a Croatian writer, so we were talking about Srebrenica and talking about your writing about Bosnia, which also…that was done over three or four issues of the New York Review.

Mark:              Eleven issues, actually, but who’s counting?

Robert:            This is again a story of a massacre, really.

Mark:              Well, the Srebrenica story was, I believe, three issues, but the Bosnia coverage was, I think, 11. Yeah. Srebrenica is an astonishing story. But of course the siege of Sarajevo, which I wrote about, was also an astonishing story. And I did a piece on what’s called the market massacre in Sarajevo, which really changed the war, in 1994.

                        And part of…I was working at the time on a documentary for ABC News. And Peter Jennings, who was then the anchorman, was anchoring this hour broadcast, but the corporation ABC decided he could not come to Bosnia because there were rumors he was going to be assassinated. And so we couldn’t do the hour without him at least there doing a standup, and, you know, this is kind of the form. And we finally were able to persuade them to let him come for a day.

                        So we were there for months. And when he came we had to take care of everything he had to do in a day. And that day happened to be the day of the so-called market massacre, in which 78—a mortar shell landed on an open air market that happened to be covered with scrap tin, so the mortar itself, its shrapnel produced secondary shrapnel out of this tin, and it went through and cut—we had just been interviewing people in this market literally five minutes, six minutes before. And we were starting to drive away when we saw, you know, realized what had happened, went back in and these people had been eviscerated, many of whom we had just interviewed.

                        And that…you know, it’s a terrible truth, but a real truth, that a key part about being a successful reporter is to have luck. And that was luck. Luck was being there for that and luck was not being there five minutes before. And Peter Jennings, I remember thinking wow, he’s a great journalist. He comes for one day and the biggest story of the Bosnian war happens. As I say, this is kind of grim. But it’s true.

                        And I think writing, I guess I’ve written about a number of massacres and incidents of extreme violence like that, and they seem to be…and you can shape a piece of writing around it in a way to give you a picture of an entire conflict. There’s a kind of self-organizing principle behind it in a strange way.

                        And I found myself a couple of days later, right after the massacre, up in Pale, which was the headquarters of the Bosnian Serbs who were shelling, who had launched the mortar, having lunch with Radovan Karadzic, who is now at The Hague, of course, who was the leader of the Serbs and who had launched the mortar.

Robert:            And is a pretty good poet.

Mark:              And who’s a pretty—exactly. In fact I began by talking about his poetry. I also interviewed, in Sarajevo, his—he was a psychiatrist, or is a psychiatrist, too—and I interviewed his training analyst, who said Radovan—you know, this is a guy who’s up in the hills shelling Sarajevo, killing 20,000 people—Radovan, he has an overgrown sense of grandiosity, he said.

                        But I interview Karadzic a couple of days later and told him I had been there at this massacre. And, you know, it’s a scene very hard to describe, but I described it. It was kind of a lake of blood, and you couldn’t…it was just astonishing carnage. And he said, “Did you look in their ears?”

                        I said, what…whose ears? The bodies, the bodies. Did you look in their ears? I mean, I’ve written this before. But he tried to argue to me that they were corpses who’d been in the freezers and that the Bosnian secret police had created this, you know, it was a fake explosion. They then skittered out with bodies and placed them around and it was utterly fake.

                        And it was one of the weirdest—you know, we were sitting there eating stew and he was surrounded by this troop of bodyguards who had clearly been chosen for their beauty. They were all in these kind of purple jumpsuits and these beautiful men with these high cheekbones, and they were all around him. And we were sitting there eating our stew. And he was this man of incredible hairiness. I mean, the most hirsute person I’ve ever seen. Hair out of his ears, and his eyebrows, and his… And telling me that I hadn’t check their—you know, how, since I hadn’t checked their ears—and indeed, I hadn’t checked their ears—I would have seen that their ears were frozen, that there was ice in their ears. And I assured him, you know, the volume of blood meant that they couldn’t have been frozen. But it’s one of the weirder conversations I’ve ever had.

                        And it is…he is somebody who, I mean, Janet Malcolm has written about this, that most people you meet could not be in a novel. You know, people in novels are of a certain characterized character. They are characters in a novel. They are not—and this is one of the lessons of realism, perhaps. And he is a good example of someone I’ve met who certainly would have been a good novelistic character, without a doubt. He was almost unbelievable. And a shrink, and a poet, and a professor as well.

Robert:            And a mass murderer.

Mark:              And a mass murderer.

Robert:            This story is in “Stripping the Body Bare,” and it’s one of the places in your writing that put me in mind of “Kaputt.”

Mark:              Ah, yes.

Robert:            Which leads me to the question of other literary models for the kind of journalism you were doing in these years.

