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Breaking the Barrier

In an excerpt from his new book, Victor Navasky poses the question that bedevils all small magazines and others who challenge the national complacency: How, given the media glut, do you break through and communicate the terrible truth?
 
 
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Editor's Note: In A Matter of Opinion, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Victor Navasky reflects on a lifetime in magazine journalism. In this excerpt, he recalls meeting Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine writer who had been tortured -- and wanted to re-enact the experience on television.

The spring of 1981, when I had been at The Nation for three years, saw the publication of Jacobo Timerman's powerful memoir A Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number . The Argentine journalist Timerman had been "disappeared," imprisoned, and tortured during the 1970s by the military junta in Buenos Aires, and his memoir vividly evoked that experience. Although some members of the organized Jewish community took exception to his argument that the mass "disappearances" were tinged with anti-Semitism, he and his book (with a huge assist from his human-rights activist publisher, Random House's Robert Bernstein) were widely celebrated.

I thought he should expand on the underlying meaning of his story for The Nation , and I was looking forward to meeting him one evening at a small dinner party in his honor. Then I opened my New York Times and there on the op-ed page was an article by a CBS television producer headlined "Torture? On TV?" In it the producer of CBS Reports, Eric F. Salzman, claimed that when he met with Timerman to ask what he wanted to discuss on his program, Timerman told him to forget about the questions: he wanted to be tortured.

Mr. Timerman looks at me, I say nothing. Is he testing to see if I will do anything for a program that will generate controversy and pull a large rating? I stare and listen for clues to see if the man is mad.

"It is not very difficult," he continues. "I will not die, don't worry. Do you know how it is done? The subject is tied down and his body wet with water. Electrodes are applied. The apparatus allows more or less energy to pass." He moves his thumb and forefinger as if twisting a dial -- "So, the body twitches and jumps. The subject howls or his flesh is burned or he may die. But it is controllable, you see. A doctor would make sure I don't die. There can be a problem of shock to the heart." He rubs his chest, making a small circle. "But it can be massaged. There can be a problem of exploding something but I have survived. I would survive. In half an hour it is over. Can you arrange this?"

Salzman wrote that he was struck silent as Timerman went on to say that there were excellent torture doctors in abundance -- in Argentina, El Salvador, Iran, Cuba, Brazil, the Soviet Union.

"If you volunteer to be tortured," Salzman told him, "you will trivialize the evil of torture. People will call it a publicity stunt."

The TV interview went on as scheduled, and there was no torture.

So that night I met Timerman at the home of a liberal labor lawyer. We were introduced, and I asked him, What's the story on the op-ed story?

In his heavily accented English, he told me, "They want me in twenty minutes to explain what I've already written in hundreds of pages. How do you explain to the American people what is torture in twenty minutes? So I said you want to explain what it is to be tortured? Torture me on television."

At dinner the toasts were plentiful and much wine was consumed while Timerman explained to us that the Argentine government said it couldn't account for the thousands of people who were disappeared, and the State Department had lists of thousands of names but declined to release them.

After dinner and after after-dinner drinks, as he was leaving, Timerman put his arm around my shoulder and said, "So tell me, Veektor, what is so terrible if I am tortured on television?"

Salzman hadn't been able to figure out whether or not Timerman was serious, and at some level neither could I. But his point was profoundly serious. How, given the media glut, do you break through and communicate the terrible truth?

A few years later, I witnessed another writer facing a similar conundrum (albeit with no torture involved). J. Kirkpatrick Sale, whom we had signed on as a contributing editor to The Nation specializing in radical environmental, green, spiritual, and other issues (what some called New Age but Kirk liked to think of as "cutting edge"), was explaining the Luddites, the subject of his new book, to an audience at Town Hall. He was one of two dozen speakers brought together by the Utne Reader to speak about alternative perspectives on the events of the day/week/year. What entranced Kirk about the Luddites, who had asked what was called in their time "the machinery question," was less their resistance to new technologies than the forceful way in which they raised the question and demanded a voice for those affected by the answers.

Kirk's way of making his point at Town Hall was to end his brief talk by picking up -- with no advance warning -- a sledgehammer and smashing a computer screen, scattering shards of glass, wires, and other technological paraphernalia all over the stage. Word of his action spread, and some months later, when a reporter from Wired magazine asked him about it, he said:

"It was astonishing how good it made me feel! I cannot explain it to you. I was on stage in New York's Town Hall with an audience of 1,500 people. I was behind a lectern, and in front of the lectern was this computer. And I gave a very short, minute-and-a-half description of what was wrong with the technosphere, and how it was destroying the biosphere. And then I walked over and I got this very powerful sledgehammer and smashed the screen with one blow and smashed the keyboard with another blow. It felt wonderful. The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight, the dust that hung in the air -- some of the audience applauded. I bowed and returned to my chair."

What had he accomplished? "It was a statement. At other forums I attempt to discuss the importance of understanding new technologies and what they are doing to us. But at that moment, when I had only four minutes to talk, I thought this was a statement better than anything else I could possibly say."

And indeed, how can one break through the mass-media fog, the miasma of platitudes, cliches, stereotypes, and untested assumptions that the increasingly conglomerated communications combines share? This is the question that bedevils all small magazines and all others who challenge the national complacency. Those of us in the opinion-journalism business are occupationally dedicated to the proposition that it can be done through critical reasoning, careful analysis, moral argument. But Timerman and Sale remind us that sweet reason alone may not always be enough.

Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2005. © 2005 by Columbia Journalism Review.

Victor Navasky is publisher of the Nation.