Rise Up: yet another of my hitherto unpublished Occupy Tacoma pix, this a view of Pugnetti Park shortly after it was taken over by the movement in early October 2011 and temporarily renamed Occupation Park. One of these days I will assemble all this work into an extended photo essay. From the hopeless perspective of the present, the optimism of those days is as poignant as the naivety my 23-and-24-year-old self displayed in dealing with two of the many forms of unofficial USian press censorship, described below. Photograph by Loren Bliss copyright 2013.
RALPH NADER, FOR whom I have never voted but for whom I have the greatest respect, has written for Reader Supported News a denunciation of President Barack Obama that will undoubtedly be noted by historians as the most bravely outspoken such commentary by any public figure to date.
Hence I urge all of you not just to read it but to disseminate it as widely as possible and communicate your approval to RSN, even if only with a word or two, as in the traditional “Yes man yes!” by which we long-ago beatniks used to shout our approval of exceptional poetry or music. My own applause is already included in the associated comment thread.
That said, in the interest of full disclosure and as a long-overdue expression of gratitude, I should acknowledge I owe Nader a big debt of thanks. In 1964 he entrusted me with the revelations that, a year later, would be published in Unsafe at Any Speed, his exposé of capitalism in action, specifically of how the U.S. automobile manufacturers were maximizing profits by minimizing vehicular safety.
At the time I was the sports editor and one of three news-reporter/photographers for The Oak Ridger, a small but notably excellent East Tennessee daily. It was in acknowledgement of all these roles I had been assigned to interview Nader about his research. Not only had I added car stuff to our sports coverage – I was then the proud owner of a 1958 Porsche super-coupe – I had also demonstrated a knack for unusual news stories, and Nader's findings felt like the biggest scoop of my career to date. But this piece never saw the proverbial light of day. It was killed by Managing Editor Dick Smyser, who in one of those indicative ironies of USian history was also the chairman of the Associated Press Managing Editors' Freedom of Information Committee.
It was my second bitter schooling in the harsh realities of censorship that are cleverly hidden beneath the claim the United States has “freedom of the press,” and it was memorably painful because I had expected better – much better – from The Oak Ridger. Why? Because its top executives, Publisher Don McKay, Business Manager Tom Hill and Smyser himself had been courageous enough to hire me despite The Knoxville Journal's continuing effort to slander me into professional and personal oblivion.
That episode is a story unto itself. I had worked for The Journal since September 1957,first as a part-time sports stringer through the fall of 1959, when finances forced me to drop out of college and sign up for a six-year hitch in the U.S. Army. In September 1962, having served 18 months in Korea and finished my required three-year term of active duty, I returned to Knoxville and was immediately rehired by The Journal as a full-time staff sportswriter. Obviously the paper liked me and my reporting; Assistant Sports Editor Ben Byrd once told me he believed I was destined for The New York Times or some equally prestigious publication.
But on 2 June 1963, a raid by a combined force of Knoxville cops and Knox County sheriff's deputies jailed a racially mixed group of 40 men and women on charges I knew to be utterly without basis in fact. I had been there, had been arrested and on the strength of my press card subsequently released, and now – naive idiot that I was – I believed I could convince Journal Editor/Publisher Guy L. Smith and City Editor Dick Evans the arrests were at the very least a terrible mistake and more probably a deliberate atrocity. Soon Smith and Evans concluded I was what in the parlance of the Jim Crow South was called a “nigger-lover” – probably a Communist as well – and Smith had me re-arrested in his newsroom, then publicly fired me on Page One of his newspaper.
My termination notice was a maliciously slanderous story by Ron McMahan, who knowingly wrote a deliberate Big Lie that would have been equally at home in Adolf Hitler's Völkischer Beobachter: “Forty Negroes and whites, most of them students at the University of Tennessee, were arrested early Sunday morning during what police described as 'a drunken sex orgy' at a South Knoxville residence...Booked at county jail on a charge of disorderly conduct was Loren Bliss, 23, of 1537 Laurel Avenue, a former Journal sportswriter.”
There was of course neither orgy nor drunkenness; the gathering was nothing more than a quiet garden party, attended by nearly as many UT faculty members, civil rights activists, young local professionals and business executives as older students. It celebrated the graduation of a woman named Maline Robinson, who had just earned a master-of-fine-arts degree from UT and who would later teach art history at the University of Wisconsin. Despite The Journal's lurid prose (“partly-clad couples were lying all over the front lawn...on tables, in closets and on the floor...Lewdness charges were not placed against anyone because during the melee everyone scattered”), the sexual allegations were nothing more than fabrications of the fearful, vindictively pornographic southern mind. Such is the obscenely racist envy implicit in the old joke that asks, “what is ten inches and white,” then answers, “nothing.”
That the raid occurred just as the local Ku Klux Klan and its many affiliated churches were pulpit-pounding against “interracial love feasts” was hardly coincidental. Martin Southern, the ironically named American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Knoxville, said he believed the raid had been carefully planned by a cabal of high ranking officials at UT, the sheriff's office and the police department plus top executives of The Journal and The Knoxville News-Sentinel to facilitate purging the university of anyone the local Ruling Class deemed “trouble-makers” and/or “outside agitators.”
Southern warned me that because I was the one genuinely credible witness to everything that had actually occurred – he said I was “the fly, as it were, in the segregationist ointment” – my own life was in danger. Not many days later, a would-be killer tried to invade my ground-floor apartment via its kitchen window, but the attempted hit was thwarted by my vigilant German shepherd Brunhilda and my own expert-class skill with a handgun – a story for another time. For now suffice it to say dear Brunhilda quickly got to the meat of the problem, bit the malefactor in his blue-jeaned crotch, seized him by his cock and balls and dragged him down from the window just as I was aligning my sights to shoot him between the eyes.
