josh rosner

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

NOT REALLY ABOUT PALIN

In Uncategorized on December 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Below my published review of Joe McGinniss’s ridiculous biography of Sarah Palin. I generally have a rule not to publish a review if I absolutely hated the book or I can’t find something nice to say about it. Every now and then I stumble across a book that is so bad that the negative review deserves to be published. I see it as an act of public service. This book is one of them. Over three years reviewing for the Canberra Times I’ve only published three negative reviews (this one included). Thankfully only one of them was by an Australian writer.

If you, like me, are interested in American politics, then you will ignore this review and read the book regardless. That is how it should be, I would do the same. But I maintain my thesis that this book is all about Joe McGinniss, not Sarah Palin, and that the last book he published with any redeeming value was his 1969 book: The Selling of the President, 1968, which came out of the unprecedented access he was given to the Nixon presidential campaign. Despite its brilliance, McGinniss seems to have spent everything he had – intellectually and creatively – on the one endeavour, because he certainly doesn’t appear to have anything left to say.

THE ROGUE. Searching for the Real Sarah Palin. Joe McGinniss. $32.95

Whenever I hear Sarah Palin’s name or see her in the media I can’t help but think of Tina Fey’s brilliant and hilarious impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live. Fey captured Palin’s sense of fashion, her vocal inflections and uncanny ability to mangle the English language with such perfection that the parody became more popular than the real thing.

When John McCain picked the then Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice presidential candidate for the 2008 election, there seemed to be many reasons to believe he had made a good decision. Palin was the first woman to be nominated vice president as a Republican and only the second, after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, to run for vice president on a major party ticket. She was also the first Alaskan to be on the ticket of either party.

“She’s got grit, integrity, good sense and fierce devotion to the common good that is exactly what we need in Washington today,” McCain said at the time. Between the announcement and the election, Palin proved herself to be gaffe-prone and ill-prepared for the rigours of a national political campaign.

Whether you love her or loathe her, she has the right to be treated fairly in the media and to not be subjected to speculation in the guise of well-researched journalism. In his book, ‘The Rogue. Searching for the Real Sarah Palin’, journalist and author Joe McGinniss has attempted, as suggested by the blurb on the inside cover, to present a “controversial and much anticipated investigative chronicle of Sarah Palin as an individual, politician, and cultural phenomenon.” He failed.

McGinniss was twenty-six years old when his phenomenal bestseller, ‘The Selling of the President, 1968’, was published in 1969. McGinniss was given access to the Nixon presidential campaign and he used the experience to write a book that revealed – shockingly, for the era – that Nixon was being sold to the American electorate like a product. The original cover to the book showed Nixon’s face on a packet of cigarettes, suggesting the idea that marketing, advertising and public relations professionals playing a role in a presidential campaign was somehow dirty. Today, the idea that candidates are packaged and presented as a product is common-place. ‘The Selling of the President, 1968’ was, and remains, a brilliant piece of political writing.

Thirty years later, McGinniss seems to have forgotten why he wrote that book and why it was an important contribution to the genre. He wrote twelve more books of fiction and non-fiction – some better than others – before starting research in 2008 on a magazine article about then-governor Palin’s plan to build a $26 billion natural gas pipeline across Alaska. The seed of an idea was planted and McGinniss thought it a good idea to rent the house next-door to Sarah Palin while he researched and conducted interviews for ‘The Rogue’.

It’s no understatement to suggest the Palins were not happy to have McGinniss as a neighbour. Palin wrote on her Facebook page, “Wonder what kind of material he’ll gather while overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole?”

I confess that I’m no fan of Sarah Palin’s. Despite the difficult presidency Barack Obama has had, I’m happy McCain and Palin did not win. The world is a better place for it. But that does not mean I don’t find it particularly creepy that McGinniss thought it appropriate to rent the house next-door to Palin while he wrote a book about her. It also does not mean that I don’t find it disturbing that he provides driving instructions, including a map, to her house.

The back cover of this book is adorned with glowing reviews, praising McGinniss and his talents. Had they read the same book as me? “Devastatingly funny and angry … “ from the Washington Post. “Stinging, bitterly comic … “ from the New York Times.

‘The Rogue’ is neither devastatingly funny or bitterly comic. What had I missed? I read the back cover again and then it became clear. They were reviews of ‘The Selling of the President’, not ‘The Rogue’. The publishers of ‘The Rogue’ have engaged in a marketing campaign. They have packaged the book, and it’s author, as a product:  McGinniss the funny and insightful author.

Sarah Palin’s name appears on the cover of the ‘The Rogue’. Her name even appears on almost every single page within. But this isn’t a book about Sarah Palin. Not really. It’s about Joe McGinniss. And even when writing a book about himself he has little of interest to say.

Copies of ‘Selling the President, 1968’ can be found at various online book retailers. I highly recommend you invest your time there instead.

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PRESSMAN ON THE TROT

In Book Review, Journalism on December 1, 2011 at 2:40 am

I recently reviewed Alex Mitchell’s memoir, Come the Revolution, for the Canberra Times. It is, without resorting to overstatement, a cracking good yarn. Alex is an old-school journalist. He learned by doing, as a cadet at the Townsville Bulletin. He smoked, drank (still does), swore (still does) and produced his copy by banging away at a typewriter. The young journalism students who come into my classes could learn a lot from Alex Mitchell.

