Through the Eyes of the Beholden

When I read Kathy Gannon’s series about women in Pakistan, I accidentally began at the finish and worked my way back to the start. The backwards view gave me a strange perspective on the culture I was reading about. Rather than reaching the end with hope, understanding that the wheel of change grinds slowly and painfully, I reached the end with a sense of sadness, forced to face the reality that the human race is forever susceptible to self-delusion.

Gannon and her editors took great pains to remain as disinterested as possible, and to share both sides of the equation. They couldn’t be pristinely unbiased while they told a story with a point of view, of course, but they were able to present both sides of the story without spin, giving the reader a chance to analyze the mind of the assailants. Each story (I’ll go chronologically this time) presented its own challenges to disinterested reporting:

  • The first story highlighted how even rapists and acid-throwing monsters are given more consideration than the women they attack. A woman raped is considered to be more shamed than her attacker. The AP explains why they named the victim up front, and carefully pieces the story together with a series of factual statements and primary-source quotes.
  • The second story tells of honor killings. The story paints a picture of a mother who felt she had no choice but to kill her youngest daughter, to save the family’s honor. Gannon used the words of the people involved to paint the heart-rending picture, and she did not shy away from presenting the other side of the story: The attackers felt so duty-bound by their religious and cultural traditions that the murders – in their eyes – were practically self-defense.
  • The third story, about the mandatory 25-year sentence for honor-killing, takes pains to explain that law reflects culture as much as culture reflects law. The mindset of conservative families who feel duty-bound to put their honor above their humanity can’t simply be outlawed, unless the culture evolves along with the law.
  • The fourth story explains the roles of two women – one conservative, one liberal – who worked separately to gain passage for the bill discussed in the third story. Gannon could have taken more time sharing the liberal angle – the low hanging fruit – but she dug deeper into the conservative angle, sharing a perspective that would be decidedly unpopular on liberal social media.
  • The fifth and sixth stories could have been presented as the primary catalyst behind getting the bill passed: the honor-killing of Qandeel Balach. Gannon could have easily played up the notoriety of the story – like many other media outlets did – and how the story got the world’s attention. But she didn’t. It would have been easy to paint a picture of the cute Instagram girl whose brother strangled her for no reason. Instead, she told the story of her father, who loved her and did not recoil against her Western ways. She told her brother’s story, recounting how he was taunted mercilessly by his coworkers until he felt – like the mother in the first story – as if he had no choice. Gannon didn’t shy away from presenting the victim’s own foibles, or paint her as an innocent martyr. Rather than tell the already viral, processed story, she took great care – and great pains – to present the story with its whole grain intact.
  • Many media entities would have published the final story elsewhere, thinking it was a bit anticlimactic. Coming after the sensational murder of Balach and the other recounted atrocities, perhaps it was – but Gannon went after it with the same aplomb and dedication she brought to every story, and the AP published it in the same series. In many ways I was most impressed with Gannon on this story, because her reporting placed her in the sort of danger that must have given her post-traumatic nightmares.

I’m sure you know the old saying – I learned it following baseball reporters – about journalists “keeping their elbows out” of their stories. I kept thinking of that saying while I read the series. Gannon’s role in the series is far too big for me to waste a few words trying – and failing – to capture, so I’ll leave that alone except to share my wonder at how she was able to dig so deeply into such a muddy pit and come out with her elbows clean.

The gist of the series is frightening. These people aren’t anthropological fossils, bound inside the peeling pages of some forgotten history book. Had her murder happened a few months later, Qandeel Balach would have been a budget line. Gannon painted a detailed, honest and graphic picture of the mindset behind every action; a thoughtful reader could not help transferring the words “tradition,” “honor” and “shame” to events far closer to home. The people of rural Pakistan could be the people of rural West Virginia, or rural Ohio. Or rural Washington.

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The 2016 election cycle – a timeline of quick takes

Sep. 21, 2015

I like Bernie Sanders. Bread and circuses candidates are always popular; I mean, who doesn’t like free bread and circuses?

Sep. 28

The latest wisdom … Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz will face off in the end or – if a two-man race doesn’t happen – there will be a brokered convention.

I think I’d enjoy a brokered convention. Watching the Republican Party split apart like a fat guy’s pants at Golden Corral might be fun.

Oct. 31

Church burn is like freezer burn. The brains of church burn victims are so brain-scrubbed with a wire brush of moral imperatives that they can’t handle the fact that nuns masturbate. Most of ‘em can’t handle the fact that nuns menstruate.

Dec. 27

I thought this was going to be a republican year – it’s their turn – but there has to be somebody to vote for. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz aren’t electable unless the country loses its collective mind, and Marco Rubio will be exposed as a political fraud if the public ever gets to know him.

Dec. 28

Can we put training wheels on the White House?

Jan. 22

The only way Bernie Sanders can win the democratic nomination is to win decisively. He’s a liberal, but he isn’t a democrat. They ain’t giving the Democratic Party bus keys to an independent without a fight.

Jan. 29

Al Gore is about as charismatic as a hall monitor, But he’s more charismatic than Hillary Clinton.

Jan. 31

Donald Trump is one of those guys, like Charles Barkley, who isn’t censored by the media. He can say whatever he wants to say, because he has established that he will.

Feb. 1

Iowans listen to speakers who appeal to their senses of reason, decency and self-interest, right before they vote. This is not an ideal system for a guy like Trump, who needs people to vote with their spleens.

Feb. 2

Ben Carson may look like Morgan Freeman’s little brother, but he sounds like Tracy Morgan’s drunk uncle.

Feb. 4

Bernie Sanders is like a ballpark vendor; his dogs are 80 percent pork and 20 percent libertarians.

Feb. 18

Chicken and waffles is the greatest invention of my lifetime.

