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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Impressions abound in The Trip To Italy, but not the impression Lord Byron left on Armenians

My wife and I took an afternoon off to see The Trip To ItalyIt’s the sequel to The Trip, which also starred British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. 

They are odd films: no vampires, no zombies, no comic-book villains from space. That suits me just fine. 

Both Trip movies share a simple set-up: Coogan and Brydon are commissioned to take a dining-and-travel tour. Along the way, they engage in an ego-driven competition to top each other’s impressions of famous actors and movie scenes. 

They often perform the same scenes over and over. The effect is sometimes hilarious, sometimes annoying—and frequently both.

If you find Brydon’s Pacino voice grating, you could wear earplugs and still enjoy The Trip To Italy because the scenery starts off gorgeous and keeps getting better as they wend their way from Genoa to Tuscany and along the Amalfi Coast. 

But then you’d miss the witty historical and literary allusions sprinkled among the Godfather and James Bond references. 

The Italy trip is framed as homage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord George Gordon Byron, who wandered these same paths together a couple of centuries earlier. 

As a long-ago English major, I instantly recognized the importance of these two giants of English poetry—and as a true American, I couldn’t remember a thing either of them wrote. 

But I did remember one fact that the screenwriters either didn’t know or didn't find interesting: Lord Byron spoke Armenian

This is not a small point, at least to me. I don’t speak Armenian, although my parents did—and as did everyone in their lines from antiquity on until I came along. 

I’ve always used the excuse that as a writer, English deserved my undivided attention. The Byron example shoots that all to hell as he’s considered one of the greatest poets in English history. 

I take solace in this, however: Byron had time to study Armenian without intrusion because he was on the lam. The Romantic poet was a bit too romantic for the England of his day, and he sailed to the Continent for a respite from scandal. 

He found inspiration as well as solitude in Venice in 1816 when he discovered the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lazzaro. A group of Armenian Catholic monks had established themselves there the century before to carry on their own work in exile. 

The Mekhitarists, named for their founder, dedicated themselves to preserving Armenian culture outside the hostile environs of their occupied homeland. They translated classical Armenian works into European languages, and European literature into Armenian. Among their most valuable contributions to the world was the restoration of ancient Greek texts that existed only in Armenian after the originals were lost. 

The monks also welcomed students who had the discipline and determination to meet their high standards. Byron confessed that he was initially attracted to the intellectual challenge as a diversion, but he quickly became an enthusiastic admirer of the Armenian people and their language. 

“Whatever may have been their destiny–and it has been bitter–whatever it may be in the future, their country must ever be one of the most interesting on the globe, and perhaps their language only requires to be more studied to become more attractive.” 

Byron noted that some Armenian students had difficulty mastering the written language (“a Waterloo of an alphabet”) but he became so adept that he translated Armenian historical writings and the Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians into English—and he wrote poetry in Armenian, introducing the Western form to Armenian poets who followed. 

He remained in San Lazzaro until the next year before moving on to Rome, where he completed some of his finest poetry. His friend Shelley joined him in Italy, and they rented a house on the coast south of Genoa.

Their Italian adventure ended tragically: Shelley drowned when his boat overturned in 1822. He was 29. Instead of returning to England, Byron headed to Greece to join the war for independence against the Turks.

I wonder if he was inspired by his study of Armenian history, which led him to conclude that “the pashas of Turkey have desolated the region where God created man in his own image . . .” 

Byron lent his fortune as well as his life to Greece, where he became ill and died in 1824 at age 36. 

He is honored by Greeks to this day, and by Armenians. A portrait of Byron hangs outside the room he occupied in the monastery of San Lazzaro, where the Mekhitarist fathers continue to do their holy work.

A plaque at the entrance honors this "devoted friend of Armenia who died for the liberation of Greece."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jack Knight ordered his staff to print the truth. The result was success for his paper and its city. Those days are long, long gone.

John S. and James L Knight as the Miami Herald
building on Biscayne Bay opened in 1963
Day-old newspapers have always been throw-away items, supremely useful as garbage can lining. 

