Catching up with Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ nearly three decades later

What could have been

After we got home from Cooperstown in early August, we decided to watch Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball.” Neither of us had seen a Burns film in its entirety since “The Civil War” (i.e., before kids), mainly because we don’t watch much television and we don’t like getting trapped into sitting through long series. But this seemed worth taking on, especially since the 2022 Red Sox weren’t doing anything that warranted investing time in.

On Saturday night, we finally finished with 11th and final episode — one of two post-production add-ons, this one largely about the Red Sox’ 2004 World Series triumph, which, based on the amount of airtime he got, the Sox apparently staged for the benefit of Mike Barnicle. The steroid-induced rise and fall of Barry Bonds got quite a bit of attention as well, and it warmed our hearts to see Roger Clemens administered a thorough thrashing.

The original nine “innings” were well worth the time we put into them. Running two to two and a half hours per episode, they started slowly, with an overdose of lyrical tributes to the quiet joys of the National Pastime. Once Babe Ruth arrives on the scene, though, the series really kicks into gear, with lots of great archival footage. The highlight is Jackie Robinson, whom we follow from his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 until his premature death in 1972.

Buck O’Neil signing autographs in 2005. Photo (cc) 2005 by kc congdon.

“Baseball” is done in Burns’ characteristic style, with a lot of talking heads, including Bob Costas, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Studs Terkel, George Will and — the best, in our view — Buck O’Neil, a Negro Leagues star who died in 2006 and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. O’Neil comes across as calm and wise, with a slight edge of hurt and anger occasionally flashing in his eyes. We had the sense that he knew more about baseball and life than the rest of Burns’ guests put together.

The unevenness of the two add-ons came as a surprise — Burns’ attention to detail was largely missing, maybe because he farmed out much of the work to underlings. The sound editing was terrible, with the music often drowning out what the guest commentators had to say. Still, how can you not love watching the Sox dismantle the Yankees in the 2004 league championship series all over again?

We watched it by signing up for a PBS Documentaries subscription for $3.99 a month and then tuning in through Amazon Prime Video. If you’ve never seen “Baseball” and you’ve got 20-plus hours to spare, we recommend it.

The Obama portraits

After striking out the day before, we finally got to see the National Portrait Gallery paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was a wonderful experience, and we enjoyed learning more about the artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. I regard Obama and Dwight Eisenhower as the two best presidents of my lifetime, and I was too young to remember Ike.

More evidence that Woodrow Wilson was among our very worst presidents

Wilson in 1910

I find it astonishing that Woodrow Wilson’s reputation as a great president has been revisited only in recent years. For most of the century since his presidency, he’s been regarded as some of a visionary reformer and a liberal internationalist, his name adorning institutions and publications.

In fact, he was a vicious racist, a warmonger and an authoritarian who crushed civil liberties. We are still living with the consequences of World War I, and though he didn’t start it, he supercharged it by getting the United States involved (after pledging he wouldn’t) and grossly mishandling the peace talks.

Now there’s a new book about the Wilson years by Adam Hochschild called “American Midnight.” According to Thomas Meaney’s review in The New York Times, Hochschild deals mainly with Wilson’s campaign of repression. Meaney writes:

By some measures — and certainly in many quarters of the American left — the years 1917-21 have a special place in infamy. The United States during that time saw a swell of patriotic frenzy and political repression rarely rivaled in its history. President Woodrow Wilson’s terror campaign against American radicals, dissidents, immigrants and workers makes the McCarthyism of the 1950s look almost subtle by comparison.

I recommend “The Great War,” part of the PBS “American Experience” series. The three-part program debuted in 2018. You should be able to watch it if you’re a PBS Passport member, which gives you access to all kinds of great programming. We watched it a couple of years ago through the PBS app on Apple TV.

Even without trying to, the documentary makes the case that Wilson was, in fact, among our very worst presidents.

Catching up with Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece about the Great Migration

Photo (cc) 2013 by Howard County Library System

At some point I realized I was never going to sit down and read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson’s monumental history of the Great Migration. I decided to do the next best thing and listen to the audiobook, and I’m glad I did. Told principally, though not exclusively, through the lives of three African Americans who left the South in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, “The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010) is really nothing less than the history of the United States in the 20th century.