Feb. 28

The Great Republican Temper Tantrum, now in its eighth year, turned the conservative voting base so blindly angry that they need an angry candidate to get it up. As a result, we’re stuck with Daffy Duck Rubio, Yosemite Sam Cruz, and the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man.

If these are all the choices we get, we need a special rule: don’t give the winner the launch codes. Give him the number to a pizza place, and when it rings the pizza guy can run over to the White House and smother him with a pillow. You’re welcome.

Feb. 29

Tea Party ideology is a substance so hard it can cut diamonds.

March 2

If Chris Christie was part of the Manson Family, he would be more Leslie Van Houten than Susan Adkins. He doesn’t want to kill us; he just wants to watch.

March 7

A reality show celebrity is squared off against a couple of overbearing, first-generation Hispanics in the republican primary?

March 8

Donald Trump has married two immigrants, and he is threatening to build a fence to keep the rest of ’em out. You can take it from there.

March 9

I don’t know if Trump is a racist, but he is attracting racist flies like David Duke’s septic tank.

March 26

Is this election going to be remembered as the old white guy battle of the bulge? There is a huge block of angry old white men who would rather be boiled in oil than vote for Hillary Clinton. By 2020, a bunch of them are going to be dead or slurping jello through the holes in their sheets.

March 31

Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney both need to be ranked ahead of John Kasich as potential Ted Cruz alternatives. Kasich is down the list a ways, between the dead guy who won Missouri a couple of elections ago and the guy who empties the convention garbage cans.

April 1

There is no way in hell we will see Marco Rubio as the vice presidential candidate on any ticket; he is toxic to the ballot. He was handed the keys to the party a month ago, and he tanked in the polls like he was wearing lead underwear.

April 6

The establishment wing of the Republican Party has left the building. Foghorn Leghorn is sitting this one out.

April 20

Trump is going to pivot? Listen to reason? Calm down? What are you guys smoking?

Donald Trump does not pivot. He does not do anything measured, or balanced, or polished, or prepped. He is going to keep bullying, selling and insulting until he gets what he wants.

There will be no brokered deals between Donald Trump the Republican Party. They do not like each other. The only deal Trump will sign is for the White House – which he’ll immediately sell to Shelton Adelson so he can make a bid on the Taj Mahal.

May 3

The canary dropped dead on Ted Cruz when Paul Ryan gave his “leave me out of this” speech. Ryan was the last hope for the GOP’s establishment wing, the anchorman pulling on the #Nevertrump rope. When Ryan announced he wanted nothing to do with the party’s nomination, he left the establishment hopefuls staring straight down the barrel at Ted Cruz.

Medusa wishes she could inspire the recoil that caused.

June 8

Trump thinks the world is too politically correct; this is his excuse for the racist rumblings from the alt+right. Broccoli is kind of boring. Should we feed our kids whiskey for lunch?

June 11

Disillusionment maybe color-blind, but Trump’s supporters are not.

June 27

The operative word in “Radical Islam” isn’t Islam, it’s radical. Radical Christianity is the exact same thing, just with different colored sheets.

June 29

The alt+right is an easy target these days, with all the racist garbage spewing out of Breitbart, but the left is no better if it fights hate with hate.

July 5

I’m sure Trump has figured out lots of ways to say “Hillary is a poopy head” – and we are about to hear them all.

July 14

Ten bucks says the GOP will be publicly backing Trump by the end of the month. What choice do they have?

July 17

One lie can get you in trouble – ask Hillary Clinton about her emails, or Bill Clinton about his affairs – but a constant stream of lies becomes impossible to keep up with. It’s the difference between having bad breath and holding court in the sewer. You eventually lose your sense of smell. Lies and truth become the same thing. Welcome to Trump Tower.

July 18

When one side is mediocre but the other side is a dumpster fire, mediocre starts looking pretty good.

July 20

Is there such a thing as a terror-a-phobe? It’s reasonable to look both ways before crossing a street, sure – but it isn’t reasonable to outlaw busses the first time someone forgets.

July 27

Explaining nuance to a Trump voter is like painting Helen Keller’s house. She won’t see the color, she’ll just smell the new paint and know something happened that smells funny.

July 28

Donald Trump occasionally says something true and I feel a little empty inside, like I watched the Daytona 500 and nobody crashed.

Aug. 9

Donald Trump has said more nice things about Vladimir Putin this week than he’s said about his own country in a year.

Oct. 9

My favorite moment during the debate was when Trump said “I’m a gentleman” and the audience burst out laughing.

Oct. 20

The establishment wing of the GOP is going to spend the next four years explaining to the left why they put party over country, and explaining to the right why they put country over party.

Oct. 21

I don’t think the GOP has to denounce the alt+right in some big mea culpa, necessarily, but they need to stop being the alt+right’s bitch.

Oct. 23

The gullible masses don’t understand their own needs well enough to vote for them.

Swing Thoughts: Dizzy Dean’s pitching motion

based on footage from Vintage Baseball’s YouTube page

June 13, 2016

Dizzy Dean leaned forward to take the sign, his hands jostling for position in the crude, tiny leather mitt on his left hand while his elbows performed a lazy, distracted chicken dance in the folds of his wool jersey shirt. Once the catcher gave the sign he was happy with he nodded, took a step back with his right foot and swung his arms together, stretching for the sky above his rakishly tilted cap.

He then lurched forward, returning to earth in a grand, sweeping bow, both arms swinging behind him as if he were a bird taking flight. Coming out of his bow, he brought his hands around and gave himself a hearty handshake before reaching for the sky once again, jamming his his left foot in the soft clay beside the rubber as a brace, so he could plant his right foot squarely against the slab.

Ole’ Diz then swiveled his hips clockwise, bringing his hands down as he kicked his left leg up, as if he was trying to kick the glove off his own hand. His body continued in a purposeful half-circle until the batter could read the number on the back of his uniform. Dean hesitated for a split-second, his arm fully extended and pointing directly at the second baseman, the ball dangling from the splayed fingers of his right hand.

