*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Alex Jones On 'Losing The News,' And Why It Matters
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. After reporting for small newspapers, a big
metro paper, radio, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet, Alex S. Jones fears
that the kind of news he believes in is in trouble.
He thinks this is a problem that affects us all. Heâs worried that newspapers
are struggling to survive, investigative journalism is becoming a casualty of
budget cuts, and opinion journalism is becoming a dominant news source,
overshadowing impartial journalism.
Jones writes about this in his new book, âLosing the News: The Future of the
News that Feeds Democracy.â Jonesâ family has owned the local paper in
Greenville, Tennessee for four generations. He covered the press for the New
York Times from 1983 to â92, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. Jones
is the co-author of the book âThe Trust,â about the family that owns the Times.
Heâs now the director of Harvardâs Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics
and Public Policy.
Alex Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you grew up in a newspaper family. Your
family has owned a newspaper since 1916?
Mr.Â ALEX JONES (Harvard Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public
Policy): 1916. Iâm actually in the fourth generation of a newspaper family from
a little town in Tennessee, but the thing that really makes my family history a
little bit fascinating is that the first two generations were both women, which
was very unusual in the newspaper business in that era.
I knew my great-grandmother and grandmother very well, both of them, and they
were something. They were both in the Tennessee Newspaper Hall of Fame, as a
matter of fact.
GROSS: Now, you said that you were brought up to believe in fairness,
objectivity and accuracy. How do you see that approach to journalism changing
as Web sites, blogs and cable news channels take on a bigger role, and opinion
journalism becomes much more popular?
Mr.Â JONES: Well, I think that whatâs happening to the news is that the news of
verification, as you might call it, is being supplanted by the news of
assertion, in part because of the tastes of the audience, of Americans, and
also in major part because of the economic conditions that have put newspapers,
especially, in a position of frantically trying to find ways to survive, and
part of the way theyâve done that is to cut their serious reporters, their
experienced reporters, their investigative reporters, the people who do this
iron core of serious news, to the bone. And I think that whatâs being replaced
â what is being replaced â replacing that is something that is much cheaper
because opinion costs very little.
You donât have to go out and report. All you have to do is give your opinion,
and especially if you can make it an aggressive and edgy, an angry opinion and
gets into a fight with somebody, that makes good television, that makes good
commentary, and a lot of people seem to want that. I think thatâs where weâre
headed right now unless we do something about it.
GROSS: Now, you point out that investigative reporting is very expensive, not
only because youâre paying a reporter or a team of reporters a lot of money to
take a long period of time to really dig into a story, but also, as you point
out, you need a big legal staff. How important is a legal staff and libel
insurance for any news organization thatâs doing investigative reporting?
Mr.Â JONES: I think this goes to a part of this whole difficult situation for
newspapers and traditional news media that people donât understand, and that is
the importance that they do have the economic strength to be able to withstand
challenges from people who are against their finding out things that they need
to find out.
I think virtually any investigative report is done in opposition to somebody,
usually somebody or some institution very powerful. It can take a lot of legal
expense and a lot of Freedom of Information Act inquiries, a lot of reaction in
the form of boycotts, and this is not just at the New York Times level.
I tell the story in the book of the Idaho Falls, Idaho newspaper, which is a
small newspaper in the heart of Mormon country, just north of Salt Lake City,
in which they took on the Boy Scouts, which were essentially an arm of the
Mormon Church, because the Boy Scouts were shielding some Scout leaders who had
been guilty of abusing, sexually abusing some of their charges.
And the newspaper, you know, it suffered terribly: boycotts, denunciations and
so forth. But they stuck to their guns, and they were able to do that in part
because they were an institution that made money, and I think that people, you
know, when â Iâm all for nonprofit journalism, but I think that when youâre
talking about doing journalism in opposition, having the resources is vitally
important and something that I think is not well understood.
GROSS: You fear that weâre losing a lot of impartial reporting, and you fear
too that news channels, cable news channels, have become opinion channels, as
opposed to news channels. Give us an example of what you are concerned about
with cable news.