Who knew that newspaper companies would become equally disposable? 

I got to thinking about this when I read in The New York Times that a company called Digital First Media is up for sale. The story described Digital First as a “struggling collection of 76 daily newspapers” from across the country. 

Among the papers are such once stalwart names as The Denver Post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the San Jose Mercury News. It was the last name that caught my attention for reasons I’ll get to after I wallow in a bit of newspaper nostalgia.

My generation identified newspapers with the men who owned and ran them: Hearst, Patterson, McCormick and the rest. Although many of the founders’ names remained on mastheads when I entered the business in the 1970s, ownership had passed to heirs who lacked the fire (or in some cases, the brains) to keep control. 

By the 1980s, corporations owned most major papers and a lot of smaller ones. Many old hands warned about the creeping influence of narrow-minded accountants who emphasized quarterly profits and stock prices over crusading journalism. 

The old hands were right. I stayed in the business long enough to see the effects of corporate penury, not only on journalism but on the journalists who got tossed out like tattered scraps of old newsprint. 

But I got into the business in time to catch the final glimmer of the glory days, and the brightest was during my time at The Miami Herald. 

Back during Miami’s first era of dizzying growth, The Herald worked hard to burnish the city’s tropical-paradise image and cashed in on the bonanza of land-boom advertising that followed. 

Then in the 1920s, the entire region was staggered by devastating hurricanes, followed by The Great Depression. The vacuum created by fleeing tourists and homesteaders filled rapidly, as casinos and bordellos displaced cabanas and beach umbrellas. 

Prospects for recovery appeared dim for both The Herald and its home city when John and James Knight came to town in 1937. The Knights, scions of an Ohio newspaper family, had the money to rescue the paper. 

More important, they had a vision that would help do as much for the city. 

They hired the best editors and reporters they could find, and Jack Knight gave his staff a simple mandate that stands as the best damned definition of journalism I’ve ever heard: “Get the truth and print it.” 

The Herald began a long, distinguished tradition of exposing corruption and making life miserable for the corrupt. The paper won its first Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for its fearless exposes of organized crime.

The tradition of tough, honest journalism embodied by the Herald and the Knights’ other papers across the country was very much alive when I was hired to work in the Herald’s Fort Lauderdale bureau in 1978.

But the final phase of the Knight era had already begun: In 1974, the aging Knight Brothers merged with the Ridder newspaper group to form Knight-Ridder. The former Knight papers formed the solid core of the new company, and the Herald building on Biscayne Bay became the chain’s national headquarters. 

I know nothing about the corporation’s internal politics, but influence seemed clearly to shift from the Knight faction to the Ridders after Jack Knight died in 1981. By then, Miami was again struggling with a tarnished reputation. The region was still growing, but not many newcomers could read English. 

In 1995, Tony Ridder became chairman of Knight-Ridder, and in 1998 the chain’s headquarters moved from Miami to Ridder's home base in San Jose, California, where he had been publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. 

I was long gone from The Herald by then, but the praises of San Jose, awash in the prosperity of Silicon Valley, were sung loudly enough to be heard by anyone who’d listen. This new era, the Ridder Era, began with great promise. 

It lasted a mere eight years.

With the entire industry reeling from deep losses in readers and advertising, Ridder arranged to sell all 32 Knight-Ridder newspapers to the McClatchy Co. in 2006 for $4.5 billion. McClatchy immediately began selling off as many of the properties as it could for whatever they'd fetch. 

As a result, Knight-Ridder ceased to exist. 

The McClatchy Co. did keep the Miami Herald, or at least the name. The new owners sold the paper’s Bayfront building to a Malaysian development company that planned to replace it with a casino. 

The paper’s staff and circulation were downsized to fit the current profile of print as an Internet adjunct. What remained of The Herald was moved to a government surplus building in nearby Doral. 

Abandoning the iconic Bayfront offices the Knight Brothers built along with the city they embraced probably makes as much sense as the rest of it, especially to people who think primarily of newspapers as brands to generate profit. 

