Journalists at Play: the (MORE) the Merrier?
May 19, 1975
This year’s (MORE) Convention contained a number of serious elements:
But anyone who thinks the (MORE) Convention is a serious event in itself might consider that at this year’s gathering it was also possible to:
So much for seriousness.
(MORE) has been holding its annual A.J. Liebling Counter-Convention for four years now. The first one had something of the excitement of a countercultural event. The second rode on the crest of the Woodward-Bernstein revelations and had a speedy, hustling, status-conscious quality that some said was directly attributable to the convention’s being held in Washington. The third, held last spring back in New York, was galvanized by the prospect of the impeachment hearings. If you were a journalist, you didn’t really want to be anywhere else any of those weekends.
This year’s convention started out with some of the same crackling atmosphere of expectation, but it never really jelled. There was no single issue, like Watergate or impeachment or Vietnam, to serve as a focus of energy and talk. If there is a single big story it’s probably the economy, and the press hardly has a grip on that. (The one panel that touched directly on the subject, a discussion of business reporting with Emma Rothschild, Chris Welles, Leonard Silk, and other, was thinly attended.) Maybe that’s why the convention this year felt more like a party than ever before, a big, busy party that doesn’t really go anywhere and that lasts a little too long.
Thursday night 8 p.m. — I enter the Commodore and on the mezzanine level the first thing I see is Relaxation Plus, a handsomely appointed massage parlor that offers, among other things, the use of its “Exciting New Infinity Room.” According to some leaflets circulating around the convention registration area some distance off, Relaxation Plus offers “magnificently provocative girls” and “an unparalleled bacchanal” with “the wildest fantasies and mirrored gardens.”
The ballroom and foyer area where the convention started out was more crowded than Relaxation Plus. About 200 people showed up, mostly women, and waited an hour to see the movie “Antonia.” The first person I saw was a woman from my old consciousness-raising group. The second was an old boyfriend. The third was another friend, a playwright whose contempt for journalism knows no bounds. Mildly amazed, I asked him if he was going to register. “Yeah,” he said. “I heard there were a lot of parties.”
A few minutes later Dick Pollack, the editor of (MORE), remarked, with some wonderment, that the New York Times had listed the convention in that day’s Going Out Guide. One imagines an update of the famous Arno cartoon; Midwestern tourist husband to Midwestern tourist wife: ”Oh look, mother, let’s go down to the Commodore and hiss the journalists.”
It is worth wailing for “Antonia.” Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow’s film about the conductor Antonia Brico and her frustration at not being able to get conducting jobs primarily because she’s a woman. “A violinist can at least play for himself, alone in his room,” says Antonia at one point, in fierce distress, “but the orchestra is my instrument. If I can’t get jobs, I can’t play my instrument.” For a moment, the well-worn topic of sex discrimination takes on stinging reality. I leave immediately afterward, while everyone is waiting for Judy Collins to show up.
Friday 11 a.m. — I have managed to sleep through the opening of the first day, and run into Bella Abzug, the keynote speaker, in the lobby. “Have you spoken,” I ask. “Of course I’ve spoken,” she says. “You missed me! I was first.” And then grinning, she says, “I’m always first,” and bustles out.
The women’s conference is held in a long room, with panelists at one end facing an audience of perhaps 300, nearly all women. I take notes, but they’re not worth repeating. The fact is, the women’s conference is dull. It’s essentially a rerun of the Women in Media conference held last December, which was good then but seems a little stale this time around. The broad topics, employment and image, are broad; discussion is necessarily superficial. In the employment panel, a half-dozen women from places like Newsweek, Newsday, and the Long Island Press report on the status of their various anti-discrimination suits; after awhile, one EEOC case sounds much like another. A lot of specific workshops would have been better, where people could argue and get some hard information and advice.
Also by setting up a separate day, Women in Media gave (MORE) an excuse to leave women out of most of the rest of the conference. On More’s program, the women’s panels aren’t even described, and a check of the rest of the program yields the following irritating statistics: out of 106 panelists, 86 are men; out of 20 panels, there is one all-woman panel, entitled “Invading Male Turf”; there are seven all-male panels none of which is entitled “Invading Female Turf.” The (MORE) Convention, this year more than last, looks, as one woman reporter said, “male and pale”; there is even a token panel on minority coverage called “Token Assignments.” Reading the program, one wonders what this self-styled “counter-convention” is supposed to be counter to.
Friday 12 noon — Kathie Sarachild, a film editor and a founding member of Redstockings, one or the first radical women’s group, takes the open mike to announce that Redstockings is holding a press conference in an upstairs meeting room. The subject of the press conference, she says, will be “Gloria Steinem’s 10-year association with the CIA.”
What followed was one of the most bizarre and grim events I’ve ever witnessed. It was also perhaps the only actual news occurrence the entire weekend, although the daily papers seem to have ignored it.