Mr.Â JONES: We are really now going through a very serious national conversation
about health care reform. I think when we look at the way cable news has set
itself up to debate even important issues like health care, it is almost always
with people who may or may not have the facts at hand or have facts to back up
their positions arguing with each other. And so we tend to, I believe, embrace
the view that we already have and are not able to be persuaded because we donât
really have very much confidence in the other side, because itâs not based on a
belief that they are willing to tell both sides of the story. Thatâs where the
persuasive part comes in.
GROSS: The New York Times recently reported that the heads of GE, the parent
company of NBC and MSNBC, and News Corp, which owns the Fox News Channel, came
to an agreement that the feud between Bill OâReilly and Keith Olbermann was
damaging to both corporations and that it should stop, and it did, at least it
did for a while.
And this agreement was after OâReilly had attacked GE, and then a GE
shareholdersâ meeting was overrun by critics of MSNBC. Do you see this as an
example of corporate censorship, you know, the parent companies coming to some
kind of decision about what the content should be?
Mr.Â JONES: Well, I guess you might think of it that way. I do think of it
fairly cynically, frankly. I think, first of all, that OâReilly and Olbermann
are both in the business of attracting an audience, and they know that
attacking each other is a very audience-pleasing, you know, thing for their
particular audiences. And I think that the issue was not that something, you
know, untoward or unethical or improper was going on but that it was hurting
the two corporate brands. and so thatâs why they called a halt to it. But I
never thought it was serious anyway.
I thought it was just shtick, and I think that thatâs the problem with these
kinds of things. A lot of people confuse that with news. I think a lot of
people watch Bill OâReilly and watch Keith Olbermann and they look at them as
I donât think OâReilly or Olbermann think of themselves really that way. They
are showmen. Theyâre like Rush Limbaugh. He describes himself as an
entertainer. Well, that may be fine, but I think itâs, you know, a bit phony
because they also know that they are shaping opinion and that they are shaping
opinion in many ways rather dishonestly, as far as I am concerned. But you
know, I donât think that this is any more corporate, you know, censorship than
it was a matter of a dollars-and-cents decision, and if their ratings go down,
my guess is the decision will be rescinded.
GROSS: You know, we were talking about opinion journalism versus impartial
reporting, and in opinion journalism I think thereâs at least two different
categories. One is fact-based opinion journalism, opinions based on actual
facts; and the other is kind of opinion journalism based on things that arenât
true - for example, like the birther movement, the movement that really
believes that Barack Obama is not an American citizen and therefore shouldnât
be president of the United States, or the opinion journalism thatâs been
talking about death panels, these non-existent death panels in Barack Obamaâs
health care policy. Do you make that distinction between the problems or - you
know, of opinion journalism thatâs based on fact and opinion journalism thatâs
based on rumor or just deceit?
Mr.Â JONES: I would make a different distinction. I would say that there is an
advocacy and opinion journalism based on fact, but the things that you
described I would call propaganda. I think they are calculated lies, and I
think thatâs why, again, these kinds of things are so dangerous because people
are inclined to want to believe them.
We are a species that sort of lends its belief system to something that
reinforces what we already think, and thatâs why being responsible in
journalism, and I think in terms of objective journalism â you know, objective
journalism is at the core of fact-based opinion journalism.
At least fact-based opinion journalism is based on fact. I think that what we
are really getting away from, though, is the iron core of really reported,
professionally reported news that ought to be at the heart of this national
conversation that weâre having and is, in my opinion, the only real antidote -
the facts, the truth, are the only antidote to propaganda.
GROSS: I wonder what you think the impartial reporterâs job should be. Like
what newspaper should be doing when things like the birther movement take shape
or like the death-panel story.
I mean, for example, I think like the cable news channels have been spending a
lot of time talking about that and doing, I think, some really good work in
trying to, you know, disprove these rumors and point out who is behind them,
what their motives are, but Iâm wondering - for newspapers in the more
mainstream media, sometimes the inclination is to ignore things that arenât
true because theyâre not true, and other times, you know, you take them on
because these are untruths that are spreading and are doing a lot of damage.
So what are your thoughts about how the mainstream media has been handling some
of what you describe as propaganda?
Mr.Â JONES: Well, first of all, I would be willing to bet you that if you looked
deep enough youâd find that what the cable news people are reporting was
actually reported originally by some newspaper or some print organization,
because cable news, they do some reporting, but they really are almost entirely
derivative, in my experience - not entirely, but largely.
