Tuesday, August 26, 2008

head spins

Dispatches from the Sun Valley Writers Conference: My head is still rocking from three and a half days of talks, panel discussions and break-out groups with folks like NYT reporter Timothy Egan, memoirist Frank Mc Court and Miami Herald columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen, who by the way is the world’s funniest human being. McCourt is a close second.

More about ideas than process, much of this year's conference was oriented toward politics, current events and journalism, a lot of which will find its way into the classroom this year. A few quick hits: Former reporter Robert Caro, Pulitzer prize winning biographer of Robert Moses and LBJ, talked about his strats for understanding Johnson, lessons that could be applied to any form of journalism. He referenced his first editor at Newsday who told him the key to investigative reporting was documents: “turn every page, kid.” Which Caro did, literally millions of them, which was how he was able to follow the money that was the seat of LBJ’s rise to power. But he also talked about how he came to understand how Johnson was at once a ruthless politician and a champion of the underdog by literally moving to the high plains of Texas, where Johnson grew up.

Similarly, Timothy Egan -- his new book, The Worst Hard Time, is about the tragedy of the dust bowl in the 1930’s -- told how he found the story by searching for and listening (there's the key to all reporting) to the tales of the survivors, most of them women in their 80s and 90s.

NPR journalist John Hockenberry, the program director of the conference, moderated several panel discussions, among them a discussion between former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, New Yorker writer George Packer and ABC White House correspondent Martha Raddatz about everything from the dangers and difficulties in covering the Iraq war to the future of journalism. The sometimes heated debate was followed by a tribute film to the late David Halberstam.

I learned about the transformation of India (while 4 out of 10 of the richest people in the world are Indian, 260 million people in India live on the equivalent of .30/day) from diplomat Shashi Tharoor; changing attitudes in Europe on tolerance, multi-culturalism and Islam from literary journalist Ian Buruma, whose latest book, “Murder in Amsterdam” is on the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh; and the centuries-old culture of the Japanese imperial family from John Burnham Schwartz. His new novel, “The Commoner,” based loosely on the life of the current empress of Japan, imagines the life of the first woman outside the aristocracy to marry into the imperial family, which has been separated and cloistered from mainstream Japanese society by hundreds and hundreds of years of spiritual and cultural tradition. “As a novelist," he says, “you are always trying to enter the silences.” Ditto, journalism.

The conference closed with Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel, who spoke reverentially of books and libraries as the repositories of our collective memory. On the migration of books and information from brick and mortar to cyberspace, he ended with this reflection: “A library that contains everything becomes a library that contains anything.”

So much more. I could go on. And will. Just ask.

Meanwhile, the Democratic convention: Substance or sizzle – or a little bit of both? I understand the blog tent features beer, burritos, couches – and CNN on flat screen TVs. Interesting, yeah?

Finally, speaking of dispatches: Let me know what’s going on in your part of the country, and I will post your dispatches (especially if you happen to be in or around Denver this week) and/or photos.

Alrighty. I’ve just broken a bunch of blogging rules: too long, too many ideas, no pix, and too many linx. I'll learn. bk

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