Is Anybody Reading?

Even when we’ve disagreed with his opinion–or especially when we’ve disagreed with it, when style alone holds his opinion aloft–we have marveled at Roger Ebert’s elegant way with words.

Which is why this month we welcomed into the world “Behind the Phantom’s Mask,” Ebert’s long-overdue foray into fiction. The Sun-Times’s movie critic is writing a weekly thriller set in his favorite haunts–LA, London, Cannes–and it’s “sort of a cliff-hanger, crackpot, whimsical, Wodehousian sort of thing,” he told us. The Sun-Times is three weeks into his tale, and if you can’t stand waiting till Sunday to see what happens next, New Buffalo, Michigan, is just 90 minutes by car. Out there in Harbor Country, where Ebert built his summer home, you’ll find the weekly Times, one of several papers around the country also carrying “Behind the Phantom’s Mask.” And New Buffalo happens to be two installments ahead of Chicago.

Ebert’s hero is British character actor Mason Devereaux, who’s going to be in and out of trouble pretty consistently for the next year. Devereaux? Ebert read our mind and answered the question before we asked it.

“My hero Devereaux was an homage to Granger’s character,” Ebert told us. “It’s a compliment–I hope he will take it in the spirit in which it’s intended. You have to name the character something, and I thought–Granger used to be the TV critic here at the Sun-Times. He worked in the features department too. The name did well by him . . .”

Devereaux (no first name necessary) is the November Man, the cold, laconic cop who’s the hero of 11 Bill Granger spy thrillers, the first of which, The November Man, came out in 1979 and is still in print. The most recent, League of Terror, hit the market last November. The question Ebert didn’t give us a chance to get out was this: Don’t authors have some code that says you don’t poach on each other’s characters?

We put the question to Granger. “I thought that too,” he said.

Then we passed along Ebert’s explanation. “That’s very nice,” Granger said sincerely.

Our plot now takes a sudden turn. Granger’s theory is that no one really reads newspapers anymore–including newspapermen–so what does it matter what Ebert calls his hero? “Remember, when we were there,” said Granger, speaking of the Sun-Times in the 1970s, “we all used to read the papers like Talmudic scholars. I came up to some people, including two people at the Sun-Times, and said Ebert had started a new series with a major character called Devereaux. And they all said, ‘Did he?'”

Granger went on, “The funny thing is, somebody else picked the name up last year and wrote a spy thriller, The Devereaux File. I sent it to my agent, and he said, ‘Well, they only sold 4,000 copies, and the guy was killed in the fourth chapter.'”

Last week Granger received unsettling news. The mail brought E.P. Dutton’s spring catalog, and prominent among Dutton’s new offerings was this novel: The November Man, by David Daniel, a “riveting, frighteningly realistic political thriller.”

“Apparently, book publishing has followed newspaper publishing,” Granger mused, “and nobody reads anything anymore. Got a book? Title it ‘Wind in the Willows.’ Sounds good to me.”

He went on, “You can’t copyright a title, but there is a [legal] thing called creating confusion in the marketplace.”

So Granger called his agent, Aaron Priest. And Priest called the editor in chief at Dutton, Kevin Mulroy. Afterward we spoke with Priest.

“He was very surprised,” said Priest of Mulroy. “He made a naive statement, in that he said, ‘Do you think the author will mind?’ And I said, ‘He wouldn’t mind if you had a book called “The November Man” and it was about how cold last winter was. But if you’ve got the CIA in there, goddamn right he’d mind. I mind a lot too.'”

Unable to reach Mulroy, we spoke with Audrey LaFehr, who edited “The November Man” for E.P. Dutton. “We’re changing the title to ‘The Tuesday Man,’ which is what it was called at one point,” she announced. “We just didn’t think that with ‘The Tuesday Man’ as many people would get the connection with the election.” LaFehr explained that Daniel tells the tale of “a psychotic split personality” who comes within a hair of the White House.

“The ‘November Man’ title came up before anyone made the connection [with Granger],” she went on. “After the connection was made, we had a meeting about it and we didn’t think it would be a problem because titles are used over and over. But then we decided not to make anybody angry.”