I think people confuse where they get their news from who got the news in the
first place, and I think that unfortunately for newspapers, they do a terrible
job of making the case that they are the originators of most of the news that
appears on television.
I think that certainly goes for local news, and it goes in many cases for these
national stories. I think that the power of fact is, as I say, is an enormous
one, and itâs a very fragile one in its own way because it requires resources
and will and institutional power to have the, you know, the ability to get at
those facts, and it takes time.
A lot of times the, you know, the big lie will be out there, and just by
reporting that people are saying this, you are, in effect, reinforcing this. I
noted that Mark McKinnon(ph), whoâs a very smart, you know, political operative
and worked for George W. Bush, I heard him give a speech once about how they
were doing television commercials that they never even aired.
They would do a television commercial that would assert things, then leak it to
the cable news outlets, and the cable news outlets would do a story about the
fact that they had published, you know, they created this ad. In effect, not
even having to pay for the ad, they amplified the message all over.
That is, you know â the PR industry, the sort of opinion-molding industry, is a
very big industry. They are doing well, and they are going to thrive in this
environment because we are living in an environment that lends itself, because
of the Web and because of the willingness of people, of - you know,
institutions like CNN, to participate, itâs lending itself to being, you know,
the echo chamber for this kind of stuff, whether itâs true or not.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Alex Jones. Heâs the author of
âLosing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy.â Letâs take a
short break here, and then weâll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Alex Jones. Heâs the author of
the news book, âLosing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy,â
and heâs also the director of Harvardâs Shorenstein Center on the Press,
Politics and Public Policy. He reported on the media for several years for the
New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize while he was doing it.
As we mentioned before, you grew up with newspapers. Your family has owned a
newspaper since 1916 in Greenville, Tennessee. Youâre a part-owner of the
paper. You reported on the media for the New York Times. Letâs talk a little
bit about the state of newspapers now.
So many family-run newspapers were sold to chains. Your familyâs newspaper is
not one of them, but you know the pressures that were on family newspapers and
the reasons why they sold to chains. Can you talk about some of those pressures
on family-owned papers?
Mr.Â JONES: I think that when I was, you know, when I began to witness these â
this wholesale disappearance of the world that I grew up in with family-owned
newspapers - and there were many of them in those days, I mean the â50s in
Tennessee - and I began to go to these newspaper conventions with my father and
the corridors were haunted by people who were, you know, romancing widows and
people who were considering selling their newspapers, and I think that they
were doing it in large measure because they were afraid of what was going to be
involved in the technology revolution of that time, which was changing from a
hot-metal system to computers and having to invest in new presses and so forth.
I think that what has happened is that, you know, the world that I knew is
gone. It is largely gone, at least, and I think that this, as you say, the
world of newspapers is now a chain-ownership world.
Nonetheless, those chain owners were, in most respects, willing to abide by the
covenant that was really made back in the 19th century when newspapers became a
real business, which was that newspapers would be successful economic
enterprises and make profits, but they would in turn take on a public service
role, which was mainly in the form of doing the kind of serious news thatâs
expensive and that a lot of the people who bought the newspaper didnât even
really care that much about. They bought it for the sports or for the crossword
or for the comics, but they got the news nonetheless.
Whatâs happening now is that a lot of newspapers were fat and happy in the
1980s and â90s. Those days are over for good. We live in a digital age. The
good thing is, and my sort of â my most optimistic sort of vision of what I
hope will happen â is that because of this serious economic downturn, the
newspaper industry as an industry has had to really get down to the nitty-
gritty of as lean an operation as it can.
Now, this has meant that a lot of very good journalists have lost their jobs,
but also it has meant that a lot of the sort of baggage and superfluous fat
that was there because of the fat-and-happy days, thatâs gone. Thatâs gone as
GROSS: Whatâs the fat that youâre talking about, because in your book you say
there were excesses in the â80s and â90s in spending at newspapers.
Mr.Â JONES: Iâll give you an example. I think a lot of people, a lot of your
listeners, have probably been following the fate of the Boston Globe, where â
which is my hometown paper. And the Boston Globe is owned by the New York Times
and has gone through this series of very unhappy, you know, contract give-backs
and so forth, but among the things that itâs had on its books was a lifetime
job guarantee for a whole cadre of advertising salespeople who did not have any
advertising to sell.