Meanwhile Marion Barry, then Tennessee field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later the mayor of Washington D.C., had arranged for me to cover the mass-arrest story for a local African-American weekly. But that report too was intrusively censored, not by blacks but by two white civil rights activists, Congress of Racial Equality members Steve Wagner and Phillip Bacon, who claimed they feared accurate description of the incident's more telling moments would discredit the narrative as “sensationalism.” Thus to my eternal regret I allowed them to cut several key passages from my original draft. These included a word-for-word account of my confrontation with Smith, in which he made it clear my alternatives were either to fabricate a lie describing an imaginary sex orgy or suffer the consequences; details of the police assault on a Latin American diplomat who was a guest at the party; and a brief description of the attempt on my life that arguably confirmed Southern's hypothesis of a Rightist conspiracy far broader than a mere police raid. The following, under my own byline, is what remained after Bacon and Wagner finished censoring it. It's from the 3 August 1963 edition of The Knoxville Flashlight-Herald:
Although The Knoxville Journal had opportunity to publish a staff member's eye-witness account of the now-famed graduation party held for some University of Tennessee students by Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Ottaway, it declined to utilize that source and relied instead upon police and sheriff's reports.
That those reports were something less than reliable has since been proven in Knox County Sessions Court.
This writer, at the time a sports reporter for The Journal, attended the party with friends and was subsequently arrested, then freed after deputies learned he was a Journal staff member. He was re-arrested and booked some 14 hours later after unsuccessfully attempting to interest Journal City Editor Dick Evans in a factual account of events before and during the arrests...
Included in this writer's report would have been a statement that the party was quiet and proper despite the number of persons present and information that police and deputies had acted without grounds...
Those taken to city jail, where there is a drunkometer (a Breathalyzer by which suspects can challenge a drunkenness charge), were not charged with drunkenness, but those taken to county jail, where there is no drunkometer, were charged with drunkenness in addition to disorderly conduct...
Cases against those charged by Knox County, including this writer, were dismissed July 1. City Court cases were continued by order of Journal-supported Judge Charles Kelly and will be heard in October.
Included on the city docket is Milton Vargas, the Panamanian Vice-Consul here. Mr. Vargas, who has filed a full report with the Panamanian government, has charged he was slapped by police officers...
The only uncensored coverage of the arrests was provided by TASS – Tyelyegrafnoye agyentstvo Sovyetskogo Soyuza or Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union. The story appeared on page one of Pravda, as I recall in the 5 June edition. It was also – or so I was told by several UT students – broadcast in English by Radio Moscow.
Given the prurient hatefulness that so often defines southern racism, The Oak Ridger's bravery in hiring me in mid-August, even before all the court cases had been decided, was beyond exceptional. Indeed, since The Journal's continued slanders were blacklisting me even amongst Northern employers, until The Oak Ridger came to my rescue I had feared my journalism career was over.
Which brings us back to Ralph Nader. Maybe a year after the Knoxville incident, he was in Oak Ridge visiting his sister, a scientist with some big-league connection to what today would be called the nuclear energy cartel. My boss Dick Smyser arranged for me to interview Nader, exactly where I no longer remember. What I do recall is that I questioned Nader for hours, that eventually we adjourned to his sister's apartment, and that after I photographed him with the paper's Polaroid-back Speed Graphic, we talked literally until dawn.
Nader doubted the story would run. Citing the paper's bold defiance of the region's characteristic racism, I assured him it would.
Then I drove from his sister's place directly to the The Oak Ridger building on Tyrone Road, put the sports page to bed as quickly as I could and hammered out the Nader story on my issue Royal Standard typewriter. My lead said something like “'Unsafe at any speed' – that's how Ralph Nader describes many of Detroit's best-selling automobiles.” The second graf laid out Nader's credentials – a Harvard-educated lawyer, he had been campaigning for safer cars since the late 1950s – and the remainder detailed his complaints against Chevrolet's Corvair. The text ran to at least six takes – six double-spaced typewritten pages of about 300 words apiece.
Despite the befogged mind that even at age 24 is the penance we pay for a sleepless all-nighter, I thought I'd done a damn fine job of reporting. But – perhaps not the least because Smyser himself drove a sherbet-green Corvair – the story evoked not the anticipated thank you for the warning but instead provoked him to fury. It was one of two times he actually raged at me, startling the entire five-person staff by shouting his denunciations the length of the newsroom. (His one other tantrum, this in face-to-face mode, was his response to my rejection of the ballistic impossibilities set fourth as gospel by the Warren Commission.) All in all though, Smyser was a superb editor, one who taught me a great deal about reporting. Even so, my memory still flinches at how he grimaced as he dropped the Nader copy into the circular gray waist-high trash bin that stood guard beside his desk. His expression suggested he was disposing of something grossly distasteful, at least as repugnant as a cat turd.
When I phoned Nader and apologetically told him there would be no story, he nevertheless thanked me for my effort. Years after that I realized I was the one who should have thanked him – not just for all the time he spent telling me about the built-in hazards of those Detroit cars, but for the lesson in journalistic reality.
Such is the USian variant of a “free press,” its invisible restrictions so effective, no official censorship is necessary, the result uncomfortably reminiscent of a slogan in George Orwell's 1984: “ignorance is strength.”
LB/8 September 2013