During the Great Migration, from around 1916 until the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, about 6 million Black people moved from the South to Northern cities in order to escape the racism of Jim Crow era. Of course, they encountered plenty of racism in the North as well, but it was less deadly and less restrictive than what they had experienced back home. For instance, one of Wilkerson’s protagonists, Ida Mae Gladney, left Mississippi after a family member was beaten to within an inch of his life on a false accusation that he had stolen turkeys. The next day, the turkeys wandered back from wherever they had been — and Ida Mae and her husband, George, soon left for Milwaukee before settling in Chicago.

Also portrayed are George Starling, who escaped to New York just ahead of a lynch mob that aimed to kill him because of his work in organizing Florida’s orange pickers, and Robert Foster, a gifted surgeon who left Louisiana for California rather than settle for a career as a country doctor caring exclusively for poor Black patients.

Wilkerson writes with considerable depth and empathy. The narrator, Robin Miles, never falters during the nearly 23-hour production, sharing Wilkerson’s words with warmth. Of course, I wish had a copy of the book marked up with highlights and notes — that’s the disadvantage of listening rather than reading. But I’m glad I was finally able to experience Wilkerson’s magnificent achievement.

Shot of love

We’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball,” which certainly beats watching the Red Sox these days. Last night, as the story turned to the death of Babe Ruth’s first wife, Helen Ruth, in a Watertown house fire, I heard a familiar tune on piano. I couldn’t quite place it except that it was clearly a hymn.

Then I remembered. It was “Abide with Me,” which — in addition to being sacred music — is the first piece on Thelonious Monk’s 1957 album “Monk’s Music,” written, as it turns out, by a 19th-century English church musician named William Henry Monk. Thelonious Monk doesn’t play; instead, it’s lovingly rendered by his horn section, consisting of Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax, and Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax.

Please give it a listen. It might be the most uplifting thing you do all day.

How Spotify’s greed sparked an uprising

Neil Young in Oslo. Photo (cc) 2013 by Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3

Previously published at GBH News.

No sooner had Neil Young announced he was pulling his music off Spotify because of vaccine falsehoods on Joe Rogan’s podcast than we began to learn about other dicey content on the service.

Will Dunn had a list at The New Statesman. Among them: Steven Crowder, who’s been accused of racism and homophobia; Hearts of Oak, which has featured anti-Muslim interviews; and Taake, a Norwegian black metal band whose front man appeared on stage in Germany with a swastika on his chest.

“This is the great problem of the platform economy,” Dunn wrote. “In traditional broadcasting the platform publishes a small amount of material to a large audience, taking responsibility for its quality. In the platform economy, a vast amount of material is published — there are almost three million podcasts on Spotify — and the market for attention decides who wins.”

Well, no. In fact, Dunn’s article illustrates a significant misunderstanding that has permeated the furor over Spotify. And it underscores the sad reality that podcasting, like the open web in general, is being eclipsed by business interests focused on dollars rather than democratic discourse.

Most material on Spotify and competing services can be considered third-party content, no different from what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter. Podcasts are distributed to all the major platforms. You’ll find Crowder and Hearts of Oak at Apple Podcasts, for instance, and Taake is available on Apple Music. I may not like what they say, but they’re free to say it.

Starting last April, though, Spotify and Apple announced they were going to start signing celebrity podcasters to exclusive deals. Rogan reportedly got $100 million and is immensely popular — certainly more popular these days than Young and the other musicians who’ve joined him, including (so far) Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren.

In other words, Spotify now embraces two entirely different business models. On the one hand, it’s a neutral platform for most podcasters as well as independent musicians who upload their music to the service. On the other, it’s a broadcaster, as fully responsible for Rogan’s content as Fox News is for Tucker Carlson. That’s just as true for Spotify’s less controversial fare, such as “Renegades,” an exclusive podcast featuring Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama.

