Doris Day,|Mark Twain and Me

     I’ve loved Doris Day for four days.
     Ever since Monday, when I heard Terry Gross interview her on NPR, the day before Day’s 88th birthday.
     Corny whitebread chick, right? Whose big hit, “Que Será Será,” was one of the most annoying songs in the history of mankind – right?
     Turns out Doris Day didn’t like the song either, and thought it had no business being thrust into her Hitchcock movie, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
     And it turns out that Doris Day quit the movie business 40 years ago to spend the rest of her life taking care of dogs and cats. I love her for that.
     And I never would have known it but for Terry Gross – one of the great interviewers of our time. As is Dick Gordon, whose NPR show is called “The Story.”
     They are great reporters because they get out of the way of the story, to tell the story.
     Journalists used to do this – they used to be trained to do it.
     No more.
     I heard the Doris Day interview as I wended my way through “Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews” (University of Alabama Press, 2006), a wonderful compendium of 258 newspaper articles, beginning in 1871 and ending just a few weeks before Mr. Clemens died.
     I bought the book to hear Mark Twain speak. It showed me, again, what’s wrong with so much U.S. journalism today (but not Terry Gross or Dick Gordon).
     In six words: The interviewer is not the subject.
     In five words: The news is the subject.
     I need not mention today’s radio talk show hosts and TV stars who vomit news upon us after having their way with it.
     Everyone knows these people are.
     What baffles me is that people seem to want this.
     America doesn’t seem to want to know the news anymore. We only want to be confirmed in our opinion.
     The Twain interviews begin after Mr. Clemens had published “Innocents Abroad” and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
     Most of the interviews came after he had published “Roughing It” (1872) and “Tom Sawyer” (1876), which made him world-famous – and which, along with his other books, were responsible, to a great extent, for the United States of America becoming beloved around the world.
     Back then.
     What strikes me as I read the interviews, aside from Clemens’ genius, is the obvious and enormous difference between a good journalist and a bad journalist.
     The good reporters shut up and let Sam Clemens speak.
     The bad ones try to Be The Star.
     At the distance of more than a century, I want to scream: Come on, dudes – you’re interviewing Mark Twain.
     Shut Up. Let the man speak.
     But no. The bad journalists blither and blather, in the presence of Mark Twain, then write down what they said, in the presence of Mr. Clemens.
     It’s like listening to talk radio.
     Clemens learned his trade from the ground up, as a typesetter and proofreader, and eventually as a reporter for the (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise.
     Writing and journalism are trades. They can be art – but not until you master the trade.
     It’s one of the tragedies of literary history that none of the articles Clemens wrote for the Territorial Enterprise survives – so far as I know. They all blew away on the dusty Nevada wind.
     What a treat it would be to read what Sam Clemens wrote for the Enterprise – about anything – while he was mastering his trade.
     One of the many vile things about U.S. journalism today – on TV and radio far more than in print – is that the creatures who pretend to bring us the news never mastered their trade. Nor, so far as I can tell, do they even care about it.
     They just want to Be The Star.
     And their bosses let them do it. And so do we. That seems to be What America Wants.
     Not the news – not, God no, reality. Just a bunch of primping stars with poofy hair.
     These people are not are not journalists. They’re just a bunch of cute people, who want to be rich and famous, spouting nonsense.
     They are, as my Southern grandpa used to say, people who will screw you without giving you a kiss.

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