As he swiveled back around and kicked his left leg towards the plate, Diz cocked his right arm behind his ear and delivered the ball with his hand close to his body, as if to deliver a forearm shiver. His entire body sprung forward, generating velocity without putting any undue strain on his arm.

To the naked eye, Dizzy Dean had a violent, theatrical, herky-jerky motion – full of wild and violent swings – but his underlying mechanics were sound and efficient. In other words, Ole’ Diz’ pitching mechanics, like the Arkansas Hummingbird himself, were slicker than they looked.

Chasing a Ring

December 4, 2016 (excerped from a previous article)

Do we visualize Willie, Mickey and the Duke, Joe DiMaggio and Ken Griffey Jr. when we think about centerfielders? I do, and it muddies my judgment. I wind up comparing every new centerfielder to the very best who ever played, and I lose perspective. I forget what a good center fielder actually looks like. It’s like reading a Victoria’s Secret catalogue right before going on a blind date.

I forget how good some of these guys are – and so do major league front offices. Mike Cameron, Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds and Johnny Damon, all in their 30s, keep bouncing around the league like itinerate workers but they keep landing on winning teams. Once the season is over, though, they have to pack up and move on to make room for some hot young prospect who has no idea how to play major league baseball yet.

These 30-something centerfielders are baseball’s truck stop waitresses.  Nobody wants to marry one, but they can keep a team awfully warm out there in center field after their hot young prospect doesn’t pan out. You would think somebody would figure this out – sign one of these guys to a long term deal and be done with it – but nobody ever does. Cameron, Lofton, Edmonds and Damon will be on new teams again next year, looking for love – or at the very least a two-year contract – in all the wrong places.

The Little Red-haired Girl

The Little Red Haired Girl

May 11, 2016

During American Idol’s season nine audition rounds, judge Kara Dioguardi gave a serious, meaningful look to a skinny, freckled, ginger-haired hippy girl and said, “You’re great!” with such emphasis that I figured the little hipster in the granny glasses was going to be one of the stars of the season. Several weeks went by, though, without another sighting of the little red-haired girl. I didn’t know who she was, or even if she could sing, but I needed to know what happened to this kid, this would-be Kelly Clarkson who was on the Idol air for about five seconds.

Who was she? What did they do with her? Were they saving her? Did she get dumped in the first week of Hollywood? Did she even exist? Had the producers mixed a couple of different videos together to make it look like Kara was looking at this little red haired girl when she was ogling Casey James?

Finally, on group night, there she was, singing beautifully. For about two seconds.  She forgot her words and she was gone. Just like that. Two seconds of airtime, not even enough to superimpose a graphic with her name, age and hometown on the screen. I felt like I was Charlie Brown, watching the bus drive away with the little red-haired girl and I’d never know her name.

Later in season nine, while I was putting together my annual research article, I found out that the little red-haired girl was in fact Columbia College, Missouri student Kelsey Madsen, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Last week, researching an Idol update, I found out that she graduated from Columbia College in 2012. Kara looked at her admiringly sometime in the summer of 2009, and she flashed across my plasma screen in 2010.

I found this video on YouTube. It’s Ms. Madsen, singing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t no Sunshine” for a recital during her senior year at Columbia. I don’t want to oversell the video; she’s good, but she ain’t Carrie Underwood. But we finally get to hear her sing for more than two seconds. Boy, is she skinny.

According to her Facebook page, Kelsey is singing for the Carnival Cruise line. I didn’t dig any deeper than that; I don’t want the FBI coming after me, wondering what the hell is so fascinating about Kelsey Madsen.

Wherever you are out there, little red-haired girl, I wish you luck and happiness. And thanks for providing me and my blog several weeks of sleep depriving angst, trying to figure out if you were as good as Kara DioGuardi said you were, or just a random bump in the night. As it turned out, you were both.

 

Crying Wolf

Who cried wolf?

There has never been an easier question to answer. Who cried wolf? Well, who has done 98 percent of the crying since last summer?

Blame the media if you prefer, but the media is just us, telling each other what’s going on. In the Twitter/Instagram/Facebook world, we are literally the media.

Even the biggies, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, are reduced to being loudspeakers for Donald Trump’s constant crying stream because that’s the only thing we really pay attention to on a scale large enough to move their meters.

—–

Mixed in with Trump’s daily rants, this has been the low hum of the election cycle, repeated over, and over, and over, and over again through the media’s traffic-driven stream for over a year:

Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”

——–

Then, after the primaries were done, the narrative shifted to the democrats:

Donald Trump said “Crooked Hillary is why America is in terrible shape”
Donald Trump said “Vote for me to stop crooked Hillary”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”
Donald Trump said “Crooked Hillary is why America is in terrible shape”
Donald Trump said “Vote for me to stop crooked Hillary”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”
Donald Trump said “Crooked Hillary is why America is in terrible shape”
Donald Trump said “Vote for me to stop crooked Hillary”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to Make America Great Again”
Donald Trump said “Immigrants are rapists”
Donald Trump said “I am going to fix everything”
Donald Trump said “I’m going to punch the world in the nose for you”

—–

Before you blame the media, remember that the media is us, telling each other the news.

We have short attention spans, so we beg for more news about Trump and we don’t care that it’s the same story every day. We are lazy, so we don’t take the time to make sure we know the facts when a story gets complicated.

Donald Trump, whose only real talent is his ability to sell, uses classic sales tactics to take advantage of our laziness and our short attention spans.

He keeps his own narrative simple and he repeats himself, over and over, until the message is in everyone’s head.

To muddy his competition’s message, he tells complicated lies about them because he knows we’ll be too lazy to do our homework.