Mark:              Well, I mean, “Kaputt” is a great…how many people here have read “Kaputt” or know Malaparte? That’s Curzio Malaparte. He has a remarkably limited allegiance. I don’t know why. Even though his books are in print. But Italian-German writer during the Second World War. Newspaper correspondent, but also did a couple of extraordinary novels. One is “Kaputt,” one is “The Skin,” which are, thank goodness, back in print and are extraordinary.

                        And he certainly, his sense of the grotesque, his kind of satiric eye on violence. I don’t know that I had read “Kaputt,” actually, before I wrote “Mozote.” I don’t think I had. But I think there are certainly similarities there, there’s no question about it. And his recognition that violence and civilization go very much together, that they’re not contradictory.

                        I mentioned Naipaul already. I am, as I said, an enormous admirer of Tolstoy and of the way he has of creating symbols that don’t seem like symbols. You know, the…oh, god. I’m trying to think. The eating of the pumpkin seeds in “The Cossacks,” you know, before the seduction. I don’t know if—anyway, there’s this wonderful, easy way with symbols that just seem not to be confected in any way at all that I’m deeply, deeply fond of and that I think is really the true indication of literary art. I think very few artists do it. But I certainly admire him. But I wouldn’t call him an influence. That would be almost pretentious.

Robert:            And the Polish writer?

Mark:              Absolutely. Kapuscinski.

Robert:            Yeah.

Mark:              Yeah, Ryszard Kapuscinski, who I knew pretty well, and who Harper’s had actually published “The Soccer War,” a great short piece of his, which was published after I left, but I had met him with Jerry Marzorati, another editor at Harper’s, and he became a friend. He was an extraordinary man who wrote the books “The Emperor,” “Shah of Shahs,” “Another Day of Life.” You could name “Soccer War,” as I mentioned, which is a collection, a number of others.

                        And is a wonderful—I mean, he’s certainly someone who you would name in the category or genre of literary reportage. I’m not quite sure what that is. Kapuscinski is often criticized, much more in recent years, for having exaggerated, created composite characters. And it’s true that some of the events in his work are kind of parables, in a way. It isn’t possible to lean on a lot of it without breaking through to a kind of literary creativity which contradicts some basic journalistic rules.

                        On the other hand, I think his works have considerable greatness and tend to push the bounds of genre, broaden them, and I’m an enormous admirer of his. That class I gave in the Department of English called Portraits in Black: Autocrat, Dictator, Caudillo, we read “The Emperor.” Even though most of what we read were novels, we read “The Emperor. I think there’s nobody better at understanding and showing the mechanics of power, and that power is about itself. It’s not about effecting change, it’s not about raising up a society or even tearing it down, it’s about itself. It’s about self-perpetuation. And “The Emperor” is a kind of brilliant excursus on that, I think, on that theme.

Robert:            Assad is a kind of terrible example of that.

Mark:              Yeah, he is a terrible example. I mean, it’s fascinating that we, you know, the United States in 2003 started this whole process, which seems to be forgotten now, with the invasion of Iraq, in which the U.S. invaded a predominantly Shia Arab country that was ruled by Sunnis. And right next door is a predominantly Sunni country, Syria, that’s ruled by a minority of Shia. And we’re seeing this kind of weird process go on in which the United States is having to redefine its attitude toward, among other things, representation and…

                        Anyway, Assad would have been—and the father, Hafez al-Assad, would have been a good candidate for Ryszard’s lens. He was working on, and never finished, a portrait of Idi Amin in Uganda, and that was to be the third of a trilogy, along with “Shah of Shahs” and “The Emperor,” but unfortunately, he never finished it.

                        It’s very useful to teach Kapuscinski not only in the English Department, but in the journalism school. I just taught “Shah of Shahs” in a course on war that I’m giving now. Because those boundaries of truth and truth as conceived by a journalist, in which the words between quotes supposedly have to have been said at some point, and truth to a novelist, or to a more literary writer, in which you have a higher truth, those things in fact shade off into one another, that they’re not quite as clearly divided, I think.

Robert:            So let me ask you a question about journalistic ethics before we go on.

Mark:              Oh, boy.

Robert:            With this what you can say between—

Mark:              I left myself open for this.

Robert:            —between quotation marks and not between quotation marks. I was doing a travel piece for a newspaper, and I quoted an English fish job broker who I met in Busan, Korea, saying you have to understand that Korea is Poland. And I understood that he meant caught between Japan and China the way Poland was caught between Russia and Germany.

Mark:              Right. Mm-hmm.

Robert:            And I wanted to explain to the reader, who would not immediately get that, that, and the easiest way to do it was to put in quotations it’s caught between China and… But he didn’t say that. He implied it.

Mark:              And they wouldn’t let you at the time.

Robert:            Well, no, they didn’t know whether I… [Laughter.] It was entirely my personal issue. What would be your rule of thumb?

