"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ben Bagdikian viewed life as an Armenian, and that helped him see more than others

As a journalist, I long admired Ben Bagdikian but thought the lessons of his remarkable career had nothing to do with our shared Armenian heritage.

I was wrong.

Soon after his death on March 11 at age 96, I began reading Bagdikian’s memoir Double Vision in which he recounts his early life as a Genocide survivor and his later accomplishments as one of this nation’s strongest proponents of a free and independent press.

They seem like disparate experiences, but Bagdikian drew a clear connection.

Bagdikian first got my attention in the early 1980s when he was already well into his second career in the news business as a most respected and prescient media critic. His 1983 book The Media Monopoly traced the transition of American newspaper ownership from individual families to a handful of corporations. Not only did these corporations lack a commitment to journalism, many had other business interests and even ties to government that posed serious conflicts.

I was skeptical at the time because I naively thought the news corporation I worked for was a good one. I stuck with the business long enough to see the worst effects of Bagdikian’s premise, as corporations like mine laid off legions of good journalists because they valued the bottom line over the byline.

It should be no surprise that Bagdikian knew more than I ever will about newspapers. He was not only a critic, he was an accomplished reporter and editor at the highest levels. 

His career began on a whim, when he walked into a local newspaper office while killing time before an interview for a job as a chemist. But the beliefs and sensibilities that guided his career took root at birth.

Bagdikian was born in 1920 in Marash in Southeastern Turkey under what were very nearly fortunate circumstances. His parents were affluent and educated. They and his older sisters had been protected from death in 1915 because his father was teaching at an American college in Tarsus.

The family returned to Marash after the First World War and joined efforts to rebuild their community under the protection of French troops. The Bagdikians intended to stay a short while before sailing for America. Ben’s mother had timed her pregnancy so her baby would be born in the United States. She decided that if she had a boy, she'd name him Ben-Hur after the fictional hero dreamed up by an American Civil War general.

Instead of enjoying their promised independence, the Armenians of Marash soon found themselves under siege by Kemal’s army. The family was trapped, and Ben was born as the last vestiges of Armenian resistance were extinguished. Then the French retreated. Armenians who managed to escape the enemy’s swords and bullets were pursued as they trudged into a blinding blizzard behind the fleeing French.

The Bagdikian family’s story of survival is typically miraculous and inexplicable. As they struggled to keep moving through the storm, they watched their neighbors die of starvation and exposure. Children were the most vulnerable, and baby Ben was no exception. Convinced his silent and motionless son was dead, Ben’s father dropped him in the snow as he rushed to help his faltering wife. Luckily for Ben, he started crying and was picked up again.

Ben, of course, remembered none of this. He was four months old when the family reached Massachusetts and his father began work as pastor of an Armenian Congregationalist church. 

Ben never learned Armenian so he never understood the conversations of the old folks who gathered in the family living room. He knew only that his sisters were missing toes that had been amputated as a result of frostbite—until, as an adult, one of them showed him what she’d written about their harrowing escape.

Growing up during the Depression and coming of age during World War II, he was struck by how the Armenian experience fit into a world that seemed insistent on dividing itself into arbitrary categories of those destined to live well and those deemed unfit to live at all. His sister’s memory of being taunted as a giavour by the Turks made a lasting impression.

He remembered it when he heard New Englanders complain about “the foreign element” moving into their towns, and when he heard racial epithets while stationed in Louisiana with the Air Corps, and when he was denied a hotel room because the clerk thought he looked Jewish.

Every journalist has what Bagdikian calls double vision. We try to see people and events objectively, but they are always framed by our knowledge and experiences. Bagdikian viewed the world through the lens of the outsider, focusing always on those who were excluded and in danger of being abandoned like the Armenians of Marash.

He covered wars “from the bottom up,” passing up briefings from generals in comfy hotels to observe the effects of the fighting on everyday soldiers and civilians. He traveled through the Deep South with a black reporter to cover some of the most violent Civil Rights clashes. He lived in a flop house to report on the homeless. He allowed himself to be locked up as a murderer, hiding his true identity from guards and other inmates so he could report on prison conditions.

Bagdikian’s reporting won acclaim but he made a lasting contribution to journalism as an editor, oddly enough after his paper got beat by its main competitor on one of the biggest stories ever.

The New York Times stunned readers and enraged the Nixon Administration in 1971 when it reported results of a secret Pentagon study of strategies and decisions about the Vietnam War. The study known as the Pentagon Papers contradicted many of the government’s public pronouncements about the motives, strategy and progress of the war.

The government got a court order stopping publication after the first day, arguing that national security could be endangered by further revelations. No other paper had the information until Bagdikian got word that the Times’ source, defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, was willing to give him copies of the documents if he promised to get them into print.

Bagdikian boarded a late flight for Boston and carried back two cardboard boxes crammed with thousands of documents. He assembled a  team of reporters to quickly sort through them and begin writing while he argued with the paper’s lawyers and executives about the need to get a story in print.

The lawyers were certain the courts would come down hard on the paper, and that the administration would punish The Post in other ways, perhaps by stripping the company of its valuable TV licenses. Bagdikian argued that the public had a right to know what was in the documents, and that a journalist’s obligation to the public outweighed any business concerns.

Bagdikian won, and the Post printed what the Times couldn’t. The government did go to court, but Bagdikian’s reporters helped the paper’s lawyers shatter the government’s claim that national security would be harmed if the Post continued its reporting.

The case solidified one of our most important First Amendment freedoms: the right to publish without prior restraint.

Bagdikian's achievements would be a remarkable legacy for any journalist, but his start in life makes them more meaningful to me. He showed it’s not only possible to survive humanity’s greatest crime but to triumph over it for humanity’s sake.

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