I mean, they first of all were selling advertising in a very different world,
and secondly, because of whatâs happened to the economy, they really didnât
have anything to do, but they were contributing, you know, hugely to this
Now, I donât begrudge anyone their job, but all Iâm saying is in a digital
world, as newspapers are trying to survive, you canât afford things like that.
Youâve got to be lean and mean, and I think that what has happened is that the
newspaper industry, over the last year, has gotten very lean and mean, and itâs
gotten too lean in the news category especially. but many newspapers in this
country, probably most newspapers in this country, are making a modest profit
now, a modest operating profit. The ones that are in bankruptcy, like the one
in Philadelphia, is mostly because of the debt that they have.
If the economy improves, and if some resources come flowing back along with
some advertising, they are going to be in a position to rebuild, rebuild both
in terms of their journalistic muscle and in all their digital side, and I
think that is going to be essential if they are going to survive.
GROSS: Well, a lot of local papers now are really relying on the AP and Reuters
for international stories and for a lot of national stories as well. Does that
break your heart when you see that â with no offense to AP and Reuters â but
does it break your heart when you see so much syndicated, so many articles in
newspapers, as opposed to journalists from those papers actually going out and
doing the reporting?
Mr.Â JONES: Absolutely. I mean there was a whole world of, you know, mid-level
newspapers that did very serious reporting. One of the most celebrated examples
was the Copley news service, which served mostly the San Diego newspaper that
was their flagship.
In 2006, two reporters from the Washington bureau of the Copley news service
did a terrific investigation of Randy Duke Cunningham, a Republican
representing San Diego, very powerful member of the Appropriations Committee
and a thorough crook, a guy who had taken millions of dollars in bribes, had
forced the Pentagon to buy things it didnât need and didnât want, and was, you
know, was a scoundrel, absolutely. They did this investigation. He is now in
jail. They won a Pulitzer Prize.
In the years, three years, since that happened, that Copley news services has
closed its Washington bureau. The San Diego paper, which was the flagship of
this family-owned enterprise, has been sold. Those reporters who won the
Pulitzer are gone, and I donât think anybody, in the same level certainly, is
watching the delegation from that very important part of California in
Washington, and I think that is exactly why you donât want to have to depend on
these huge news services who canât be all things to all people.
GROSS: Alex S. Jones will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called âLosing the News.â Jones is the director of Harvardâs Shorenstein
Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Iâm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Alex S. Jones, author of
the new book, âLosing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy."
Jones is the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics
and Public Policy. He covered the press for The New York Times from 1983 to '92
and won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. His family has owned the local
paper in Greeneville, Tennessee for four generations.
Ever since newspapers started to have presences on the Internet the question
has been should they pay for access to their site or not? And this is a debate
that's still going on. The Financial Times charges for the Web and they're
considering adding micropayments, so if you donât want to subscribe you can
just make small payments for individual articles. News Corp., which owns Fox
News among other things, and the Wall Street Journal is going to start charging
for news Web sites, though, I believe the Journal already charges doesn't it,
for at least some of its articles?
Mr. JONES: It does. But itâs a kind of a - it's a leaky wall as they say.
Mr. JONES: You can get part of it free but not all.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So where do you see the direction heading now in terms of paying
or not paying for access to newspaper's Web sites or charging those
micropayments for individual articles?
Mr. JONES: I think that a lot of people believe that that's the way to go. But
I think that, you know, the genie is out of the bottle on this. I think that
the culture of the Web is to be free. And I think people, with so much
information out there, are going to be very loath to pay for it if they donât
have to. And I think that it'll be very interesting to see whether Rupert
Murdoch and News Corp. start charging for, say, the New York Post. I know a lot
of people in New York who would buy the New York Post every day just to read
page six. But will they pay...
GROSS: That's the gossip page. Yeah.
Mr. JONES: That the gossip page. But will they pay to watch - to read that
online? My guess is they won't because theyâve got so many other options.
GROSS: A lot of local papers have been emphasizing local news, thinking that,
you know, The New York Times isnât going to cover that. If you subscribe to The
Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post youâre not going to get
that local news. So the emphasis has been on hyperlocal, real attention to
local news, local, high school sports teams, things like that. How is that
experiment in emphasizing hyperlocal news going?