Mark:              Oh, my. Well, I would probably do, quote, “you have to understand that Korea is Poland,” close quote, dash—caught between two great powers.

Robert:            You would be scrupulous.

Mark:              I like to think I would be.

Robert:            It’s so much more fun to have the guy say it, you know.

Mark:              I know, I know. I’d like to think I would be. It should be said you’re raising something that journalists tend to be very self-righteous about. They cling to rules, whatever rules of objectivity they have, very…by the skin of their teeth or by their fingernails because these rules are very hard to locate a lot of the time, and the one on quotations seems easy enough. But in fact, whatever is between quotation marks was not said. You know, people don’t talk the way people do in quotation marks, generally.

                        I’m reading a book right now—we’re reading it for this class—called “War,” by Sebastian Younger, and he does an odd thing. Things that he heard said and he wrote down in his notebook he puts between double quotes and things other people told him secondhand he puts in single quotes, which is an interesting notion. I’m not sure I agree with it, but it’s an interesting idea.

                        And the fact is that quotes very often—and we know this from the famous case with Janet Malcolm between Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a Berkeley resident and scholar of Freud and Sanskrit and Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker that they don’t necessarily need to be. They can be approximate.

                        It’s another thing to invent a character, to take several characters together and make one, which Michael Herr did, for example, in “Dispatches,” which is thought to be a great classic of journalism. Now there are, and he has admitted, composite characters there. Most journalists would say you can’t do that because you’re quoting somebody who doesn’t exist. And on the other hand he did it. There it is in Modern Library and everybody would consider it part of the canon of modern journalism.

                        And meanwhile we have this huge fight about fake news, which basically looks at news in general, and rules of veracity that we’re talking about now as themselves fake or disguising a greater kind of bias of the elite press. So this operates on many different levels, and it’s a fascinating issue, and it’s not settled. It’s being fought about as we sit here and we go tonight and watch the news, if you watch the news, or when you read the paper in the morning, if you read the paper, you will see it being fought about. So we live in a great time to be teaching in a journalism school and in an English department, I think.

Robert:            So I wanted to go there, and I also want to make time for people to ask, but we talked about another kind of writing that you did. I’m thinking about there was, again, for you students, at the time of and just before the outbreak of the Iraq war, Mark and the writer, English writer, Christopher Hitchens, in a way did a road show of debating about whether the war should happen, and what had happened, whether it was a good idea or not.

                        And Mark turned out to be absolutely right in his predictions about what was going to happen, and Hitchens is now dead and a kind of friend to both of us, despite this, was absolutely wrong about it. And then after you’ve written this series, having written about Iraq, and it’s in “The Body Stripped Bare,” you did a series of review essays about the memoirs of Cheney and Rumsfeld and the other main figures leading up to that war. That’s not investigative journalism. That’s kind of the first draft of historical criticism of primary sources of self-serving politicians. How do you describe what you were trying to do in that?

Mark:              That’s a very good question. I think they were, in a sense, portraits of people, historical figures who are still with us, of course, including Dick Cheney, who has a different heart than the one he was born with, and as far as I can tell will be with us forever, probably. But they were really portraits some years after the events that made them famous and that made them important in the public realm.

                        They were occasioned by Errol Morris’s “Fog of War”—or I’m sorry, what was the title of it? “Known Unknown,” a film on Donald Rumsfeld. So I started with that and used his memoirs as well and wrote a series of three pieces, then a series of three. There was also a film on Cheney and his memoirs, and a book about his heart troubles, and I did three on that. And then I did, actually, a piece on Robert Gates as well.

                        And I don’t know. They are a little different, I agree. They were done in the New York Review, as a lot of my work has been, and they were kind of historical portraits, I guess you could say.

                        I’ve been reading, the last few days, these collections by Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer of the first half of the 20th century, who did these little books called, you know, they would be called “Five Miniatures,” or “Four Miniatures,” and they’re like nonfiction short stories. They’re quite intriguing just for their implications for genre and what it is. And he will do a piece on Balboa discovering the Pacific. They have no sources—I mean, they have a lot of sources, but the sources aren’t listed. The discovery of the South Pole, Waterloo.

Robert:            And then he did Nietzsche and—

Mark:              Yeah. He did a book which consisted of three portraits, Holderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche. And they’re wonderful. They’re all back in print. Zweig has come back into some kind of fashion. And they’re wonderful and they also, from the point of view of a writer, you think wow, this is an interesting—I mean, basically he’s approaching what seem to be works of journalism/history from the literary side, you know, from the other side. And they’re wonderfully entertaining. They’re very good.

                        So I think it’s true that those pieces are different, and they’re contemporary historical portraits. Theodore Draper, a writer I greatly admire, who wrote for the New York Review for many years, did a book called “Present History.” And I think those are part of that idea of present history.

Robert:            And then there was the writing you did Obama as a political campaigner and Trump as a political campaigner.