His final tactic is to brand his opponent with a simple, easily remembered, negative nickname (Crooked Hillary).

It’s a simple but devastating combination, and it is frighteningly effective. Trump is, in effect, hypnotizing us.

Our only defense against this hypnotic, repetitive mantra is to snap our collective fingers and wake up from the hypnotizing sales spell he’s put us under.

Donald Trump is not crying truth, people. America is already great.

Donald Trump is crying wolf.

Steamer Trunks and Ink Stained Bloomers

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blyHer name was fake, but the ink-stained wretch in the monogrammed bloomers was real. Let’s face it; she had to be. Her tale fails miserably as a work of fiction. It’s too pat, too perfect. No self-respecting publisher would buy it.

Nellie Bly was thrust into poverty at an early age, during a period in American history when even educated, advantaged women lived in the shadows of their husbands. And yet she changed the world, invented everything and made herself a household name. It’s preposterous. All of it.

Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. She was the thirteenth of Judge Michael Cochran’s fifteen children. Cochran’s Mills, formerly Pitts’ Mills, was renamed for Judge Cochran in 1855, five years after he was elected associate justice of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. In addition to his duties as a justice, Judge Cochran was a store owner, mill operator, and real estate speculator. Young Elizabeth’s family called her “Pink” for her brightly colored dresses.

Pink’s father provided his enormous family a comfortable living, but he died when Pink was six; he neglected to leave behind a will. The family’s assets were auctioned off and split among the judge’s many heirs; Pink’s mother was left with a small annuity and a negligible allowance for her minor children.

Forced to move and desperately short of money, Pink’s mother married John Jackson Ford in 1873. Ford was abusive, and they divorced in 1879. Testifying on her mother’s behalf, 15-year-old Pink recounted her stepfather’s brutality in open court.

Pink learned to read and write in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Apollo, Pennsylvania. At fifteen she dropped her childhood nickname, changed her surname from Cochran to Cochrane – possibly for legal reasons, but more likely because she didn’t know how to spell her own name – and enrolled at the State Normal School in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Her college experience was short-lived. Her mother lost a lawsuit regarding her father’s will, and Elizabeth ran out of money before she was able to complete her first semester. Her formal education at an end, Elizabeth joined her mother and her older half-brothers, Albert and Charles, in Allegheny City, a suburb of Pittsburgh, in 1880. Little is known about the next few years of her life.

Elizabeth popped back into the public record in 1885. Under the pseudonym “Little Orphan Girl,” she wrote a scathing response to what she perceived to be a sexist editorial by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The Dispatch managing editor, George Madden, impressed by her lively writing style, placed an ad in the January 17, 1885 edition, asking “Little Orphan Girl” to reveal herself. Elizabeth appeared in Madden’s office the next day, and Madden made her his newspaper’s first-ever female reporter.

Her first article, “The Girl Puzzle,” appeared in the paper on January 25, 1885 under the byline, “Orphan Girl.” Madden felt Elizabeth needed a more permanent pen name; someone walked by his door, whistling an old Stephen Foster song – accounts disagree on the identity of the whistler – and Madden’s little orphan girl became Nellie Bly.

Bly wasn’t a polished writer, but she quickly built a reputation for the vivid, compelling characters that lept from the pages of her fiery prose. First drawing on her own life, she called for women’s rights advocates to put their money where their mouths were, and suggested that men of poor character should not be allowed to marry. Once she had her feet set, she embarked on a serious of eight articles about conditions in the Pittsburgh slums, focusing on the plight of working-class women.

The series was controversial; Bly generated sympathy when she described the poor working conditions, but her ribald tales of drunken promiscuity garnered less charitable reactions from the paper’s Victorian audience. Madden, bowing to pressure from conservative readers, sent Bly to the woman’s desk and told her to focus on feminine issues. Chafing against her gender-protected yoke, Bly started a weekly column in which, among other things, she agitated for a women’s version of the YMCA.

Bly’s column, and her subsequent employment at the Dispatch, was short lived. There are a number of differing versions of her exit from the Dispatch. According to Laurie Delaney, when Bly bumped egos with established Dispatch columnist Bessie Bramble, arguing that Bramble’s favored Women’s Christian Association “did not do enough for working women,” Bramble got the uppity young columnist booted back to the woman’s beat. Bly resigned her position with the paper shortly afterwards. According to Lea Ann Brown, who did not go into specifics – or mention Bramble – Bly simply tired of the woman’s beat and talked Madden into sending her to Mexico for sun, fun, and a story she could sink her teeth into. According to Bly, in her book Six Months in Mexico, she was in Mexico as a correspondent for the Dispatch.

old nellyBly originally traveled to Mexico City with her mother, but her mother fell ill and Nellie sent her home, “defying conventions of the period that frowned on unescorted women.”

Bly traveled the countryside freely, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of American poet Joaquin Miller. She learned to speak a good bit of Spanish, and she found ways to communicate with villagers who spoke in regional dialects – Spanish mixed with tribal tongues.

Bly wrote extensively about Mexican customs, food, and weather, along with a number of other subjects that any travel writer would cover, but she also wrote unflinching exposés when she uncovered corruption, up to and including the top levels of the Mexican government. When word of her Dispatch articles trickled back into Mexico, Bly was forced to leave the country.

When Bly returned to Pittsburgh, she decided that she was ready for a larger challenge. So, in the summer of 1887, armed with her press clippings and little else – she had less than $100 to her name – she moved to New York. Bly believed that her reporting style fit perfectly with the stated mission of Joseph Pulitzer’s World. She spent most of the next few months at the World offices, trying to get in to see Pulitzer and his managing editor, John Cockerill, but she was continually rebuffed.