Mr. JONES: Well, I think it doesn't work very well in some respects. I mean I
think that, you know, people, we all like to see ourselves in the newspaper and
I think that if your child is, you know, playing T-Ball you like, you know, you
love the idea that the newspaper is going to be covering that that way. But I
think, you know, I donât buy it, frankly. I think that people want serious
news. I think that they expect the newspaper, if they're going to subscribe to
it, if they're going to be willing to be able to give it their time and
attention, they're going to have to give them something really worthwhile, I
believe. And I think that that is not necessarily, you know, just a matter of
printing school, you know, lunch menus. That's valuable. I think they ought to
offer those things.
On the other hand, I think it's very important that you cover local political
news and the school boards and things like that. Those things are very, you
know, time-consuming and important and that's not what hyperlocal coverage in
many respects is being used for. It's being used for, as you say, sports and
stuff like that that are entertaining, but the stuff that is the, you know, the
element that feeds our democracy and participation in civic affairs, that's
getting short shrift.
GROSS: You use a term in relation to newspapers that I haven't heard used in
that context before, and the word is harvesting. What is harvesting?
Mr. JONES: Harvesting is the most cynical form of capitalizing on the decline
of a business that is, you know, headed for the boneyard. The idea of
harvesting newspapers is that there are still people out there who are loyal to
it, who, as a matter of habit or loyalty or belief, continue to buy it and
therefore advertisers continue to put ads in it. Harvesting means that you buy
a newspaper and then you strip it absolutely of every expense. You make it
something that is as cheaply produced as you possibly can, therefore, even on a
lower revenue stream, becoming very profitable for a while until effectively it
loses everybody and dies. And you have made a lot of money in a very short
time, and the cadaver is all that's left.
GROSS: So as you point out in your book, some newspapers are trying to make
money by offering products besides the newspaper. Your family newspaper is
doing that as well. There's coupons that your familyâs paper is marketing now.
Mr. JONES: We are, along the interstate highways in the south.
GROSS: To do what?
Mr. JONES: Well, people are traveling. They're looking for discounted, you
know, accommodations and we created a, you know, a book that is distributed
free at, you know, at various places, like welcome sites, that people can use
to get discounts from, you know, for their accommodations at motels and hotels.
This is something that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with journalism
but the money that we are making from it - and we're making a little I'm glad
to say - is turned back into supporting our overall enterprise, which is
fundamentally a journalistic one.
GROSS: I'm trying to figure out whether this is a, you know, a sign of victory,
youâve figured out a way to add more income, or an acknowledgement of defeat,
that there's no way your newspaper is going to make money and you have to sell
another product in order to keep the paper afloat?
Mr. JONES: Well it's probably some of both, Terry. I think the thing is that we
need money. There's no question about it and if it means selling an ad on the
front page then as far as I'm concerned, you know, that's the lesser of evils.
I think that the danger, and I think it's a legitimate one that youâve
identified, is that if those things start to be the moneymakers, then are you
going to be in the coupon business with newspaper coverage as a sort of an
adjunct? I think the tail can start to wag the dog. But right now, you know, we
are very grateful for the revenue that comes from that coupon book that we can
use to keep people on payroll.
GROSS: As investigative journalists lose their jobs at newspapers, there are
more independent investigative journalist groups growing up. I'm thinking of
ProPublica or ProPublica.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I'm not sure which way they say it - the Center for Public Integrity,
there's other examples of that, some of them are nonprofit, and they sometimes
collaborate with reporters on newspapers or they sell their pieces to
newspapers. But these are independent groups of investigative journalists and I
wonder what you think of that model.
Mr. JONES: I am grateful for it. And another one that's really good is
GlobalPost, which is a for-profit online effort to do international reporting,
which is also been one of the things that has been very badly hit. I'm all for
these things and I think that they will augment, but I don't think they will
I think that oddly enough it's very important to things like ProPublica and the
Center for Public Integrity and GlobalPost, that they have partners that are
mainstream news organizations because that is one of the things that's really
in play here. If we lose these institutions, we also lose the, you know, the
power and velocity of the things that the journalists find out. I think that
the Center for Public Integrity, for instance, makes its information available
to all news organizations, but it's when those stories appear, based on what
the Center for Public Integrity has unearthed, in The New York Times and the
Washington Post and other places, that their work has its greatest power. The
institutions need to survive for that power to continue, because just by
publishing it on their Web site doesnât do the trick.
