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Populist Journalism and Never Dull

Adios Molly Ivins

by THOMAS P. HEALY

We lost an irreplaceable populist January 31–"a good ol’ leftwing populist from Texas," in her words. Molly Ivins was revered for her keen analyses, dry wit and elegant writing style. And she didn’t mind being called a progressive. "I’m happy to be called a liberal," she said.

In November 2003 journalist Molly Ivins was awarded the Eugene V. Debs Award, presented annually to public figures who embody Debs’ commitment to the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism.

Her selection honored her outspoken criticism of the Bush administration’s forced march to war in Iraq. Charles King, professor emeritus of sociology at Indiana State University and long-standing Debs Foundation secretary, said, "Molly Ivins would be in jail if she had been operating in Debs’ time." He noted that the Espionage and Sedition Act–the basis for charges filed against Debs–was used to squelch any kind of open criticism of World War I.

Ivins told me in a phone interview that opposition to free speech, "the whole ‘dissent is treason’ business," is a feature of every war.

"People asked me during the Iraq war if I was afraid to speak out. I said no. During World War I parades of patriots used to go around kicking dachshunds on the grounds that they were German dogs. But you’ll notice people like that never kick German Shepherds."

At the time we spoke, she was stumping for her latest book with co-author Lou Dubose. "Bushwacked is really not about Bush," she said. "It’s about what’s happening to people in this country."

"It’s really depressing," she added with a heavy sigh. "It’s not just the loss of 2.7 million jobs, it’s that people are losing pensions, health insurance, they’re losing overtime, the right to organize … health insurance has doubled or tripled in price. …" Her voice trailed off.

Asked to contrast Bush’s faux populism with Debs’ solidarity with women, children and working folks, she responded, "I’ve been amused for months. You know the thing where [Bush] stands in front of a screen that tells you what he’s talking about–like corporate responsibility, just in case you didn’t know. Now it’s "mission accomplished."

She pointed out that Bush’s team has perfected the art of stagecraft. "You have to remember, the carefully posed photo thing is tremendously effective," Ivins said. "It can be manipulative beyond the ability of fact and reason to counter."

All of which makes the print journalists’ job more important. "It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words but a photograph is limited to the surface of the event. In order to understand history and structure and causation you need words," she said.

Ivins still wrote longhand on yellow legal pads. "Yes, [computer technology] is convenient but I wonder about quality," she said. "There may be something about the qualities of prose in 18th- and 19th-century writers–having to stop and dip your quill pen in the ink gave you time to think about the next sentence."

Such thoughtfulness is lost in the 24-hour news cycle. "What happens with that is you lose perspective and context," Ivins said. "Everything is equal–the dog that fell into the well has been rescued and World War III starts. It all sort of blurs together."

While supportive of efforts to create a national progressive media to offset what she termed "this artificially created echo chamber at the right end of the political spectrum," she had no interest in creating a "FOX News of the Left."

"I’m always optimistic to the point of idiocy," Ivins said. "When I started in the biz 35 years ago you reported that the government is gonna do X and here’s how it’s going to affect you. That second part has been lost and people don’t make the connection. One of the reasons we wrote Bushwacked is because we really did want to point out the effects of policies on peoples lives."

So what can journalists do? "At the moment, one of my crusades is that good journalism doesn’t have to be dull. I used to have a boilerplate lead when writing about the legislature, which began, ‘You’re getting screwed again.’"

THOMAS P. HEALY is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at thomasphealy@sbcglobal.net