After being mugged in Central Park – and robbed of her savings – Bly was forced into a make-or-break, final assault on the World offices. She held the offices under siege for three hours before an opening presented itself. While the guards were arguing over what to do with her, Bly simply walked past them into Pulitzer’s office, where Pulitzer and Cockerill were taking a meeting. The men were impressed with her pluck as well as her portfolio. She wasn’t hired at once, but she was given a retainer to tide her over until they figured out what to do with her.

In September, Cockerill gave Bly the assignment that would make her famous and establish her reputation as an investigative reporter. She was to fake insanity and get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. After a night spent practicing her insane look in a mirror, she took a room in a working girl’s home and put on a show. Nellie Bly became Nellie Brown – plus, for a short time, Nellie Moreno when a judge mistook her for Cuban when she responded to him in broken Spanish – and convinced everyone around her that she was amnesiac and unhinged. Transferred to the asylum, she immediately dropped her insane persona and returned to her normal manner so as to avoid the appearance of “baiting” the guards into action. She lived in the asylum for ten days before the World came and got her out. The series of articles she wrote for the World ultimately became her book, Ten Days in a Madhouse.

nellie olderIn her article series, Bly described the conditions in the asylum, and the treatment inmates received from the staff. She described baths of ice-cold water, filthy clothing, threadbare blankets, and spoiled food. The rooms had no heat, and the inmates were forced to get through the nights with a single blanket. The staff used violence to control the population, administering beatings to inmates who acted out. She recounted how inmates were forced to sit still for hours on end; they were not allowed to talk, read, or interact in any way with other people. She expressed the opinion that a sane person, forced to live in such conditions, would go insane within a few months. She believed that many of the inmates, especially the ones who could not speak English well, may have been sane when they were admitted. Bly had dropped her insane act as soon as she entered the asylum, but nobody had noticed. After her release, which the Asylum fought, Bly called the Blackwood Island asylum “The human rat-trap, easy to get into, impossible to get out of.” An official inquiry and Grand Jury investigation directed the State of New York to earmark an additional $1 million per year towards the asylum, to upgrade the conditions and inmate care.

The World hired Bly as a fulltime reporter, and Bly’s eyes, ears, pen, and magnifying glass went to work, rooting out corruption wherever she could find it. She went after employment bureaus, arguing for the regulation on both sides of the employment equation. Hers was one of the first voices calling for fair labor practices, at the front end of what became a major labor movement. She spread gallons of ink in defense of working women, going after factories, sweatshops and schools, who promised big things for working girls but failed to deliver. She uncovered a baby-selling ring, conducted interviews with such subjects as Women’s Suffrage Party presidential candidate Belva Lockwood, Buffalo Bill, John L. Sullivan, and the wives of presidents U.S. Grant, James Garfield, and James Polk. She went undercover as a lobbyist and successfully bribed “The Fox,” Edward R. Phelps, who was known as “the King of the lobbyists.” She even trained elephants, though their corruption wasn’t considered a crime to anyone wearing waterproof shoes. She put her life in danger time and time again, exposing herself to malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis, and a number of dangerous animals – most of them on two legs.

megg merrilies

A “Meg Merilee”

Bly’s success as a stunt reporter led to a long, roaring river of imitators, many of whom were put to work by the World. Ada Patterson, from the St. Louis Dispatch, was called “the Nellie Bly of the West.” One Nellie Bly imitator put on a bullet-proof vest and had herself shot for her story, titled “Meg Merilee feels what it’s like to be shot!” “Meg Merilee” became a catch-all term for Bly’s imitators. The “Meg Merilees” had little trouble mimicking Bly’s surface attributes; the standard template was for a pretty, young, innocent-looking girl to place herself where a pretty, young, innocent-looking girl wouldn’t normally be found. However, they rarely aspired to what elevated Bly’s work above the level of publicity stunt to the level of investigative reporting. Being shot was sensational, but it was pointless. It revealed nothing, and it led to nothing. Many of Bly’s stunts effected genuine change, and substantive reforms. Bly’s stunts shined light into shadowy corners, scattering the vermin who hid in the darkness. The Meg Merilees just clamored for attention.

Bly is best known for two stunts: Ten days spent in a madhouse, and seventy-two days spent circling the globe. The inspiration for her second stunt was the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly proposed the stunt to her editors in 1888, over a year before she left, but the paper hesitated. The World’s business manager did not believe that Bly could travel without dragging so much luggage along that transfers would be difficult and time-consuming, or that she could travel without an escort. He suggested that the paper should send a man. Bly’s response was blunt: “Start the man,” she told him, “and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The World did not agree to the stunt right away, but they promised Bly that they would send her if they ever decided to try it. It was over a year later when she received a note to see the editor in his office. Cockerill asked her, “Can you start around the world the day after tomorrow?” Bly packed one tightly-stuffed bag and she was ready to go.

The trip was recounted in a series of articles, posted to the paper from all over the world and later published as Around the World in Seventy-two Days. A contest was conducted, with a trip to Europe awarded to whomever could guess the correct time of passage; nearly a million entries were received. Cosmopolitan magazine, then a struggling young monthly paper, sent reporter Elizabeth Bisland out on the same day, in a different direction – giving the young Meg Merilee six hours’ notice to get ready – in an attempt to beat Bly around the world. A bad connection in Southampton, England, variously attributed to shenanigans by both groups, doomed Bisland to second place and obscurity. Bly was able to overcome delays of a day in Amiens, France, taken out of the schedule to meet with Jules Verne; five days in Colombo, Ceylon; five days in Hong Kong; and four days in Yokohama, Japan to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s “record” of eighty days by over a week. Cannon fire, fifteen thousand screaming fans, and most of the Jersey City government greeted Bly when she reached the New Jersey Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad at 3:51 PM, January 25, 1890. The crowd cheered wildly as Bly was “clasped once more in her anxious mother’s arms.”

nellieBly’s trip made her a worldwide celebrity. She went on lecture tours, traveled the party circuit, and rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. She pioneered a Sunday column in 1893 that paid her a reported $20,000 per year. She covered the violent Pullman strike – the only national reporter to report the story from the side of the strikers – and she continued to conduct interviews, adding activist Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Eugene Debs to her guest book.