Mark:              Yeah. Well, I followed the campaigns as a reporter, I think every presidential one, since 2000. And I had a singular, I like to think of it as a singular method, that was encouraged by Robert Silvers, who I mentioned before, was the editor of the New York Review. And it was simply to go to Florida—usually it was Florida—because all the candidates, because Florida is so central, would end up at the last part of the campaign flying into Florida every day. No matter where else they were in the country, they’d end up in Florida.

                        So I would rent a convertible and drive from rally to rally, and in between would listen to talk radio, and would interview people. And I did that, Obama—actually, Obama I wrote about when he was in Philadelphia. I did a piece called “Obama and Sweet Potato Pie” about his campaign and this raucous, raucous rally where these women started flirting with him from the crowd and yelling that they wanted to make him some pie.

                        He had mentioned he liked sweet potato pie. And you heard, “I’ll make you some pie!” And everybody was kind of yelling at him. And he was very young, you know. It’s hard to remember now, but he was very young, a very attractive guy, and he had groupies. And I was trying to—and it seemed to me that none of the coverage got that across, and the sheer fun of his rallies.

                        And similarly Trump’s rallies were just tremendous events. I mean, they were incredible things, where you’d find yourself at an aircraft hangar with 30,000 people, pushed together so you literally couldn’t move your elbows. You were packed. If you fainted, you wouldn’t fall down, you’d just stay there, and nobody might discover you for some time. And you would stand there for three hours until the man showed up.

                        And it was a fascinating thing. I would interview everybody within my elbow width. And then he would show up, and he’s just this fascinating figure. Incredible to watch him because he speaks in stream of consciousness, which means that you never know what he’s going to say. There’s incredible tension. He’s extremely charismatic and just a fascinating figure.

                        And I was also, at the same time, going to Hillary rallies, who is a disaster as a campaigner. It’s not a secret. Her rallies were very small. We would make a good Hillary rally here. [Laughter.] It wasn’t quite that bad, but, you know, they were small. And she was just very methodical, and she spoke like a schoolteacher.

                        And it seems to me that that’s just one very interesting way to cover a campaign because what you get in the national news is this kind of national conversation which bears very little resemblance to what’s going on on the ground. What’s going on on the ground are these stump speeches interrupted by yelling and hectoring, and of course they rev up speakers, and it’s this carnival aspect, you know, people selling all kinds of swag, you know, shirts, and hats, and key chains, and it’s a carnival, and it’s fascinating to watch.

                        And during an hour speech you will have one line that the candidate will utter, and you will realize, if you’re a reporter, that that’s the line that’s going to make the news, that’s it. That’s the one that’s meant to continue the national conversation. But all the rest of it has no place in the national coverage. So it’s a fascinating thing to me to actually see what’s going on at these rallies.

                        And I always thought, throughout the campaign, that Trump was going to win, even though—but, you know, the polls showed differently, and there was just no comparison between the two campaigns. And he’s a—and he remains a fascinating, crazy figure who dominates our mental lives the way caudillos, the way autocrats do. They own your mind. And he owns our minds. And he has since 2015. And it’s remarkable.

                        People talk about will there be an autocracy. And in fact this characteristic of autocracy is already part of the country. I mean, we’re already there with the fact that we’re dominated by what he does on a given day and by what he says. And there’s a reason he uses Twitter. He inserts himself into the news cycle every day. And it’s funny because I think of my class Portraits in Black that I gave for English, and he would fit in it.

Robert:            What are some of the books you taught in that?

Mark:              I mentioned “The Emperor.” The autobiography of Joseph Stalin. “Señor Presidente,” which is an incredible book by Miguel Angel Asturias. “Akhenaten,” which is a book by Mahfouz.

Robert:            Did you do “Autumn of the Patriarch?”

Mark:              We did do “Autumn of the Patriarch.” “Feast of the Goat,” which is Vargas Llosa. Goodness, I’m doing badly here. We did a book called “The Dictator’s Handbook,” which is actually a nonfiction analysis of how dictatorships work because I thought there needed to be a little bit of theoretical, quote, unquote, theoretical stuff in the class. What else? I’m leaving out several.

Robert:            But on the subject of classes, and then we’ll turn to questions, it interested me that several of your courses have really not had to do, or not overtly had to do—you taught a class on the history of the confession or the memoir, and one on metamorphosis. Starting with Ovid or…?

Mark:              Well, first of all, I’m going to take issue and say the confession class, it seems to me, does have to do with reporting. It’s how you’re creating, through a narrative, a character, your own. And we started with…I guess our first in time was Augustine, but we did Kathryn Harrison, “The Kiss,” which is a contemporary memoir about a woman who had an affair with her father. We did “Abelard and Eloise,” we did Rousseau, we did Oscar Wilde, “De Profundus,” many others.

