Monthly Archives: January 2012

Johnny Otis, an all-American original

With the passing of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Johnny Otis, who died last week at the age of 90, America lost a musical creator and curator who, in his own way, did as much as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry to shape the soundtrack of the modern world. This San Francisco Chronicle appreciation story makes that clear:

He discovered Little Richard and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He produced their song “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton when Elvis Presley was still at Humes High. He met 14-year-old Etta James backstage at a concert at the long-gone Primalon Ballroom on Fillmore Street and, that very night, whisked her to Los Angeles to make her first record the next day.

Otis’ musical contributions were rich and varied, and his 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was greatly deserved. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Otis was the brave way he lived his life, and what it says about the endless possibilities in America for self-invention and self-expression — even at a time when racism and segregation obscured those opportunities for too many in the USA.

Here’s something a lot of people didn’t know: Johnny Otis was not a black man. He was the child of Greek immigrants, and his real name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. He grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., where he developed his love and affinity for African-American culture.

But Otis didn’t just immerse himself in the all-American culture of black people in this country — he consciously reinvented himself as “black” (or “black by persuasion,” as he called it). His remarkable musical dexterity flowed from that deep well of cultural understanding and allowed him to communicate with all Americans in the national language of the blues, which Ralph Ellison described as “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances.”

In the wake of his death, some have framed Otis’ life as an expression of “anti-racism.”  It’s true that he arrived at a deeply segregated time in our history, and the arc of his life proves that racial categories are meaningless. It’s also true that the rock ‘n’ roll music he pioneered has done more on a human level to shatter those rigid categories than any legislation could.  But anti-racism is too simple an evaluation of his importance.

At his core, Otis is an extravagant example of America’s near-limitless freedom to shape your life in any way you choose. Beyond that, he was also a potent symbol of  the  subtly multiracial society that Albert Murray revealed in The Omni-Americans:

“American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

Greek immigrant child Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, who became black musical impresario Johnny Otis, helped point America back to its miscegenated heart. For that, we should all be thankful.

The practical problem with ‘truth vigilantism’

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s  blog posts on “truth vigilantism” have certainly generated a lot of discussion.

What is “truth vigilantism”? It’s the theory that reporters for the Times should aggressively fact-check “false” assertions made by politicians or other newsmakers in the course of reporting on them — even, apparently, if the assertion is an opinion, hyperbole or  statements that are difficult to submit to a truth test.

I thought The Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto had the best response to the dust-up:

Brisbane’s examples make clear that when he poses the question whether the Times should become a “truth vigilante,” what he is asking is whether the entire paper should become an opinion section–whether the Times’s news pages should emulate (editorial columnist Paul) Krugman, albeit perhaps with a somewhat softer tone (“misleading interpretation” instead of “complete fabrication”).

To hear Brisbane tell it, there is a demand for such a transformation. He writes that he gets emails from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight” and who “worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.”

If that kind of “judgment” is what they want, they can get it from Krugman and the paper’s other columnists and editorialists. Why do those readers feel something is lacking in the paper if reporters are more restrained about expressing their opinions than opinion writers are?

Exactly right. Those complaining to the Times about this seem to think that ostensibly unbiased reporters, who juggle multiple assignments across various beats, locations and time zones, should act more like hyperfocused partisan bloggers, who live to parse political speech down to the subatomic level. If you think charges of “media bias” are pervasive now, they’d be much more difficult to refute if news organizations adopted this policy.

But bias is the least of the problems with “truth vigilantism.” By far the biggest is this: Few organizations have the time, or the bodies, to do it, especially in today’s downsized, Web-driven newsrooms ruled by a culture of “first and fastest.” As Jack Shafer of Reuters points out:

But to be fair to Brisbane — and I promise not to make this a habit — I think he was asking how fully reporters must tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers. Politics teems with gray areas and half-truths. If a reporter were to investigate every assertion of fact — assuming that that’s possible on deadline — the story he was supposed to be working on would dissolve into pixel dust. Infinite skepticism is swell, but it requires infinite fact-checking, and who has time for that?

Holding our leaders accountable is important, but fact-checking must be practical, and it must draw a careful distinction between actual misrepresentations of facts and mere expressions of opinion, no matter how poorly framed or obnoxious they seem.

Thankfully, Jill Abramson, the Times‘ executive editor, seems to get it. She wrote this as an addendum to Brisbane’s second blog post on the matter:

We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness. Some voices crying out for “facts” really only want to hear their own version of the facts.

Good point. There are plenty of problems with independent fact-checking organizations like Polifact. It would be a shame if great news organizations like The New York Times start heading in the same direction.