The elegiac tone of the 2016 Pulitzer centennial celebration, in a slightly musty but historic Los Angeles theater, suited the program’s somber themes—“War, Migration, and the Quest for Peace.”
The unprogrammed elephant in the room was the general consensus that newspapers are in serious trouble. The Los Angeles Times, hosting the occasion with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is healthier than many metropolitan dailies–but struggling. Its parent, Tribune Publishers, has just received a $70.5 billion infusion from the ambitious entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, whose other quixotic investment is a cancer cure.
Many states now lack any newspaper reportage from their capitals, much less in D.C. or foreign countries.. Given the digital revolution’s decimation of local newspapers and/or their staffs, coverage of city halls and state assemblies has almost disappeared. Without journalistic surveillance—familiarly known as muckraking—government corruption flourishes, as it does in any banana republic.
War correspondents’ stories were reliably transfixing. Terry Anderson, with seven years as a hostage in Lebanon; Shirley Christian, who reported on the conflicts in Central America, discovering that nine of her ten sources in El Salvador had been killed. Journalist-director Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) said that war movies were based almost entirely on other war movies, making Hollywood a major source of military history.
Sadly, there wasn’t much on the “quest for peace”. The most memorable was certainly the photographer Nick Ut, whose 1972 photo of the “Napalm girl” was instrumental in ending the American war in Vietnam.
Everywhere, photography showed up as the most powerful tool in journalism, documenting the horrors of war, the desperation of migration, whether from Mexico or Syria.
The other elephant in the room was of course Donald Trump. Press coverage of his campaign was cited, with curious specificity, as one of the two most shameful episodes in the history of American journalism.( I don’t recall whether the second was inadequate reporting on U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Vietnam. Any would serve.)
Washington Post reporter Dana Priest explained drily that the excessive, uncritical coverage of Trump is because he is “clickbait”. Many people, my spouse included, want to know, with their morning coffee, what outrageous position Trump has just taken. In case you’ve been in a remote village on the upper Amazon for the last ten years-the total number of clicks on links to news stories on your computer or phone screen determines investors’ decisions to pay for advertising on the news site.
Someone observed that an important function of the Pulitzer awards is to reassure publishers that it is worthwhile to keep losing money for another year.
Oddly, nobody talked about Joseph Pulitzer, the very singular Hungarian immigrant who amassed the fortune that endowed the Pulitzer prizes in journalism and the arts. Ordinarily, donors and founders, dead or alive, are respectfully, on occasion even affectionately, noted. The low spot of Pulitzer’s career, his resort to yellow journalism in a circulation contest with William Randolph Hearst, was an early recognition of the “clickbait” principle in print media.
Stanford historian David Kennedy(Pulitzer 2000) decided to end the program with a boyhood memory. His favorite uncle had taken him on a fishing trip with a bunch of his oldest and closest friends, great pillars of the (New Haven) community. Afterwards, driving home, his uncle said, “’You know, all of us were together in France during the war. You wouldn’t believe what they did.’ He meant atrocities. He meant that I couldn’t imagine what normal human beings were capable of in a war…”
This is not to suggest that the Pulitzer celebration was unrelievedly grim. The box lunch, especially the roast vegetable option, was cheering. But it was a pity that the “Quest for Peace” had short shrift in the proceedings, as elsewhere in the real world.
Sad to remember that Barack Obama in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after his eloquent anti-nuclear speech in Prague. Obama visiting Hiroshima in 2016 was eloquent again and still. But his administration has cut spending on programs to stop nuclear proliferation, and caved on Pentagon demands for funding of “modernization” of U.S. nuclear weapons. It’s not entirely clear which of Obama’s potential successors is less likely to lead us into more wars.
Pulitzer and Hearst made fortunes off coverage of the Spanish-American War, but the battles were fought with simpler weapons, and more soldiers died of disease than in combat.
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein
In 2016, a well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a bit part in that hasty, furtive slicing up of the Ottoman Empire to please French and English interests. The new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model, or even into a viable French colony. The Syrian civil war continues into its tenth year.
In Europe, the new designation “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic. Elaborate historical justifications for changing to “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—after a world war. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, a committee of Czech and Slovak activists drafted the agreement. Later that year philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk became the new country’s first president. Masaryk was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of Aung San Sui Kyi of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities. Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student. McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had ventured with my mother into Communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German proved useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother, a cocky, annoying fellow, who travelled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside the village, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barn-like building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home for California.
After the Berlin Wall fell, of course I followed the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was in Prague in time to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. The Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination.
At that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to survive somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. It isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. In America, not, surely, a state walled against immigration. East and South Asian immigrants now animate Silicon Valley, universities, finance, and the arts. Farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life. Central American refugees flee violence and seek economic survival.