Hating the Media

On Integrity

The Poetry Judge

Man on Horseback

Hating the Media

There is more to the incident described by James Fallows in "Why Americans Hate the Media" (February Atlantic ) concerning Mike Wallace's opinion on whether a reporter working with an enemy patrol is morally obliged to warn fellow Americans about to be ambushed.

In preparing a book on the military and the media, I came across a secondhand account of that discussion and wrote Mr. Wallace to verify it. He responded immediately, by telephone. "I responded without having had time to think about the subject," he said, "and immediately began to have second thoughts."

"I am an American," he continued. "I fought for our country in World War Two. I am not going to see American fighting men and women killed or injured if there is anything I can do to stop it. But, having had time to think about that question, I don't think it can be addressed outside of the much larger question of whether the press should seek to get people behind enemy lines in time of war. Once you are in there . . . you are no longer a free agent."

Year after year reporters, and sometimes their editors, participate in war-college symposia and go away thinking they have "explained" the press to the military. But what the military has learned from those encounters is, first, that every reporter is on his or her own, and will gladly cut the throat of any colleague; and, second, that the press lacks the depth to understand any complex story, not just stories about the military.

Contrary to what R. W. Apple Jr. claims in the February 4 New York Times "Week in Review," it was not exclusion by the military that distorted coverage of the Persian Gulf War but careful exploitation of those two observed weaknesses. That will continue to be the case until the press overhauls its entire concept of organization and training. Fallows's article and book make an important contribution to creating the public pressure that must be built up in order for that to happen.

William V. Kennedy

James Fallows's castigation of the news media is a valuable and convincing alert: a crucial component of our democracy is not functioning. But Fallows does not dispute certain basic facts of news economics that are surely known to him and his readers: issues research is more costly than political chitchat, and chitchat sells better anyway. The hard-news carnivores his article features are not representative of our entertainment-loving citizenry. Polls showing a desire for more upbeat news do not indicate a thirst for elucidation of policy issues. It is in fact reasonable to assume that journalism is effectively responding to its economic incentives, as one would expect. In terms of solutions, Fallows's essay thus amounts to an exhortation to the news industry to act more honorably despite its self-interest--which is obviously futile.

Uriel Wittenberg

On Integrity

In reference to Stephen L. Carter's "The Insufficiency of Honesty" (February Atlantic ): integrity has its roots in "in" (not) "tangere" (to touch), and means the quality of being "untouched, whole, complete." It is related to "integrate," to "make whole or complete by adding or bringing together parts."

In reference to human beings, integrity implies that one is complete unto oneself. And to be human and whole is to know and accept ourselves with strengths and weaknesses and to relate intimately with others on the basis of our inner wholeness and knowledge rather than outer customs or morals. Integrity further implies inner and outer consistency.

Which takes us to Carter's dying man. Carter no doubt chose this extreme example because he assumes that most people will say, "Of course the man shouldn't tell."

He's right: most people live distant lives, shut off from other people by what they will not tell. And they have many excuses, the most frequent being that they might hurt someone's feelings. This is a ruse, as Carter points out; they are afraid to tell the truth because they are trying to protect themselves from loss (of power, love, position), from anger, from the nakedness of exposure.

A person of integrity would not wait thirty-five years to tell his wife about an affair, and he would never "confess." He would tell his wife immediately, or he might even tell her before it happened, when it was just a thought but not yet a plan. And if he made the mistake of putting off his telling, he would eventually tell because the affair was a fact of his life that intruded on the intimacy between him and his wife, not because it was "killing his spirit." A person of integrity does not judge either himself or others so harshly as to kill off parts of himself or other people.

Carter's ending for the story, his melodramatic description of the twice-faithless man and the grieving soon-to-be widow who would choose illusion over substance, aptly demonstrates the errors we make when we treat others not as beings having integrity but as children whom we must arrogantly protect in much the same way that Carter's manager protected his employee. Neither Carter, as the story's author, nor his character can assume knowledge of the wife's reaction to her husband's affair, because we don't know if she is a woman of integrity. Maybe she, too, had an affair, and would feel great relief, the lifting of her own guilt. Maybe she would feel sorry for her husband for suffering so long when he could have told her and would have been forgiven. Maybe she would confirm a long suspicion and have newfound confidence in her intuition. Maybe she wouldn't give a damn. Maybe she would give her husband an extra dose of morphine to end it all just a bit sooner.

The person of integrity would never, ever take from her the opportunity to make her own choice and respond as she will.

Rebecca L. Shannon

To the husband whose deathbed confession of infidelity hurts his wife I say, Go for it! Why shouldn't he manage his death as he chooses, doing for himself what he needs to do?

If her happiness was predicated on a fiction, what was its intrinsic worth? As an adult, why shouldn't she be responsible for doing the hard work of reconciling this fact about the marriage she was a party to with the fiction she had imagined? To protect her from this information is to patronize her and rob her of vital knowledge about the reality of her own life.

Rather than accept Carter's sappy deathbed moral melodrama, which casts the wronged woman as a passive victim, I choose to believe that she will marshal the strength to confront the truth and the resilience to learn from it and move on.

Some of the happiest women I know are widows.

Christine Van Lenten

I enjoyed and concurred with "The Insufficiency of Honesty." As a priest (Episcopal), I have been asked several times by a penitent in the confessional for advice on whether to confess infidelity to a spouse. On each of the occasions the "injured" spouse was totally unaware of any unfaithfulness. And in each case I advised against telling for the same reason Stephen Carter speaks of in his article. I have added that for the penitent to keep silent might well be part of an appropriate penance.