It turns out that the “connection was made,” as LaFehr put it, by Daniel himself, who looked up the title in Books in Print. “So I alerted Audrey and my agent,” Daniel told us, “and they allowed as to how that sometimes happens. And that’s where it was left.”

We wondered what Daniel’s original title was. He couldn’t be sure, there’d been so many. “When I first saw it, it was called ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming,'” said LaFehr. Wasn’t that a Robert Aldrich movie with Burt Lancaster? we asked.

“Somebody said that too.”

“I don’t see any of this as being overly serious,” says Granger. “Ebert said the right thing. It’s a tribute. That’s funny, right? There are big things going on in the world, and this is not one of them. But the book annoys me. . . . Jesus Christ! It’s hard enough making a living in this racket without some guy stealing the dimes off your eyelids.”

TV Viewers Get No Piece

There aren’t many truisms about the war in the Persian Gulf, but this seems to be one: if it’s not over fast, the antiwar movement will seep from the margins toward the center of American society, threatening the war, the president, and every other politician clustered there.

What’s curious about this notion is its presumption that the margins are where the antiwar movement can be found. A querulous but very useful media critic named Jeff Cohen thinks otherwise. The other day Cohen faxed a statement from New York reminding us that polls never showed much enthusiasm for the war George Bush has led us into. Perhaps it’s because the opposition was so inchoate and predictable that the media paid little attention to it.

As executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Cohen crusades tirelessly against what he perceives as the media’s proestablishment bias. Now he’s announced a FAIR survey of five months of network news coverage of the Persian Gulf–from early August, when the first American troops were committed, through early January.

The results? “Of a total 2,855 minutes devoted to the Gulf crisis–nearly two full days of coverage–only 29 minutes, roughly one percent, dealt with popular opposition to the U.S. military build-up in the Gulf.”

Patting itself on the back, FAIR asserts that in the wake of its own “recent expose of bias and censorship against progressives on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” the nightly public-television program has widened its scope to accommodate contrarians such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. But the networks did not follow suit. “None of the foreign-policy experts associated with the peace movement–such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky or the scholars at the Institute for Policy Studies–appeared on any nightly network news program during the period scrutinized. While stories on Jesse Jackson’s trip to Iraq were counted as antiwar coverage, none of these stories included any quotes from Jackson.”

When war broke out, said Cohen, the networks began paying attention to the antiwar movement–for reasons that we surmise were largely nostalgic. According to Cohen, “the coverage is often no more than a blur of street action–from mass marches to the flag-burnings of the fringe. Missing from the news are coherent statements from national peace leaders explaining their positions.”

You decide if you’ve missed what you didn’t get. A week ago we’d have answered Cohen by saying that the unorthodox geopolitical philosophy of a Noam Chomsky is beyond the capacity of network news to represent. But if TV can do such a splendid job of explaining how the Patriot missile works, it can probably do justice to a smart person’s unconventional views.

Who Loses?

The weeks leading up to war brought scattered reports of reservists discovering they were actually conscientious objectors, of GIs trying to explain they had signed up to study not fight. These confessions attracted little sympathy. What did these jokers think the Army was about? columnists wondered. We wondered that too.

Consider this analogy. A Chicagoan of humble means totes up his or her Lotto ledger at year’s end, discovers that outgo vastly exceeds income, and presumes to sue the government of Illinois for fraud. Who would squander an ounce of pity on such a sap? Lotto advertising stresses sudden wealth and the immediate gratification of one’s wildest dreams, making it even more fanciful than the Army ads, which merely emphasize personal growth and career advancement. Yet everyone understands that the reason a state holds a lottery isn’t to enrich a handful of citizens but to enrich itself. How could any recruit be so deluded as to think that behind the recruiter’s welcoming smile is anything other than the government’s need to remain able to wage war?

So we too jeered at the Johnny-come-lately peaceniks. But a thought should be spared for the politics their complaints reflect. During the 1980s, a decade in which the rich got richer while the poor and even the middle class lost ground, government assiduously hacked away at programs designed to bring hope, education, job training, and adequate income to the multitudes in need of them. But two avenues to the good life survived, avenues free of liberal taint: state lotteries and the all-volunteer military. These institutions haven’t merely prospered; they’ve made themselves indispensable to every patriot who believes that public revenues and national defense are best provided by the needy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.