The difference has significant implications for free speech. It would be absurd for Young to demand that Spotify remove every bit of third-party content he finds offensive as the price for keeping “Like a Hurricane” in rotation. But it’s perfectly reasonable for Young to decide he doesn’t want to be associated with a company that pays and actively promotes a host who’s indulging in dangerous vaccine nonsense.

Even so, Young et al. have been accused in some quarters of failing to respect Rogan’s free-speech rights. For instance, Zaid Jilani, writing at City Journal, sneered at “Young’s transformation from countercultural champion of freedom of speech to corporate censorship advocate and defender of the public-health bureaucracy.” That’s an absurd argument because it suggests that Young shouldn’t exercise his own free-speech rights. He’s free to stay on Spotify or leave, and he’s chosen to leave.

“I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship,” Young said in a statement on his website. “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.”

That’s a refreshingly tolerant attitude toward free speech given the frightening wave of repression taking place in the broader culture — from the banning of LGBTQ books and “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, to legislation being debated among New Hampshire lawmakers to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, and to empower snitches who are eager to turn in teachers.

Then again, Young has also made it clear that he’d come back if Spotify got rid of Rogan’s program. Do Young and Mitchell, years past their heyday, really exercise that kind of clout? I think the answer to that is maybe. They’re still popular, especially with older listeners. Some other musicians with a profile higher than Lofgren’s may join them, though few own the rights to their recordings. (Bob Dylan and Springsteen are among the artists who’ve sold their catalogs recently.)

But the real economic challenge Young and his compatriots pose is to the idea of Spotify as the infinite jukebox. If you are a paying customer, you expect to be able to find anything you want, no matter how obscure. I wouldn’t pay for a service without Neil Young. (Yes, I am old.) And though I’m not a Joni Mitchell fan, I recently listened to five of her classic albums — on Spotify.

Besides, a sudden wave of negative publicity can bring a company under scrutiny in ways it had previously escaped. As I’ve been discussing the issue over the past few days on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve learned that Apple Music pays musicians double what Spotify pays. It’s still inadequate, and some smaller services like Tidal do better. But for a mainstream service with access to just about everything you’d ever want to listen to, Apple might be a superior choice. And that’s where I’m moving.

It remains to be seen how much harm the Rogan episode will do to Spotify. He and the company have both issued statements promising to improve their behavior, but there are no signs that they’re going to back down. And though there was some excitement last week over Spotify’s slide in the stock market, it was actually up 13.5% on Monday. (I’m finishing this early Tuesday afternoon, and the price is more or less flat.)

The original sin was Spotify and Apple’s move last year to try to turn podcasting into a walled garden for their economic benefit. Before that, podcasting was wide open. Whether a show was entirely a volunteer effort or supported by advertising, you could listen to it on any platform. Now, like the video-streaming services, you are forced to choose platforms based on which one has your favorite programs.

Spotify is now reaping what it has sown. Rogan has survived, at least for now. In the days ahead, we’ll learn what matters more to company executives — offering a one-stop platform for all the music and podcasts you want to listen to, or leaning on the drawing power of a few stars.

The answer, needless to say, will come down to which approach brings in more money.

Al Green at the Apollo, 1990

I had a chance Tuesday night to watch this video of Al Green performing at the Apollo Theater in 1990. This was at the height of Green’s reinvention as a minister and gospel singer, so there’s not much secular here. Lots of shoutouts for Jesus. The concentration and intensity he brought to the stage that night has to be experienced. Prepare to be dazzled.

A photo exhibit documents New Haven during the COVID shutdown

Photos by Dan Kennedy

I first heard about Roderick Topping’s Instagram photos of New Haven during the COVID shutdown (you’ll find him at @robobtop) from an interview he did with Babz Rawls Ivy on WNHH-LP. Topping shot a series of gloomy, moody pictures showing mostly abandoned cityscapes in an attempt to capture a historical moment that we all experienced, and that we still haven’t put entirely behind us.

Thirty-six of Topping’s photos are now on display at the New Haven Museum in an exhibit titled “Strange Times.” I had a chance to visit recently, viewing COVID photographs under COVID protocols — visitors are required to register ahead of time and masks must be worn throughout the building.