                        Usually my classes do a book a week. It really was about the creation of a character. I think of it as kind of a journalistic course. But metamorphosis is just a theme I love. We did Ovid, we did “The Golden Ass,” Apuleius; “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Batman,” the first Batman—Batman Year 1 it is. It’s not the first Batman graphic novel, but it’s the beginning, the sort of origin story of that.

                        So I love Ovid. And to me the idea of transformation and metamorphosis is such a part of our culture, you know, our fascination with transformation, with superheroes. And we have this in common with the classical world. Centaurs, you know, they were fascinated by this idea, this dichotomy between gods and human beings and the mixture of the two. There’s a continual, if you go back—Ovid is obvious, but Homer as well, and Hesios. I mean, there’s a great theme of this mixing of kinds of power and kinds of humanity and the godlike. And it seemed to me just a great theme.

                        I try to create something that has a fascinating theme, that’s intriguing, that can go through history, but that also you can compile a reading list that is just great work. It seems to me if you want students to read the large load of reading I assign, then you have to have really good stuff. And that’s why the Tolstoy seminar we gave, we read basically all of Tolstoy’s major work. It was a huge reading burden, but people read it because you get addicted to Tolstoy.

                        And I think metamorphosis is another example where, you know, Ovid is just incredible. Now do people pick up Ovid? No. But if you assign it, they’re going to read it if they’re introduced to it in the right way, I think. So I guess there’s no journalistic explanation for metamorphosis, though, I think.

Robert:            Well, except that we live inside myth, maybe.

Mark:              We do.

Robert:            I recently reread the end of “The Aeneid” and realized it’s kind of a Justice League of America.

Mark:              [Laughs.] That is true. Of course he didn’t finish it, so Virgil would take… He wanted it to be burned after he…supposedly.

Robert:            Well, listen, we should turn to questions from the audience that people have. Yes.

Female:            I have a question about how we detect truth.

Mark:              How we detect what?

Female:            How we detect truth. I’m asking because—this is more a question, perhaps, about radio journalism than sort of print journalism—but I’m sometimes struck when I listen to accounts at how convincing I find some things and not others, and I can’t quite tell why, because there’s the matter of coherence, and there’s matters of detail, and it’s something you [figured out before], but there’s things you feel like you just can’t make out. But the example that I would like to ask you about as something you might comment on is Jeremy Scahill.

Mark:              Mm-hmm.

Female:            I was always convinced by the things that he recounts, and I often wonder what is it that makes it so convincing.

Mark:              Well, I know Jeremy Scahill’s work and I admire it. He is best known for a book called “Dirty Wars.” He did another book on…oh, what’s it called? It’s changed its name several times. The private mercenary company Black…

Male:               Blackwater.

Mark:              Blackwater, thank you. I think it’s now called X Zero or something.

Male:               Yeah, he sold it and he’s now got another company.

Mark:              Right, he’s got Erik Prince, yes, who returns, who’s, of course, small, little known fact, is the brother of our current Secretary of Education.

Male:               [unintelligible] 00:49:53

Mark:              He did, he…well, that’s the thought. That’s what he’s proposing, that he take over Afghanistan, among other things. But anyway. Well, I like…as I say, I admire Jeremy Scahill’s book. In fact “Dirty Wars” was going to be a book in this Bang Bang Abroad class that I’m doing in the journalism school. But I’m not sure…you’re asking why does his stuff seem real?

Female:            Yeah. I just give him as one example. I guess the reason I was interested in this is that do live in a [world] where we’re aware of all kinds of things [feel] manufactured that are actually false, and yet it’s sometimes not so hard to actually distinguish what is truth from what isn’t. And yet I’m not entirely sure what my intuition about that seems to be based on, and in fact I could be wildly long, because how do I know if Jeremy Scahill is making stuff up?

Mark:              Well, it’s an interesting point. The fact is that there are millions and millions of people convinced by what they see on Fox News, and some of those things are false. Some things on MSNBC are false, too. So I think that the idea that one can simply detect falsity by watching carefully is probably false.

Female:            Yes.

Mark:              We all have a kind of master narrative. And MSNBC and Fox News are good examples of master narratives that various people adhere to. Another good master narrative is that Trump could never win the election. And that was pretty much in the New York Times every day, among other things, through polling and through other things. So I don’t know.

                        There’s something called verisimilitude, and that is when something seems true. And there are various tools. It’s like the old Hollywood joke, to succeed in Hollywood what you really need is sincerity, and if you can fake that you’ll be a rich man or whatever. I forget how the joke went. Something like that. But you can fake a lot of these things.

                        I’m always saying to students or to crowds, when we’re talking about journalism, that it’s an illusion to think you can know about the world simply through reading the newspaper or looking at a few websites. You need to do a lot more sleuthing than that, including, very often, looking at books. Which is one of the reasons I like to assign books to students, so they actually are reading books rather than chapters and so on.