They weren’t the only ones. When Sarachild made her announcement, there was a stunned silence in the room, then some minor crowd buzz, then nothing. The next person in line for the mike took it and started talking. I think about unions, and the conference proceeded as before. Maybe it just didn’t interest them that a major radical feminist group was attacking the editor of Ms. magazine on serious political grounds; maybe it was just too weird to take. In any case, few people followed Sarachild out of the room.
Upstairs, about 30 people gather to hear what Redstockings has to say, and to read the 16-page newspaper-format press release they’ve distributed with the headline “Restockings Discloses Gloria Steinem’s CIA Cover-up.” Five members of the group sit facing us and looking serious. Since many people in the room are aware of Steinem’s previously publicized CIA connection as director of a CIA-backed research foundation, the ironically named Independent Research Service which sent American students to world youth festivals in 1959 and 1962, someone asks what the Redstockings have that’s new. They say two things:
1) Steinem’s “Who’s Who” entry for 1968-69 lists current membership on the Board of Directors or the Independent Research Service and notes that she was its director from 1959-62. In the 1973-74 entry, there is no mention of her board membership through 1969 and the directorship is listed as lasting from 1959-60.
2) In a Times interview in 1967, Steinem is quoted as saying that in working with the CIA she was never asked “to report on other Americans or assess foreign nationals.” Redstockings contrasts this note with an excerpt from the Research Service’s report on the Vienna Youth Festival in 1961, which lists brief political and biographical descriptions or a number of the participants.
As cover-ups go, this one seems to be small beer: the offending pamphlet is 14 years old, and dropping embarrassing information from one’s “Who’s Who” entry may not be candid, but it’s anybody’s prerogative.
The press conference continues in a confused and slightly tense way. Someone finally asks if Redstockings is saying Steinem works for the CIA or that Ms. magazine is a CIA front (the press release makes reference to Ms.‘s “curious corporate financing”). Sarachild says no, they’re simply “raising questions” about that. There is a peculiar moment when someone asks if Redstockings has confronted Gloria Steinem with their information, and if not, why not. “We wanted to bring it to you first,” says one of the women, “since you as the press are the representatives of the people.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard a radical describe the press so kindly. The Redstockings insist that it is not their business to confront Steinem, it’s the business of the press, and that’s why they’ve called the press conference.
Maybe so, but the whole thing has an unnecessary air of McCarthyism about it. What could have been a legitimate attack on Ms. and, for that matter, Steinem’s politics, which many radical feminists regard as frustratingly reformist and even reactionary, has been cast in such a way that it looks sly and paranoid. It also looks very personal. At one point, a woman in the audience suggests that because the 1967 Times article describes Steinem as a “30-year-old freelance writer,” she lies about her age, and the Redstockings agree. (Steinem turned 40 this year, a fact she consciously publicized.) And the Redstockings describe Steinem’s career repeatedly as having been “made” by Clay Felker (whose job as an editor of the CIA-financed delegation’s newspaper at the 1962 Helsinki festival is made much of in this connection, although the Redstockings stop short of charging Felker with knowledge or the CIA involvement). Sad days, when femininists can’t give a woman credit for her achievements — whatever they may feel about her politics — but must attribute them to a man.
I prepare to leave, feeling depressed and wishing that one of the most important radical feminist groups in New York had chosen to announce its resurgence in a better way. Before I go, someone in the audience who knows l work at The Voice comes up and says, “Did you know you were working for the CIA,” No. I say, but I have in my hand a list of names …
Friday afternoon’s session of the Women’s Day is too much like Friday morning’s. Two interesting things happen. One is when Wilma Scott Heide, a kindly looking gray-haired woman who’s past president of NOW, calls for an action to temporarily sabotage one network — that is, put it off the air for awhile by zapping its transmitter. This is not what you expect from kindly looking gray-haired past presidents of NOW. When she asks who would be willing to work on such a project, about half the room stands up.
The other interesting thing was the pies. The afternoon panel is drawing to a close, and Marcia Dubrow, a reporter from Reuters, is making an announcement. Suddenly her face is covered with whipped cream. There is movement at the dais: then another panelist’s face is covered with whipped cream. Then three women grab the microphone, shout ”We’re from the humor liberation front,” and run out of the room, spraying shaving cream on the walls as they go.
Wondering why women are throwing pies at other women when they could wait a day and throw them at men, I investigate. It turns out the pie throwers are advertising their forthcoming book, a collection of humor by women, which they are going to call “Titters.” Yuk yuk. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last time I stepped out of the house and slipped in a pile of my neighbor’s dog’s leavings.
Friday night — dinner at the Oyster Bar with friends. We discuss the liberal elite bias of the (MORE) Convention. In addition to slighting women and various minority groups, (MORE) slights the Daily News, New York’s biggest newspaper. Ellen Cohn, a Sunday News magazine columnist moderating the Invading Male Turf panel, has taken a lot of ribbing from News colleagues, many of whom feel left out. No wonder. The New York Times has 16 representatives on (MORE) panels this year, the Washington Post six. The Voice four. The News has two, including Ellen; the New York Post has none. Neither the News nor the Post is represented on a panel called “Why the Working Man (sic) Hates the Media,” although those are the papers, of course, which most “working” people (as opposed to us idle executive types) read.