GROSS: So many family newspapers have sold to corporations. There arenât that
many family newspapers left. Your family newspaper is one of them. Itâs a small
paper in Greeneville, Tennessee. It's a daily or a weekly?
Mr. JONES: It's a daily.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. How come your family never sold? Did you get offers?
Mr. JONES: Oh itâs a...
GROSS: Did you get really...
Mr. JONES: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. We...
GROSS: ...really tempting offers?
Mr. JONES: We certainly did. In fact, there was a guy who was a notorious
broker who, when I was working for The New York Times, I used to ask him how he
was - I honestly, I couldnât understand. Why would you give up a way of life,
which is the way I thought of it, a way of life that paid a, you know, decent
living, and not rich. We were like everybody else in our town, I thought. And
then - but why would you trade that for just money? I didn't understand it. And
he told me. He tapped his forehead and said if I can get him on the yacht up
here then the deal is done. Well, for reasons that I can't fully explain, weâve
never gotten on the yacht.
That guy actually sent a representative one time when my father was out of town
to try to entice my brother into sort of a family revolt to sell, and my
brother bodily threw him out of the building.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What was he trying to do to create the family revolt?
Mr. JONES: Well, he was telling him how much money he could make. I mean those
were the days when newspapers were thought to be worth a lot of money. But, you
GROSS: But so the idea was he would turn against you and try to convince you
Mr. JONES: Exactly, because...
GROSS: ...the other family members to sell. He'd be their advocate within the
Mr. JONES: Exactly. And that's one of the things that makes The New York Times
so remarkable. My wife, Susan Tifft, and I wrote a book called "The Trust"
about the Sulzberger family that's owned The New York Times since the - 1896.
You know, The Times has been going through a terrible, terrible situation
financially, and theyâve watched their stock plummet. But that family has stuck
together. They have, there has not been a single, you know, at least public
expression of a desire that the Times be sold to Rupert Murdoch or some other
enterprise. I think that we're, oddly enough, a very peculiar breed, we - sort
of family newspaper people that are the last dinosaurs in the swamp, we're
pretty stubborn about it. And I hope that that's not going to happen on my
GROSS: Well Alex Jones, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. JONES: This has been my great pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Alex S. Jones is the author of âLosing the News" and is the director of
Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward profiles Richard Thompson and plays some
music from the new, four-CD Thompson retrospective.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
For Richard Thompson's 60th, A Musical Gift
TERRY GROSS, host:
Richard Thompson is the kind of guitar player that other guitar players revere.
He's also a songwriter of uncommon skill, and over the past 40 years he's
written some classics. In honor of Thompson's turning 60, Shout Factory has
released "Walking on a Wire," a four-disc overview of his career. Ed Ward takes
a look at it today.
(Soundbite of music)
ED WARD: Richard Thompson was born in the Notting Hill section of London, son
of a policeman who'd moved to London from Scotland to join the force. He
started playing guitar in school, taking lessons from a friend, and then
started writing songs with a couple of other friends.
There was no question about what he wanted to do after that. Falling in with a
bunch of London musicians who were attracted by American folk-rock and lived in
a house called Fairport, he joined their band when he was 17. Their first gig
was in front of 15 people in a church hall, and it was the start of Fairport
Fairport has always been a rather fluid band. And after their first album, they
changed personnel for the first time, changing their female singer, Judy Dyble,
for another, Sandy Denny. She proved to be perfect to sing the songs Thompson
was writing at the time.
(Soundbite of "Meet on the Ledge,")
FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) We used to say, there'd come the day weâll be
making songs or finding better words. These ideas never lasted long. The way is
up along the road, the air is growing thin. Too many friends who tried, blown
off this mountain with the wind. Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the
ledge. When my time is up, I'm going to see all my friends. Meet on the ledge,
we're going to meet on the ledge. If you really mean it, it all comes around
WARD: Late in 1969, though, Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings quit. And the
remaining members retreated to the countryside to think things through,
emerging with a new take on British traditional music and a masterpiece of an
album, "Liege and Lief," featuring extended guitar jams that showed that
Richard Thompson was one of the best guitarists in England.