                        But I think there’s a weird reality about today which is that there is more and more fake news at the very time that there are more and more easy tools within reach to verify things. There is a vast—you know, you want to read about what’s going on in Iraq, you can read regional papers, you can read papers here. You can read stuff put out by military, NGOs. I mean, there’s an incredible wealth of information around. But you have to have the wherewithal, and the eagerness, and the skepticism to do that.

                        And I’m always telling students you have to read the paper skeptically. When you read something that’s been leaked from the Trump administration, one thing you should be asking is who leaked this? What are they getting out of it? Why did they leak this? Why is this in the paper? And it will help you see beyond the way that the piece is trying to angle you behind it to what we like to call reality, perhaps in some quaint use of the word, I don’t know. But I don’t know if I’ve answered your question.

Male:               I want to play on the truth issue, too, and try to say something that I’ve been disparaging, and not many disparaging it, which is that you guys are old, students are young, I’m a transitional figure. [Laughter.] So I’m thinking back, and it’s the distinction between truth claims of English versus the truth claims of journalism. And I taught the class here in J school where Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was a principal item on the syllabus.

                        And it seems to me that the people younger than me are made even more anxious than they already are when you talk about how entertaining Trump’s rallies were, and how non-entertaining Hillary’s rallies were because they are having trouble realizing that you don’t mean Trump was a better politician than Hillary was, because the criteria by which we evaluate truth is whether it was entertaining or not, as Postman pointed out 20 years ago. That we’ve gotten to a point where they’d say that in the difficulty we’re having of distinguishing what we mean by fake or not fake, what wins is what keeps our attention and seems coherently entertaining.

Mark:              Right.

Male:               You come from book culture. You don’t come from screen culture. People who do come from screen culture are engaging in a really dissonant activity, of saying yeah, you know, he’s got a lot of likes.

Mark:              [Laughs.]

Male:               And so…but something rubs me the wrong way.

Mark:              Well, the first comment—first of all, I think that’s a very interesting comment. I admire Postman’s book. He sees as the true dystopia not Orwell, but Aldous Huxley. I remember that well. And I gave a course—actually, I didn’t mention it here—on utopia also in the English Department, where we read Huxley.

                        I think my coverage about Trump made it very clear that his entertainment value, which is undeniable, made him more of a threat as a politician. And I saw that threat as related to his entertainment value, to the fact that the larger culture, and particularly the commercial culture, the culture of commercial journalism, embraced him and in effect made him President.

Male:               Yeah. Les Moonves said I don’t know if it’s good for the country, but it’s good for CBS.

Mark:              Exactly. I don’t know whether he’s good for the country, but he’s very good for CBS. And it’s a great quote, and God bless him for saying it because I quoted it in the first piece I did on Trump. And this is the great paradox, among other things, since we’re talking about truth in journalism, of commercial journalism, that the presumption is that what you choose as the lead, which is, in a sense, the Edenic act of journalism, right, choosing the lead—what is the news, what’s important out of all of these sense impressions we’re getting, what’s the thing that we choose, that’s the journalistic act at the beginning—the presumption is that you make that choice based on objective criteria about what’s important, which has to do with public interest. It has to do with a number of things that we can talk about.

                        And the fact, what was proven in the last election, in 2016, is that the entertainment value and the attraction of eyeballs to the screen—because the New York Times is on the screen now, and many, many more people see it on the screen, and the Washington Post and other journalistic stalwarts of our culture—they judged the lead—and I’m going to make a loose, but I think accurate statement—by how many eyeballs it drew.

                        If you were Donald Trump and you went to Columbus, Ohio and did a rally, by God, it was going to be broadcast live on cable TV and it was going to be covered as if it was this major event on the front page, and it was going to get much more coverage than Hillary’s stuff would.

Robert:            Or John Kasich’s analysis of the budget.

Mark:              Yeah. Much more than, needless to say, and thank God for that.

Robert:            Right.

Mark:              But it would get much more. Why? Because it attracted eyeballs. And Trump said, it couldn’t have been more than a month ago, but it seems like years, that I’ll win in 2020. Why? Because the press won’t be able to part with me because I’m making them so much money they won’t be able to part with me. Now I think that analysis is wrong about him winning, but I think the premise is right, which is that he is making a lot of money for a lot of people, and we have a commercial press. And there is a contradiction between a commercial press and the ideals of journalism that it is supposed to support. And we’re dealing with that in all sorts of ways.

                        And there’s also the fact, as we’ve been reminded the past few days with Mr. Zuckerberg before Congress, that the distribution mechanism for the press in this country now comes down to two companies, Facebook and Google. They are how we distribute news. And they’re not professional journalists. You know, they’re not journalism. But they determine how Americans get their news in their majority.