By the time she interviewed Debs she had transferred her byline to the Chicago Tribune,. She worked there just five weeks before marrying 72-year-old millionaire Robert Livingston Seaman, on April 5, 1895. She was 31. She continued to write, returning to the World in 1896. She covered the National Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1896, interviewing Susan B. Anthony. Her final article as a World reporter came in March of 1896; in it, she proposed the formation of an army of women to fight in Cuba. Shortly after, she left for Europe with her husband.

Bly’s marriage to Seaman had gotten off to a rocky start. The newlywed Bly criticized her husband in print, writing about how a proper husband should act. Seaman hired his caretaker, Henry Hansen, to follow his new wife around, to see what she was up to. She had Hanson arrested. Seaman’s relatives did not care for the youthful Bly, who had positioned herself to siphon off their potential inheritance. Bly, in turn, did not care for Seaman’s friends and family, or “the company her husband kept.”

Bly often ate alone, partly due to her husband’s friends, but partly because she had spent her entire life dealing with the world as a single woman. Bly was charming and personable when she needed to be, but she had never cultivated close friendships. Other than her mother, she rarely dealt with her family outside of a bewildering array of lawsuits that began while her father’s body was still warm and continued on past Bly’s own death, decades later. Bly was not a family-oriented person, in all likelihood, because her own family had made her life a living hell.

Forewarned is forearmed. Bly had been fighting with her family in the courts since she was a child; she was not about to put herself in that position again. While the couple was in Europe, she convinced Seaman to change his will, making her the beneficiary. She also convinced him to transfer much of his property into her name, so she would not have to fight with her in-laws in probate. After the couple returned, in 1899, Bly immersed herself in Seaman’s business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Seaman’s death, in 1904, led to a five-year inheritance battle, but by then most of the estate was already in Bly’s name. She paid little attention to the court proceedings, which ultimately were decided in her favor. She concentrated on running the family business.

By 1901, Bly was listed as the sole owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. The company manufactured metal products, including milk cans, boilers, tanks, and kitchen ware. Bly introduced several innovations to enhance employee morale, including healthcare, gyms, and libraries. Bly, or Bly’s company, was awarded patents for the stacking garbage can, the forty-two gallon steel oil barrel – the forerunner of today’s fifty-five gallon oil barrels – and a new type of milk can. Bly came up with the idea for the steel oil barrel while visiting Europe, where she saw steel glycerin containers.

Company superintendent Henry Wehrhahn received two patents in 1905 for the new design, which he assigned to the company. The first was for flanged encircling hoops that allowed the barrels to be maneuvered while they were being rolled; the second was for the design of the barrel lid, which was readily detachable but provided an effective seal. The company flourished for several years, employing 1,500 people and producing 1,000 barrels per day, but by 1911 the company was in serious trouble. Fraud committed by some of the company’s older employees led to bankruptcy proceedings, lawsuits, and a charge against Bly for obstruction of justice.

olderAccording to conflicting accounts, Bly traveled to Austria either to flee from the arrest warrant, to search for financial backing, or both. She was still there when World War I began. Penniless, she returned to the newspaper business, reporting from the front lines for the New York Evening Journal. She walked through the trenches to share the experience with her readers, and she appealed for aid to Austria for war relief.

Arrested as a British spy, Bly was freed when the assigned translator recognized her. Arms in the air, he cried, “Every child in America seven years old knows Nellie Bly!” Austria ultimately landed on the wrong side of the war, creating a ticklish situation for Bly when she returned to America in 1919. She was repeatedly debriefed by the War Department, who questioned her patriotism even though she wore an American flag on her sleeve throughout the war. Once cleared by the War Department, Bly returned home. She continued to write for the Evening Journal, writing advice columns.

In her spare time, Bly worked to find homes for orphans, even adopting a child herself, and she worked to help the destitute find jobs. Her reputation as a writer had lost some of its luster, partly due to negative perceptions about her efforts on the behalf of Austria, partly due to the failure of her business, and partly due to her lukewarm level of enthusiasm for women’s suffrage, but mainly because the world had lost interest in her crusading, immersive reporting style. While she was still universally respected, many of the younger writers saw her as a relic from a bygone age. She covered the 1920 Presidential conventions for the Washington Times; even though she had been covering conventions for decades, she was once again reduced to the position of sideline reporter, tasked with giving the “human perspective.” In other words, Nellie Bly was back on the women’s beat.

The Roaring Twenties grabbed a hold of American society, but without the old reporter. The 57-year-old Bly died in Saint Mark’s hospital on January 22, 1922. Bly had come down with pneumonia two weeks earlier, and had gone downhill quickly. Her obituary ran in newspapers all over the world, and her longtime friend and colleague, New York Evening Review editor Arthur Brisbane, called her “the best reporter in America.”

Bly is mostly forgotten today. Her legacy surrounds us, though, because her innovations have proven to be remarkably durable. She built, filled, and made famous the role of the investigative reporter, developing an investigating template that was used by Woodward and Bernstein to expose the Watergate scandal. She brought barrel design into the twentieth century, and her designs still work in the twenty-first century. She walked the trenches in Austria, a model for today’s embedded war reporter. Her Mexico and around-the-world trips inspired great travel writers, from Hemingway to Kerouack.

Bly led the way everywhere she went. She interviewed radicals before anyone else was radical, and she championed causes before anyone else was a champion. She moved labor reform before it became a movement. She agitated against horrible conditions for working girls 20 years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and she demanded better conditions in asylums 75 years before Ken Kesey wrote “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Bly led the push for large scale adoption agencies, job source organizations, and battered women’s shelters. She championed better working conditions for her own employees, and provided them healthcare benefits long before it became a popular employer incentive. She reported on strikes from the strikers’ point of view. She changed the world, time and time again – always out in front of the pack.