I used to disparage such people but they’re not worth the trouble now, as it’s clear they won’t be around the business much longer. Unfortunately, the business will probably be gone with them. 

Digital First Media’s newspapers had all once been independent or owned by major chains but were scooped up in recent years by investors who thought there was still money to be made in the print-news business. That prospect is now so slim that there’s real concern about whether a buyer can be found for Digital’s news portfolio even at a bargain price. 

The Times story noted that a sale had been expected because the Digital chain is in turn owned by a hedge fund. I’m not entirely certain what a hedge fund is, but I’m pretty sure I’d rather work for Jack Knight. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Does this man look white to you? Maybe we should have a national conversation about it.

Oregon Historical Society
Tatos Cartozian
Oregon Historical Society
I usually zip through the opinion pages of the New York Times, but a headline on a recent column by Nicholas Kristof stopped me cold: When Whites Just Don't Get It
Kristof noted that many white people say they're fed up with coverage of events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed a young black man he suspected of shoplifting. 
The shooting was followed by demonstrations, which were followed by looting. Teenagers with cell phones used social media to post dramatic images that would never get past jittery editors. As a result, the story was driven faster and farther by YouTube, Twitter and Instagram than by newspapers and TV. 
Cable networks did their best to catch up by filling air time with speculation, commentary and guesswork presented as expert opinion. A common theme was that events like those in Ferguson would be less frequent if we could have national conversation about race. Then we’d all understand each other much better. 
Kristof echoed this sentiment. His column offered a grab-bag of factlets about income, crime and education to argue that blacks have serious grievances that white people should listen to, and respond to, for the good of the country. 
What struck me about this two-sided conversation idea was the outdated premise. This just isn’t a starkly divided black-white country any more. According to the last census in 2010, non-Hispanic white people accounted for an all-time low 64 percent of the population. Blacks were just under 13 percent. 
That means a whole lot of people—nearly one in four—simply don’t stand clearly on either side of what we consider America’s racial divide. 
In fact, many more never did. 
This was driven home when I was researching the Armenian experience in America and came across the federal government’s attempt to keep America white by shutting Tatos Cartozian out. 
Cartozian was an Armenian immigrant who settled in Oregon. He became a naturalized American but the federal government tried to revoke his citizenship. It accused him of falsely claiming to be a white man. The back story to Cartozian’s 1924 federal court case fascinated me. 
Way back in 1790, George Washington signed a law limiting naturalized citizenship to white people. The law didn’t define white except by noting that the term was commonly understood, which was certainly true when nearly everyone on the continent was either of European or African descent except the Indians. As America grew, so did the challenge of deciding just who was white. 
Immigration clerks squinted harder and harder throughout the 19th century as they looked up at the swarthy faces of Italians, Spaniards and Jews. It was left to the courts to assign each ethnicity a place on the American color chart. 
Armenians were among the final ambiguities. Look at us and you’ll see why. Our history of invasion, subjugation and migration has produced a rich palette of skin tones as well as a wide variety of facial features. 
So the Cartozian case involved testimony from anthropologists, historians and certifiably white Americans who testified that Armenians displayed the character traits of white people even if they didn’t always show the physical traits.
Cartozian won. That decision was a big legal step forward for Armenians who’d had no right to citizenship or any legal protection at all in the land of their ancestors. 
But what does it mean today? In the narrowest sense, it means I am considered a white man. So is Kristof, whose father was an Armenian from Poland. Their family name was originally Hachikian. 
In a broader sense, it means I am invisible. My identity is smudged into that 64 percent majority, along with Greeks, Turks, Arabs and so many others who look nothing like Astors or Vanderbilts. 
Unlike Hispanics and Asians, who are far more numerous, Armenians have no minority status. No special protection, no preference, no affirmative action—not even a box to check on the census form. 
The reality of America is that all of us identify ourselves—and are identified by others—in many ways. Yet we also share a common identity that binds us into a nation. No matter the number, the shrinking white majority is an artificial construct as well as an anachronism and I refuse to let it define me. 
So while I have no objection to a national conversation about race, it can’t be two-sided or there will be no place for me and millions of others.