                        And again, they’re about eyeballs. So eyeballs used to be, you know, TV news was about eyeballs, but you had the fairness doctrine put in place, in effect, in the ‘30s to balance that out. But that was gotten rid of by Ronald Reagan and it’s ancient, so there’s no… I mean, it’s interesting that it hasn’t really been brought up, the fairness doctrine, although maybe I missed it in the past few days with Zuckerberg. Anyway, I’m not sure I answered you with that, but…

Male:               I was very interested in what you, the Polish journalist, or not so much journalist that you were discussing earlier.

Mark:              Kapuscinski.

Male:               Mm-hmm. And I was interested in what you think about—you mentioned a parable, which may not be all the way like journalistic ethics, but at the same time it could be completely true. And so I was wondering what you think the role of the parable in journalism is now and then the role of journalism in something more like literature and the tendency to confuse people about [unintelligible] 01:00:40.

Mark:              Well, that’s a great question. I benefited greatly by the various mentors I’ve had in my life, and one of the most valuable to me was Frank Kermode, who I met when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and he was delivering the Norton Lectures, which came to be the book “The Genesis of Secrecy,” which is a book about parable, as much as anything, and about its analysis in text, not just the Bible, although much of it is about the Bible, but in other texts, including contemporary texts like Henry Green’s novels and various other things.

                        You know, parable is a compressed, small story that has a symbolic character. That’s one way to put it. Or you can say simply that the story can be unraveled almost infinitely. In other words, it doesn’t have a set content. It has a way of unraveling and forming the subject of argument and discussion. It is also, in so being, a teaching tool, right? And we know them best as the parables in the New Testament, in particular.

                        I think Kapuscinski, in, for example, “Shah of Shahs” writes about the moment in which a repressive regime faces a demonstration and the police come out with their truncheons and say to the crowd, or say, to make it a parable, to a man at the edge of the crowd, get the hell back to your house or I’m going to beat the hell out of you. And there is a moment, at some point in a revolution, where that man declines to move. And once that man declines to move, the man next to him declines to move, and the woman next to him declines to move, and suddenly you have this illusion of ultimate power, which is ultimate power, because the illusion is it, has dissipated.

                        Now he tells this story in “Shah of Shahs,” and you have to ask, as a journalist, who’s that guy? Wait, who? Where? What demonstration was it? What did he say? How old was he? Where did he come from? And in fact, that man might exist, but he’s unknown to the author. So it becomes, in effect, a parable about power.

                        Now the question is, is this journalistically permissible? And my answer to that would be yes. He’s somebody who famously covered, I mean, Kapuscinski, 23 revolution and coups d’état. I have no idea where that number came from. But he’s telling you something about what he knows, and he’s in Tehran. But did he meet that person? He probably never did.

                        So what kind of truth value do we give that little story? And I would say it’s a parable about power. And I would say it has a perfect right to be in that book. And if we are, as journalists, worried about it, we ought to lighten up. But I can see how people would be worried about it. Does that answer your question?

Male:               Yes.

Mark:              I recommend that Kermode book. It’s fantastic.

Robert:            We can take one more question. Peter.

Male:               I’d like to go back to El Mozote and link it to what we’ve been saying about from today. First of all, is it true, the urban legend in the ‘80s, that Ray Bonner covered the massacre, and it was briefly in the Times, and then the Times fired Ray Bonner because they [unintelligible] 01:04:44. Is that true?

Mark:              Largely. It’s a kind of parable. [Laughter.]

Male:               Is it true enough to wonder why the New York Times has the credibility that it still has in the eyes of all the other media?

Mark:              Well, I can talk about that for a minute. Ray Bonner is a very well known journalist from the New York Times who was covering Central America in the ‘80s. He had been a Nader’s Raider. He was never actually trained as a journalist. But because they didn’t have anybody in a bureau there, he suddenly kind of got this job. It’s a complicated story. But the editor of the Times, Abe Rosenthal, who was kind of a legendary figure in his own right, didn’t really trust him.

                        He did cover the massacre, as did Alma Gillermoprieto, who was working for the Washington Post. They both published, on the same day, front page pieces about the massacre, on those two most prominent newspapers in the United States. An amazing story that that happened. Ray was subsequently fired, not as a direct result of that reporting, but as a kind of cumulative result of a number of stories he did, including one about torture where he essentially got it wrong.

                        When I went and covered El Mozote, those two reporters, Alma and Ray, both happened to be on the staff of The New Yorker at the time. In fact, Alma was first asked to cover El Mozote and she said she’s never going back to El Salvador, ever, so it devolved to me.

                        I tried to nail the story down about why Abe fired Ray, and began this round of calling all of the senior editors who had been at the Times at the time who were people that now, most of them, weren’t at the Times anymore. They were running foundations, they were running the Council on Foreign Relations, they were very accomplished and powerful people in their own right.