Rev. Joseph W. Arps

The Poetry Judge

I found Garrison Keillor's "The Poetry Judge" (February Atlantic ) very funny and mostly all too true. His lampooning of Vietnam poems, however, seems gratuitously unkind by the third time his narrator returns to the subject. I wonder if Keillor is aware that the poet and Vietnam veteran Michael Casey has won the Yale Younger Poets Award, the poet and Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa has won both the Kingsley Tufts Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the poet and Vietnam veteran Walter McDonald has won both the George Elliston Prize and the Juniper Prize, and the poet John Balaban, who spent three years in Vietnam as a civilian, has won both the Lamont Prize and a National Poetry Series award. None of these awards is named for a lady with three names. I would also direct Keillor's attention to the poetry of the Vietnam veterans Doug Anderson, Kevin Bowen, D. F. Brown, David Connolly, Horace Coleman, Gerald McCarthy, Basil Paquet, Dale Ritterbusch, and Bruce Weigl, each of whom has taken true-life experience and transformed it into literature.

W. D. Erhart

"The Poetry Judge" speaks the funny, crushing truth about ersatz poetry and wannabe poets. With apologies to Joyce Kilmer,

Elizabeth Weber

Garrison Keillor's poetry contest was our poetry contest--St. Paul's AAUW. We in our basic bliss were thrilled to have him, the famous Garrison Keillor, as one of our judges. So generous was he to refuse any remuneration. So sensitive was he to the significance of such an effort. He seemed to understand how much it meant to those inspired, pathetic protozoa who submitted their absurd elegies to their dead cats, their odes to Vietnam buddies "blown away yesterday," their lyrics on wedding receptions, their memories of Duluth, and assorted other laughable "painful truths."

I and my colleagues--who have also judged poetry contests and who have taught poetry and who have tried to put a good face and some jaunty encouragement on laughable lines penned by earnest "poets" who would like not to be killed before they are born--regret that Keillor's tauntings in his fine story will long reverberate painfully as professional judgment on what these would-be poets submitted.

Joy L. Davis

There are in America marvelous poets doing brilliant and generous work, but my story is about the state of amateur poetry and about the thousands of creative-writing classes operated by kindly teachers who, like Joy Davis, encourage bad writing. Ms. Davis refers to these amateurs as "pathetic protozoa." I look on them as ambitious, intelligent persons who deserve better teaching. Writing requires discipline, and it can be taught, but you don't find it in turgid poems about Bad Daddies and The Struggle to Be Me and all the other flat, morbid, narcissistic writing that is encouraged by bad teaching. The creative-writing industry is cranking out reams of stuff that nobody in his or her right mind would ever want to read. One genre it mostly ignores is satire and humor. It takes discipline to tell a joke.

Man on Horseback

Richard Brookhiser may wish to review his listing of Presidents who saw or did not see action in military service in the article "A Man on Horseback" (January Atlantic ).

James Buchanan was in the Army in the War of 1812. He took part in the defense of Baltimore and saw "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air."

Lyndon Johnson was in the Navy early in 1942 and made a famous bombing run when his plane was heavily attacked. It may not have been a battle, but it was certainly combat.

Brookhiser says that Gerald Ford did not see battle. He was on a Navy ship in the Pacific which was under air attack on many occasions. That should qualify.

Incidentally, two civilian Presidents were under enemy fire: James Madison, at Bladensburg in the War of 1812, and Abraham Lincoln, when he observed Confederate forces advancing on Washington, D.C., from the parapet of a fort. Shots were fired, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is reputed to have shouted at Lincoln, "Get down, you damn fool!"

William E. Rooney

I thoroughly enjoyed your article on George Washington and his character. However, you missed one important influence on his character formation: Christianity. Washington was raised in the Anglican Church and retained his membership there throughout his life. After his death twenty-four pages of handwritten prayers were found in Washington's papers. They express his deep belief in God and Christian principles. Washington's life reflected these beliefs. He wrote, "It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor."

Doug Le Mahieu

Richard Brookhiser's article "A Man on Horseback" is extremely informative. However, Brookhiser lists the sixteen American Presidents who fought in battle and strikingly omits reference to Abraham Lincoln, who fought in the Black Hawk War in 1832, as an Illinois Militia captain.

Barry H. Garfinkel

I should have added Gerald Ford to my list of combatants. I might have added Lyndon Johnson, who actually won a combat decoration, but Robert Caro's description of how he earned it (by virtually staging a confrontation with the enemy in order to qualify) persuaded me to leave him off. The others served, but only by standing and waiting.

Washington was a lifelong Anglican-Episcopalian, served as a vestryman, and attended church fairly regularly, where his behavior was "serious and attentive," according to one minister who observed it. But he made few references to Jesus Christ in letters or speeches, he never took communion (Martha always did), and the prayers Doug Le Mahieu mentions are not in his handwriting.

Washington did have a powerful belief in Providence, repeatedly expressed in public and in private. If there was a moment that riveted it to his soul, it probably occurred in the French and Indian War. After surviving the destruction of General Edward Braddock's army in the wilderness, the twenty-three-year-old colonel wrote to a friend, "See the wondrous works of Providence! The uncertainty of human things!"

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1996; Letters; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 8-14.