On 21 November 2011 Alex gave a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra which left the audience in stitches of laughter. He’s a natural storyteller, and my god, he has many stories to tell. From Rupert Murdoch’s transition from old-style newspaper owner to meglamaniac to travels in Tibet with Mike Willissee. After the speech I joined Alex and other veterans of Australian journalism, include the amazing Eric Walsh (one time presser to Gough Whitlam and Parliament House Bureau Chief at the Daily Mirror), and I listened to tales of the good-old-days of Australian journalism. It was an amazing experience just to be in the presence of this old hacks. If their oral histories have not yet been recorded, it should be done soon, before their knowledge and experiences is gone forever.

It was an honour to be able to sit with Alex and talk journalism and politics and listen to tales of the past. Take the time to read his book. You won’t be disappointed and you just might learn a little about our nation’s past.

COME THE REVOLUTION. By Alex Mitchell. NewSouth Publishing. 536pp. $39.95

Imagine this is your life: You were born in Townsville in 1942. At 16 you are injured when your homemade bomb explodes. Your first job is as a cadet on the Townsville Bulletin. You join Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the Daily Mirror, reporting out of Sydney and Canberra. You travel to London to work on Fleet Street’s Sunday Times where you investigate and publish big-ticket stories such as Soviet double agent Kim Philby and corrupt publisher Robert Maxwell. Any reasonable person could retire at this juncture, content with their achievements.

Not Alex Mitchell. In his memoir, Come the Revolution, he writes with immense passion and great humour about his childhood in far north Queensland and his long, eventful life as a journalist – and Trotskyist – in Australia and the UK.

Come the Revolution is dripping in nostalgia for the good old days of journalism; a time when newsrooms across Australia were the exclusive domain of men and cigarette smoke, and long lunches were boozy, daily occurrences.

Sydney Daily Telegraph

There are few occasions when one might wish to be older, but I sometimes lament not being old enough to have experienced the old Canberra Times offices in Mort Street, Civic. Some public servants who now inhabit the building told me the ghosts of journalists past can still be heard banging away at their typewriters.

Recalling the good-old-days of noisy printing presses, Mitchell writes, “I miss the clattering sound of rows of linotype machines setting type on metal lines to fill the columns of the paper; the smell of the stone room where the comps worked; the foundry and the pressroom and the tremendous roar of the presses in full production.”

There could never be enough column inches available to do justice to Come the Revolution in this review, but two periods in Mitchell’s life stand out as life-defining, if not life-changing, and are worth highlighting.

The first involves Mitchell’s extraordinary 1971 interview with Uganda’s new president, Ida Amin, for Granada Television’s flagship current affairs program, World in Action. Mitchell was the first western journalist to interview Amin, only three weeks after the bloody military coup that overthrew President Milton Obote. Getting Amin to agree to the interview was the easy part. Mitchell let him win in a swimming race. But he needed every last ounce of journalistic training and instinct in order to compile the research needed to grill Amin. The film, The Man Who Stole Uganda, went to air on 5 April 1971 and, as Mitchell puts it, “[exploded] the conventional wisdom of the Foreign Office and Fleet Street that Amin, the genial giant, had restored order and economic prosperity to Uganda.”

The second involves Mitchell’s extraordinary withdrawal from mainstream – capitalist, he calls it – media to edit Britain’s first Trotskyist daily newspaper, Workers Press, later renamed, The News Line. Immersing himself entirely into the Workers Revolutionary Party, which coincided firstly with the heady era of Edward Heath’s prime ministership in which the role of the courts, the police, the army and prisons were significant, followed by Thatcherism and the miners’ strike.

Mitchell and his fellow Workers Revolutionary Party leader, the actress Vanessa Redgrave, travelled the Middle East to show the Party’s film, The Palestinian. They met leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, now all dead.

Although I’ve never felt the lure of Trotskyism myself, Mitchell’s near breathless recounting of those fifteen years inside the Workers Revolutionary Party left me at times infuriated at his naïveté and blind faith he placed in people, and at other times in awe of his tenacity and focus in the face of numerous obstacles.

Alex today

When it all finally, and somehow inevitably, came to and end in 1986 and Mitchell returned to Australia with barely a penny to his name, an overwhelming sense of relief greets the reader. Mitchell’s final chapter, On Reflection, is a stirring defence of the struggles of workers – particularly prescient given the current industrial unrest in Australia – one suspects the Trotskyist in Mitchell will remain until his final breath.

Come the Revolution offers a damning indictment of the current state of anti-intellectualist, divisive, celebrity-driven, trivia-laden journalism and the eroding of the ‘free press’ in the face of corporate interest. Mitchell pulls no punches when describing his old boss, Rupert Murdoch. “As a student at Oxford, ‘Red’ Rupert kept a bust of Lenin in his room; today it’s a cut-out of the animated cartoon character Homer Simpson, inventor of the word ‘d’oh’, whose ratings are gold-plated. The man is an utter disgrace – Rupert, that is, not Homer.”

Come the Revolution will be required reading for my first year journalism students next year.