                        And all of them, to a man—and they were all men—admitted that Abe fired Ray because he was too lefty, basically. None of them, even though they were completely separate from the Times, they were independent and so on, had the intestinal fortitude to go on the record, so I had trouble actually asserting this. Even so, when the piece came out, I got a very angry phone call from Abe Rosenthal, whom I had talked to, and I just picked up the phone and heard, RR-RR-RR-RR-RR! This kind of mad dog on the other end. And I finally put the—I mean, I knew it was him, but he wouldn’t let me speak. But he was very, very angry at me.

                        Now you say about the reputation of the Times, and all I can say is, when you look at the Times’ reputation, they did, indeed, get the story right. He published Ray Bonner’s piece. Now firing him later—it wasn’t as a direct result of that piece—had a strong effect, no question about it, on the press corps in El Salvador because Ray was the leading figure there.

                        You know, he was New York Times. He would get up at 5:00 in the morning and run ten miles, and he was an absolutely dogged reporter. And suddenly, when your newspaper basically says we don’t trust anymore and fires you, that, to everyone else in the press corps, says that they’re on thin ice, too, so it had a very significant effect on the coverage of the Salvadoran civil war, firing him.

Male:               I think [unintelligible] 01:08:30. I’m very glad to have the clarification.

Mark:              But I think El Mozote probably contributed.

Male:               But here we are in a situation where the country is polarized between the people who believe Fox News and the people who believe the New York Times, and where are the people who shouldn’t be believing either?

Mark:              Well, you know, I hope some of them are on this campus, and I hope some of them are in my classes. And I don’t know. It’s a good question. I think wherever they are, their number is diminishing. I think that is certainly true. I think the effect of the Trump administration on the Times is as significant as it’s been on Fox News. I think the Times has become more partisan. The Washington Post, which has done great work, has become more partisan. The notion of objectivity and rules-based journalism and so on has taken a major beating.

                        On the other hand, Trump, by leaking, you know, the major leaker in this administration is the President. I mean, at the end of the day he calls a lot of people and they talk to the press. And that’s basically a lot of the stories, and then it’s in the paper the next day. So he’s dominating the leaks, among other things.

                        But I don’t know the answer to your question. As I say, I think there’s a tragic dimension here, which is that there are the means by which to seek out more of the truth yourself, but it takes a certain degree of work and doggedness. And in fact we’re becoming, all of us, more partisan because of the effect of the big man. We live in the realm of the big man now. And whether he’s speaking, his voice is music to your ears or it’s this threatening, raspy sound of the jailer coming after you, he dominates what you hear, and that’s not good for everybody.

Robert:            He’s more a scary clown than a jailer, right?

Male:               One more question.

Robert:            Okay, one more question.

Female:            Just to follow up on that, I mean, I guess I would like to hear more about what are the means that we can use because it used to be that you could just read more news stories. But it seems to me that one effect of the contemporary media market is that one news source reports what another news source says, so there’s only repetition. And then if there’s anything about FOIA requests and things like that. I mean, you can’t even get a straight answer from [unintelligible] 01:11:06 when you ask them a question.

Mark:              Yeah.

Female:            Like [they say] we don’t have that information, or it’s in draft form, and you can’t have it, so I don’t know how you ask [unintelligible] 01:11:15

Mark:              Well, I think you make a very good point. I think there are two points. I mean, at the same time as you have a proliferation of outlets and of sources on the web and so on, the reliability goes down, partisanship goes up. There is the fact that you get… There is almost immediately the search warrant for Michael Cohen. There is, almost immediately, these kind of primary documents that you can see and search out and make judgments of your own. I think that is quite valuable.

                        It’s not always true. You’re completely right about that. But it is much more significantly true than it was 30 years ago. Maybe less true than it was five years ago, perhaps. There are a lot of news outlets, but not as many trustworthy ones. But I think you can kind of, as it were, what’s the word, kind of use intersecting fire, as it were, to try to seek out things.

                        I think the second point I agree with, that they’re shutting down FOIA requests. I don’t think this will be permanent. But it is true that it’s a lot harder to get information out of this government. I think that will start to change if the 2018 elections go to the Democrats. I think that’s one of the things that they will, through oversight, will start to change about the way the government is functioning. But it’s a very bad situation, I agree. I think there’s a kind of cutting off of significant information.

                        On the other hand, you still do have inspectors general in all the departments. What you have now is a kind of war between those people and the new overseers. That’s one of the reasons we’re getting a significant amount of news, because of that conflict. So I think the election, I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to know that November is going to be the most important midterm elections in our lifetimes, without a doubt.

Robert:            Mark, thank you so much. [Applause.]

Mark:              Thank you. Thanks.

Mark Danner in conversation with Robert Hass at UC Berkeley.

Return to the Speaking Page

© 2022 Mark Danner