In the introductory text, Topping explains what he’s up to:

For the past year and half I’ve been walking the streets documenting this new reality in New Haven. These photographs focus on the structures, outlines, and topography that serve as the background to our daily lives. Many of the photos here are black and white, much how I think I’ll remember these days: bleak, lonely, and surreal.

There are some evocative images here. I particularly like one from January of this year, just before vaccines became widely available. A man sits alone on a park bench, at night, on New Haven Green. His back is to the camera. Center Church is directly in front of him. The story told by that photo is that human interaction was missing even when we were able to get outside.

Yet there are some odd choices here as well. For instance, Topping shows us a man standing alone at a bus stop during the daytime on Chapel Street. In viewing it, you start telling yourself that the scene would normally be crowded with people. Then you look at the date: Feb. 14, 2020, a moment when COVID was still just a rumor. So what exactly is Topping trying to convey?

There are also some photos taken as the city was opening up again, such as a group of diners sitting outdoors at a restaurant on Crown Street during July of this year.

You can see some of Topping’s photos in a story that the New Haven Independent published about the exhibit.

Overall, “Strange Times” provides an illuminating look at downtown New Haven. Even if not every image fits in perfectly with the pandemic theme, the exhibit is worth your attention if you happen to find yourself in the New Haven area. And save some time for the rest of the museum as well.

“Strange Times” will be on display at the New Haven Museum through March 25. Click here for more information.

Joan Didion, 1934-2021

The iconic journalist Joan Didion has died at the age of 87. Earlier this year I wrote about a documentary about her life called “The Center Will Not Hold.” I’m republishing it here.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at my place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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An unexpected tale of love and redemption

We all have our favorite movies about journalism. Best known are the heroic films, which portray reporters as indefatigable warriors on behalf of truth, justice and the American way. At the top of that particular heap are “Spotlight,” “The Post” and — at the very pinnacle — “All the President’s Men,” which inspired a generation of young journalists. For those who like a bit more nuance, there’s “Absence of Malice.” And if you prefer pure entertainment to instruction or uplift, there’s “His Girl Friday,” a romantic romp starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

I’ve enjoyed all these movies. But I have to admit that my favorite film about journalism is “Shattered Glass,” a docudrama about a troubled young man named Stephen Glass, who concocted an increasingly outlandish series of articles while he was working at The New Republic in the 1990s. Exposed at last, he was drummed out of the business. It was the sort of scandal that proved defining for a small publication like TNR.

Indeed, I was somewhat startled over the weekend when I saw the magazine described as “at the time an influential journal of the center left.” At the time. It’s been a long decline for a magazine co-founded by Walter Lippmann; I understand it’s doing better these days. And though there are multiple factors responsible for its marginalization, most of which have to do with the explosion of digital opinion journals, it was the Glass scandal that provided the magazine with its first swift kick down the stairs.

“Shattered Glass” never made the big time, but it’s long since become a staple of journalism ethics classes. (I don’t know why; “don’t make stuff up” can be dispensed with during the first 10 minutes of the first meeting of the semester.) People in journalism have long been passionate about it as well. I was once asked to take part in a panel discussion and found myself sitting next to Marty Peretz, then TNR’s owner and editor-in-chief, who, of course, is portrayed in the film. I remember telling him something like, “I agree with you about the commas.” (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) I don’t think he laughed.

All this is by way of my introduction to a story that you must read if you haven’t already. Titled “Loving Lies,” the piece — by Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact and no thus coddler of journalists who fabricate — appears in a digital publication called Air Mail, which has been around for a couple of years even though I hadn’t previously heard of it. (Since I first published this in the Members Newsletter, I’ve learned that it was co-founded by former New York Times journalist Alessandra Stanley and former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.) The quality looks to be quite high, as I would expect of an outlet able to commission a piece from someone as accomplished as Adair.

If it seems like I’m dancing around the main topic, it’s because I am. I don’t want to write any spoilers here. I will tell you that it’s one of the most moving stories about love and redemption that I can remember reading in a long time, and even that’s more than I ought to say. Just read it. You’ll need to provide your email address, but it’s absolutely worth doing so.

This post was first published as part of last week’s Media Nation Members Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.