Little Pink Cochran’s epic transformation, from penniless orphan to the world-famous, world-changing Nellie Bly, was a story too fantastic, too perfect, too ridiculous for fiction. She had to be real.

And so she was.

I wonder when they’ll send a girl to travel around the sky.

Read the answer in the stars, they wait for Nellie Bly – Jayne Garrison

YOUNG NELLY

References/Bibliography

Arnold, Rachel, Hale, Jaqui, Nili, Ezekial, and Nosel, Sarah. “Nellie Bly: Galvanizing             Journalism.” Weebly.com. 2015. Web. 29 May 2016.

Around the World in 72 Days: the Audacious Adventures of Nellie Bly. Dir. Christine          Lesiak. Nar. David Ogden Stiers. American Experience. 1997. Film.

Bly, Nellie. “The Complete Works of Nellie Bly. Amazon. San Bernadino, Ca. 13 Apr.          2016. Print.

Brown, Lea Ann. “Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly).” Gale Dictionary of Literary                   Biography Complete Online. 1984. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Delaney, Laurie. “Nellie Bly.” Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online.            1998. Web. 23 May 2016.

Ernsberger Jr., Richard. “Nellie Bly: Fearless Reporter.” American History 50.2 (2015):        77. Military & Government Collection. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

“Extra: Welcome!” Evening Edition, the World. 25 Jan. 1890. U.S. Newspaper                    Directory, 1690-Present. Library of Congress. 2016. Web. 29 May 2016.

Garis, Viola. “The Scoop!” New Moon Girls 16.2 (2008): 18. MAS Ultra – School                Edition. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Garrison, Jayne. “Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter. Daredevil Journalist.” Journalism                        Collections. Los Angeles Times. 28 Mar. 1994. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Levy, Maya. “Mayalevyblog.” WordPress.com. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Lutes, Jean Marie. “Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late               Nineteenth-Century America”. American Quarterly 54.2 (2002): 217–253. Web.

McCollum, Sean. “Nellie Bly: Daredevil Reporter.” Scholastic.com. Mar 2016. Web. 29            May 2016

“Nellie Bly, American Journalist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2016. Web. 22 May 2016.

“Nellie Bly Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. 2016. Web. 29 May           2016.

“Nellie in the Lead.” St. Paul Daily Globe. 23 Jan. 1890. U.S. Newspaper Directory,               1690-Present. Library of Congress. 2016. Web. 29 May 2016.

“Reporting the Conventions for the Washington Times.” The Washington Times. 4               Jun. 1920. U.S. Newspaper Archive, 1690-present. Library of Congress. 2016.           Web. 29 May 2016.

Simkin, John. “Nellie Bly.” American History, Women’s Suffrage. Spartacus Educational.         Apr. 2013. Web. 29 May 2016.

Stevenson, Keira. “Nellie Bly.” Nellie Bly (2005): 1. Primary Search. Web. 30 Apr.                 2016.

Wells, Bruce A. “Nellie Bly Oil Drum.” American Oil and Gas Historical Society. 2014.             Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Honest salesman and why Trump took their title

Fletch, the last thing I want to do is impugn the reputation of scrupulous salesmen. There needs to be a different term, I guess. Salesman is taken by the Trump types, though – and they ain’t the types to give anything up, so they ain’t leavin’ – so I suppose it’s gonna have to be the honest ones who change, like sanitation engineers and domestic goddesses.

I wrote a long article about the Trump sales technique, which boils down to the basic motivation: “give me what I want, what I really really want.” Repeat. The bridge, tossed in for dynamic effect, is “you know you want to.”

I can’t speak for Canada, of course, but the honest salesman you speak of barely exists in the United States right now. Honesty is considered dishonest in the sales field, or poor salesmanship. In many ways, Trump himself is to blame for this. He’s the model for the aggressive, any means to an end salesman.

Trump tosses out perfect examples of his technique constantly, multiple times a day. It’s his rap, for lack of a better term. New Mexico Governer Susanna Martinez refused to endorse Trump, so he just said she sucks. Here’s the quote, from CNN:

“We have to get your governor to get going. She’s got to do a better job, OK?      Your governor has got to do a better job,” Trump told his crowd in                        Albuquerque. “She’s not doing the job.”

That was Tuesday. Wednesday, under fire for his comments about the Indiana judge, he turned it around on, basically, the world. This is from the New York Times:

Donald Trump has some advice for panicked Republicans in Washington who are melting down over his most incendiary statements: “Man up,” the New York Times reports.

Said Trump: “Politicians are so politically correct anymore, they can’t breathe. The people are tired of this political correctness when things are said that are totally fine. It is out of control. It is gridlock with their mouths.”

The first statement, against the governor, is like saying “Johnny over there picks his boogers and eats ’em.” The second, against political correctness, is just personal opinion. I’m not a PC fan, really, but conversely I believe words indicate what people think. If you insist on bringing back past racial denigration, to me that means you wish the world was more racist than it is. Trump does this constantly, so I find it hard to believe he doesn’t want the world to be more racist.

Anyway, I use salesman to describe him because that’s the only word that works. Any other word would have to be explained to my target audience. Like jokes, essays are ruined when they have to be explained.

It’s all in the wrists

For judgment, perspective is everything. I wrote this on April 21, 2016 in response to a poster on BJOL whose perspective is, to put it mildly, a bit demanding.


It’s impossible to generate perfect results from imperfect data – and imperfect life forms. I think of it as the 1-10-30 rule, but there are more scientific (no pun intended) ways to state the issue with the scientific method. In a nutshell: we can’t see, we can’t hear, we can’t taste, we can’t smell, and when we aren’t sure, a percentage of us will make stuff up.