Later Friday night — two dimly lit, large rooms have been set up with bars, nightclub type tables with little lamps, and piped-in rock music. The Deadly Nightshade, a women’s rock band, will play later. I prepare to go home with a firmly fixed image in my mind of half the New York press corps and assorted freelancers standing around like sophomores at a college mixer. Then I run into some people I know and decide to stay; we spend the evening gossiping and standing around like sophomores at a college mixer.
Saturday afternoon — I go to the critics panel to hear Pauline Kael, Jules Feiffer, and John Leonard talk about criticism under the mildly hilarious orchestration of moderator Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker. Feiffer sounds gloomy, announcing that “there is no such thing as seriousness anymore, no one takes criticism seriously, very little means anything to us anymore.” He considers this the effect of the war, which has numbed people’s minds and destroyed our sense of good guys and bad guys. “Criticism, like so much else in America,” he concludes. “has been Vietnamized. I want to welcome you all to San Clemente.” Kael jumps in immediately, disagreeing with everything Feiffer has said (“I think he must be speaking out of some very personal despair”) and doing it with such quivering intensity that it’s evident seriousness is alive and well. Then Leonard talks about the pressures on a daily book reviewer that makes reviewing “not exactly a noble calling” (this was aimed at Kael), but “more like the work of a sports columnist.” Then they talk about the function of the critic, and Feiffer takes issue with Kael’s remark about his personal despair, and it’s all pretty interesting. Most important, it does the one thing that a panel of writers talking should do: it makes you want to go home and write.
Outside, I run into a half-dozen people who say I’ve missed the best panel, in this case, the one on investigative reporting. I would worry, but people say this to each other at the (MORE) Convention every year.
This year, the (MORE) Convention has something called a Media Midway set up in the lobby outside the meeting rooms. It consists of the following things:
There are more panels until dinner time, but I miss them in order to talk to some women about the Redstockings-Steinem business. One of the women reports that a number of radical feminists met the night before to discuss the aftermath of the press conference. There was a lot of argument over the pros and cons of the Redstocking action, and it sounds like a good meeting. I’m cheered simply to hear that radical feminists are meeting again
Saturday evening — After dinner, a party, the location of which has been posted on the bulletin board. The party, in case anybody asks, was not put on by (MORE). Refreshments were joints, hash brownies, and balloons or nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide makes you feel blissful and induces a mild trance. The party had some of the atmosphere of a friendly opium den, with people sitting around looking dreamy.
After about an hour of this, I go back down to see Studs Terkel get the annual A.J. Liebling Award and to hear the big Saturday night panel. This time it’s on self-censorship, and the star lineup includes Brit Hume, Carl Bernstein, and Dan Rather. The panel is well under way when the hash brownie suddenly hits with a vengeance. I concentrate on staying upright in my chair, while the panelists talk turns to gibberish in my ears. I ask a clear-headed companion if the panelists are being interesting. “No,” he says, “they’re being boring.” Then I ask him if there isn’t an odd roaring noise in the room, praying that he will say yes so I can stop wondering if the roaring noise is just the sound of my brain disintegrating. My brain is not disintegrating: the noise is the roar of the crowd, which is getting louder and louder and threatening to drown out the panel entirely. It seems the bar has opened halfway through the panel discussion, and people’s desire to party is overcoming their desire to learn about self-censorship. Finally, the roar wins, and the panel shuts down.
A party follows, which is much like the party the previous evening. Dan Rather drifts by at one point, talking to someone. A dozen people surround him as he moves, hanging on every word like a school of hungry fish. They look as if any minute they might start taking eager bites out of him. Someone is introduced to me who says something pleasant about my work. I can’t for the life of me think what to say back: finally, after a long and ghastly silence, I remember that the words one says under these circumstances are “thank you.” I manage to get them out, but she’s looking at me funny, as well she might. I get another word out — “good-bye” — and then get the hell out of there so I can go home and sleep off the brownie. I remember the last time I was this stoned: (MORE) Convention 1973 Rolling Stone party. That time the culprit was California joints the size of cigars. Hallucinatory. Everyone’s cars turned to fur, and every time David Halberstam spoke, a podium seemed to form in front of him.
Sunday — Sunday is quiet and subdued. The Media Midway is dismantled, there are no bars in evidence. People go around to the various literature tables set up outside the meeting rooms and pick up free copies of things like Seven Days and the Soho Weekly News and a beautiful slick magazine called Lithopinion. A man distributes the Redstockings press release/newspaper.
Like a lot of other people, I drift in and out of all the panels. Jack Newfield and John Hess talk about the nursing home scandal. Gay Talese talks, rather solemnly, about sex and journalism; Nora Ephron and David Obst give discouraging advice to hopeful freelancers. All the panels are mildly interesting; none of them seems more than that, except the panel on the assassination of JFK. It is well attended, and when the famous Zapruder film is shown, the room goes still.
Outside, in the lobby, they’ve opened up the bar again.