Fairport toured America at this point, and Thompson held his own on stage with
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page at one show. But when he returned to England, he quit
the band and spent a lot of time doing session work for other artists. In the
course of this, he met a backup vocalist named Linda Peters, who was recording
a Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercial the day they met. They were married in 1972,
and two years later, released...
(Soundbite of "When I Get to the Border")
WARD: ..."I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight," the first in a series of
albums that showcased Richard's songwriting and guitar-playing alongside their
almost magical vocal blend.
(Soundbite of "When I Get to the Border")
Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Musician): (Singing) Dirty people take what's mine. I can
leave them all behind. They can never cross that line when I get to the border.
Sawbones standing at the door, waiting âtill I hit the floor. He wonât find me
anymore, when I get to the border. Monday morning, Monday morning, closing in
on me. Iâm packing up and Iâm running away, to where nobody picks on me. If you
see a box of pineâ¦
WARD: In 1975, Richard and Linda became Sufis, appearing on the cover of their
1975 album âPour Down Like Silverâ in traditional clothing, but otherwise
hardly changed. Sufism is a famously liberal branch of Islam, often cloaking
its devotional texts in metaphors of love or intoxication â things Richard had
written about in the past. Over the next few years, Richard and Linda continued
to record, but raising two young children kept them pretty close to home,
despite a growing following in the United States. In 1982, they released âShoot
Out the Lights,â one of their strongest sets of songs ever, maybe too strong.
(Soundbite of song, âDid She Jump Or Was She Pushedâ)
Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) She was there one minute and then she was gone the
next, lying in a pool of herself with a twisted neck. Oh, she fell from the
roof to the ground, there was glass lying all around. She was broken in a
hundred pieces when her body was found. She used to live life, she used to live
life with a vengeance, and the chosen would dance, the chosen would dance in
attendance. She crossed a lot of people, some she called friends. She thought
sheâd live forever, but forever always ends. Did she jump or was she pushed,
did she jump or was she pushed. Did she jump or was she pushedâ¦
WARD: Richard and Linda started a tour when the album came out, and it lasted
just long enough to fulfill the American dates. After the London show, the
Thompsonsâ marriage was over. It was about this time that word finally got out
about Richardâs songwriting and guitar-playing, and stars from Lou Reed to Neil
Young were mentioning him in interviews. Alternating between acoustic and
electric versions of his music, he continued to write great songs.
(Soundbite of song, â1952 Vincent Black Lightningâ)
Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Oh, says Red Molly to James âThatâs a fine motorbike. A
girl could feel special on any such likeâ says James to Red Molly âMy hatâs off
to you. Itâs a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. And Iâve seen you at the corners
and cafes it seems, Red hair and black leather, my favorite color schemeâ And
he pulled her on behind and down to Boxhill they did ride.
WARD: â1952 Vincent Black Lightningâ is the song audiences clamor for now, from
his 1991 album âRumor and Sigh,â but there are many, many more where that came
from. Over 400 in his lifetime catalog, by one estimation. Richard Thompson
continues to put out great albums and play shows that are never anything less
than amazing. Itâs been a long time since he knocked on the door of Fairport,
guitar in hand, but he shows no signs of letting up.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The Richard Thompson box set
âWalking On A Wireâ came out today.
(Soundbite of song, âDadâs Gonna Kill Meâ)
Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Out in the desert thereâs a soldier lying dead,
vultures pecking the eyes out of his head. Another day that could have been me
there instead. Nobody loves me here, nobody loves me here. Dadâs gonna kill me,
dadâs gonna kill me. You hit the booby trap and youâre in pieces with every
bullet your risk increases, old Ali Baba, heâs a different species. Nobody
loves me here, nobody loves me here. Dadâs gonna kill me, dadâs gonna kill me.
Iâm dead meat in my HumVee Frankenstein, I hit the road block, God knows I
never hit the mine. The dice rolled and I got lucky this time. Dadâs gonna kill
me. Dadâs gonna kill me.