I’ve been told that, if our vision was good enough, we could see through everything. Atoms are only about 1/200th solid mass, the rest an electrical field where the electrons graze like tiny sheep at atomic speeds. Going the other direction, we are so far away from wherever the other side of the universe is that we won’t ‘see’ anything that far away for billions of years, the time it takes the light to travel our way. The Hubble telescope allows us vision we previously couldn’t imagine – and reminds us just how blind we really are. We can’t see small enough to see the world we live in, or far enough to make even a reasonable guess at our origin.

So… how can science figure out anything? Why don’t we just let the clergy make stuff up and be done with it? If science is all just made up, then there is no difference. But, of course, there is. Science starts with zero and accumulates facts. We are, on a universal scale, so close to zero still that the meter would not be moved enough for our limited perceptional abilities to notice it – which gives some weight to Mike’s stance. Looked at on a human scale, though, the idea that we haven’t learned anything is ridiculous. The Earth is over four billion years old. We didn’t start talking (well, we didn’t learn how to listen) until less than a hundred thousand years ago, a few relative seconds from the end of the Earth’s ‘year’ and we were still living mostly like apes less than ten thousand years ago. We’ve made some progress in human terms, a massive amount of progress. In universal terms, though, we are barely off the ground.

That may or may not be applicable – I never know what specific part of humanity Mike is disappointed in this week – but the general rule seems to be ‘everything sucks because nothing is perfect.’ I think I’m safe. Mike, if we all looked at baseball like you look at things, we would think every baseball player ever was a worthless, no-account loser and baseball is impossible to play. Babe Ruth? The worthless scumbag made an out over half the time! And don’t get me started on Roberto Clemente – that schmo made so many outs that he should have been playing in the Special Olympics.

It’s all in the wrists (all in the perspective); if we are compared to the universe we are too puny to measure. If we are compared to each other we are competitive. If we are compared to what came before us, we are moving forward. If we are compared to Pauly Shore, we are slightly less funny but infinitely better smelling. It’s all in how you look at it.

Why Trump?


Like the rest of America, I have been trying to figure out why Donald Trump, a political laughingstock for decades, is suddenly a serious presidential candidate. Why are so many Americans backing Trump, a man with no political skills or experience, for the nation’s top job?

To understand the Trump phenomenon, It helps to to understand how we get our information. We rarely get our information unfiltered. Most of it is sorted, spun, packaged and sold to us for the benefit of the seller. We are rarely told what’s going on by anyone but the news media, and the news media views events as newsworthy based on factors often unrelated to the need to give us the straight skinny.

As I see it, there are three layers to the information onion: The tell, the compel, and the sell.

  • A “tell” is raw information, meant to inform with no agenda or product to sell. A teller plants both feet firmly on the truth, with no personal point of view.
  • A “compel” is like footwork in basketball; the rule is that one foot has to be on the truth at all times. Cable news networks like Fox and MSNBC use their other foot like a magician uses a wand, as misdirection to distract us so we don’t notice that they palmed the truth. We look back and whatever they are selling – their ‘swamp land in Florida’ – has replaced the truth. If we aren’t paying attention we won’t be able to tell the difference, and we will wind up believing all sorts of patently ridiculous things. I see the results of these ‘truths’ in my Facebook inbox every day, from all sorts of ideological angles.
  • Selling – true selling – has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth. Selling is simply getting your way. The sale is all that matters. Truth? A fully indoctrinated salesman has no idea what the truth is, because he has been lying to himself long enough to have lost track of it.

There are other levels in between, with subtle shades. For instance, most individuals try to tell the truth most of the time, but (1) nobody recognizes their own agenda and (2) those truths were most likely sold to them in the first place. Sales, like some martial arts, can use truth as a weapon when it is available – and discard it when it is no longer of any use.

You can probably figure out where most information lands on the scale with a little skull sweat. My interest – the reason why I bothered to explain all that – is in how it affects us through Donald Trump’s campaign.

One of the sneaky little tricks about selling is that a good salesman sounds like he is telling the absolute, unspun truth. He knows that we intuitively recognize agenda – from long experience – so he has learned how to toss information at us like a knuckleball, with no spin. Since there is no truth to spin into an agenda, this isn’t all that hard to do. Children master it early, faking a cough to get out of going to school. Adults learn to control the urge to sell, or they eventually become pathological liars – unable to tell themselves the truth.

Here is where we find Donald Trump. He is America’s most celebrated salesman, a business lifer. Like a shark has to keep moving, Trump has to keep selling. Making a deal is his sole source of self-esteem, from the casinos down to his trophy wives and children Salesmen don’t develop value systems. A value system would get in the way of the deal, the deal, the deal.

There is no Trump Truth, no True Trump. Does Trump see himself as a bad guy? I don’t think Trump sees himself at all, even if he looks up. All he sees is a reflection, a mirrored gestalt of an empty suit, filled with the sum of his deals.

Unencumbered by the truth, he just keeps making things up until he gets his way. Since nothing he said yesterday matters, he doesn’t have to keep track of anything he says; he just starts a new cycle as if the old one never happened. Sales is completely results-driven, so the occasional failure is meaningless. The cost of doing business – tain’t nuttin’ but a thang. Sell one today, yesterday don’t matter.
Is there anything we can do about it? Short of making him tell the truth, there is nothing to stop him from eventually convincing the country to let him be President. We have been trained to get our information in packaged form. Trump is better at it than anyone else.

It’s up to us to make him tell the truth, through our representatives in the media. We have to demand that they cover Trump as a free press, and stop feeding on his reflected attention. Trump has received roughly two billion dollars in free media coverage so far, in a race that just went over one billion combined in paid ads. That has to balance out. The media has to stop feeding, get back to work – and get both feet back on the truth.