GROSS: Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Richard Russoâs new
novel. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Russoâs Old âMagicâ Shines In Wry New Novel
TERRY GROSS, host:
For a lot of people, summer is a time of returning to familiar vacation spots.
In his latest novel âThat Old Cape Magic,â award winning novelist Richard Russo
writes about one manâs return to a beloved retreat. And Russo himself returns
to some trusty subjects and targets.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Russoâs preoccupations may seem familiar
but they never get stale. Hereâs her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Richard Russoâs glistening new, chambered nautilus of a novel
is called âThat Old Cape Magic,â but it might just as easily have been dubbed,
âTwo Weddings and a Funeral.â That alternate title gives you an idea of its
brazenly contrived plot structure. Part one opens on our middle-aged hero, a
former screenwriter named Jack Griffin, whoâs driving to a wedding on Cape Cod.
Nestled in the trunk of Griffinâs car is an urn filled with his fatherâs ashes.
Griffin and his parents had always spent the summers of his childhood on the
Cape, so Griffin has resolved that. As long as heâs going back for this
wedding, he might as well bring the urn along and find a time to wade out into
the briny deep and give dad the old heave ho.
In Part two of the novel, a year has passed and Griffinâs life has come un-
moored. Itâs once again summer and Griffin is driving alone, northward, up to
Maine this time, for another wedding â his only daughterâs. Two urns are now
wedged into opposite sides of his car trunk. If, as a reader, you give yourself
over to the delights of artifice â to Russoâs tight variations on a few themes,
to the cyclical returns to season and place, and to the revelations offered up
by a slim cast of characters â youâll love, as I did, this pared-down Russo.
âThat Old Cape Magic,â after all, is a novel of late middle age when instead of
lighting out for the territory, characters stumble along well-trod paths.
Griffin, whoâs given to wry rumination, puts it better.
He characterizes late middle age as a time of life when everything was
predictable and yet somehow you fail to see any of it coming. One of the big
things that Griffin fails to see coming is the shaking up of his marriage to
Joy, his wife of some 30 odd years. Unlike Griffin who, as a typical Russo
protagonist, is smart, wistful and depressed; Joy is that rarest of creatures,
an intelligent person inclined toward contentment. Sheâs happy with her family
and her work. For Joy, Griffin marvels in dismay, settled wasnât the same as
The other big thing that neither Griffin, nor, I think, Russo, could anticipate
is how Griffinâs parents, who are residing in those separate urns by the second
half of the novel, just arrogantly stroll into this story and run away with it.
Like a lot of angry people, theyâve a lot of energy and here theyâre like the
ghosts in âTopper,â they are constantly yakking away in Griffinâs head. The
fact that they were both academics â English professors no less â means that
irony is the default mode for all their pontifications. Readers familiar with
Russoâs wonderful 1997 novel, âStraight Man,â will already know heâs a wiz at
academic satire and clearly, he has fun here, returning to the inexhaustible
topic of academics behaving badly.
Griffinâs parents were Ivy League grads who found jobs together at a large
state university in the Midwest, where they were trapped by what they
ironically dubbed the process of promotion and tether. To console themselves,
they had numerous affairs and splurged on summer vacations at the Cape. And
every summer, as they drove over the Sagamore Bridge onto the Cape with the
young Griffin in the backseat, they would sing âThat Old Black Magic,â
ironically of course, substituting Cape for Black. To lay his parents to rest,
Griffin has to face how theyâve deeply and mostly destructively wormed their
way into his adult life.
Thatâs the gist of the story here, but because this is Richard Russo writing
and not some sentimental hack, the epiphanies are droll and muted. Hereâs one
of my favorites. Griffin is in a cocktail lounge on the Cape and he and a
friendly middle-aged woman next to him are trying to decipher a sign above the
bar that looks like itâs written in Middle English. She insists it has to mean
something and Griffin thinks to himself, how did you get to be this womanâs age
and still believe that everything meant something? She was obviously one of
those people who just soldiered on, determined to believe whatever gave them
comfort in the face of all contrary evidence. And maybe that wasnât so dumb.
The attraction of cynicism was that it so often put you in the right, as if
being right led directly to happiness. Whatever Griffin is drinking at that
bar, itâs working for him. Iâll have a double.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed âThat Old Cape Magicâ by Richard Russo.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.