BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week's On the Media, an epidemic of cancel culture or maybe an epidemic of whining about cancel culture – depends on who you ask,
MICHAEL HOBBES what are the statistics indicating that speech is less free now than it used to be? We're in like a free speech Xanadu.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tracing the origins of the term cancel culture, as frequently happens, leads back to Black Twitter.
CLYDE McGRADY It was mostly used to express disgust or disdain for some celebrity who did something that you didn't like. And you're like 'Eh, I'm done with this person, I don't deal with them – they're cancelled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, a new book about three women journalists for the Vietnam War, each combating more than what they faced on the front. But there too, they created rules for themselves that enabled them to do what they needed to do.
ELIZABETH BECKER The photograph has to capture their eyes. She uses her tiny little body like an acrobat, crawls in the mud, gets unusual angles and gets those eyes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Stick around.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Recently, we've gotten used to things being canceled. The Summer Olympics, the Eurovision Song Contest, Keeping Up With the Kardashians – all cancelled. My New Year's Eve party... also canceled. But of course, that's purposely misleading. In 2021, when you hear the word canceled, you're not thinking of TV shows or sporting events since its earliest references in Black popular culture, more on that later in the show, the term has morphed into a fully loaded linguistic weapon. Just aim and shoot.
THE CANCEL CONCERNED Don't think this cancel culture won't come for you, too. It won't just focus on conservatives and Republicans. It'll come for all of us. That's how bad this cancel culture mindset is. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE They tell us not even the dead are immune.
THE CANCEL CONCERNED This cancel culture mania on the left is going too far. Abe Lincoln, George Washington These people are heroes. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apparently, animals aren't safe, either. After a Kentucky Derby winning horse failed a drug test, his trainer offered an explanation.
BOB BAFFERT It was like a cancel culture kind of a thing, so they're reviewing it [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In order to grasp the amorphous meaning of cancel culture and its rising social currency. We turned to its precursor... political correctness. In June, we spoke to journalist Michael Hobbs, who'd spent some time tracking its earliest usage.
MICHAEL HOBBES The first reference that I could find to it was actually in China under Mao. It was talking about how the press wasn't politically correct. It actually started out as a term that liberals would kind of apply to people to their left. It was a way within left wing movement organizing of saying, Oh, you're trying to impose the standard of purity,
BROOKE GLADSTONE But then you also have the Rush Limbaugh usage, right?
MICHAEL HOBBES Yeah. I mean, Rush Limbaugh did something in the late 80s that was actually very innovative. He started doing segments on his show that were basically the dumb liberal of the week.
RUSH LIMBAUGH Hempstead, Texas, and the cheerleader controversy rages on. The school district down there is very much concerned, ladies and gentlemen, of lawsuits by the NOW gang and a bunch of others, if they ban pregnant girls from being cheerleaders. And I'm thinking about this issue, we're going to have pregnant cheerleaders? You're going to have the football team break the huddle and the cheerleaders break water. [END CLIP]
MICHAEL HOBBES It was this way of finding these anecdotes that all illustrated the same concept, right? That there were these oversensitive preening liberals that were going to freak out if you did anything that even remotely offended them. And it was just a new outrage every single day. And that approach has really taken over the right-wing media ever since.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But now the term political correctness seems to have become a little shopworn. Cancel culture seems to have replaced it.
MICHAEL HOBBES The tropes of political correctness have come back in word-for-word, exactly the same form. The same sort of use of anecdote over statistics, the same slippery slope arguments, the same moral panic. Right? That any time minorities, gay people, Black people, trans people start to become more visible in the culture, there is this explosion of anxiety that casts them as much more powerful than they are and much more threatening than they are. That, you know, if we start using the pronouns that trans people want, soon, we won't even have a concept of gender anymore, right? You have to project into these absurd dystopian scenarios to find a reason to be concerned about these extremely reasonable asks. It's the same arguments that we've had really throughout time that society should not change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's a database about so-called cancel culture.
MICHAEL HOBBES I've been totally obsessed with this thing called the Canceled People Database, which is exactly what it sounds like. It's basically a crowdsourced effort to identify every single case of people who have been, quote unquote, “canceled.” There's extremely famous people on there and then there's normal workers, but then there's like professors who were fired after a student filed a complaint, a normal thing that happens at universities. There's a guy on there who was beheaded after he showed some cartoons of Muhammad to his class, he's in France. There's also one of the Real Housewives of Orange County who lost a beverage endorsement when she tweeted some sort of COVID truther stuff. To me, it's this perfect example of one of the ways that moral panics function in society is they lump together all of these events that really have nothing to do with each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You find that mostly these stories aren't even true.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. One of the cases on the canceled people database is a guy named Matthew Halls, an orchestra conductor who was fired from the Oregon Bach Festival. And if you read the description on the Canceled People Database, it says that the reason he was fired is because he was chatting to a Black friend – he's British – and he affected, I guess, an offensive sounding Southern accent as a joke, and a white woman overheard them and complained, and then he got fired. His Black friend has said, “I wasn't offended by this, it was totally fine,” and yet he gets fired anyway. You know, this story spent months bouncing around the internet, you can still find all kinds of stories about it. A couple of months after this, The Oregonian gets the documents in which the University of Oregon describes why he was fired, and it turns out that there were 4 complaints of sexism against him. You know, there's something like 200 people on the Canceled People Database. And I can't go through and debunk all of them because we would be here all day, but a lot of the ones that I have looked into, as soon as you do any kind of good faith inquiry into what actually happened with this person, they're always much more complicated than they seem at first. I think a good example is something that came out a couple of days ago, that Princeton is no longer going to require classics majors to learn Greek and Latin. And this is, of course, something that came up word for word in the political correctness panic. There was a lot of panic around, you know, they're not teaching Shakespeare to kids anymore. This turned out not to be true. There was actually more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Shakespeare is taught more than any American author. But in the case of Princeton, since that came up recently –
MICHAEL HOBBES Mhm?
BROOKE GLADSTONE The major that they're choosing is a classics major. No Latin or Greek?
MICHAEL HOBBES Those courses will still be offered. Anybody who wants to learn Greek and Latin can still learn them, but the school stopped making that a requirement because a lot of wealthy kids go to prep high schools that teach Greek and Latin to them, and so in an effort to sort of level the playing field, we're no longer going to require that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't really buy that, though. You could say that, you know, kids that go to science high schools would have an advance on a single variable calculus or something like that. I mean, you could apply that anywhere.
MICHAEL HOBBES I mean, I suppose. But I object to the idea that one department's major requirements are a news story in the first place. Schools change their major requirements over time. They change with shifting ideology. They change with different department heads. The only way to really get worked up about something like this is to see it as a symbolic assault, right? It's an assault on Western culture or something. A lot of these things, you know, you're scrolling through this database and you're like, why do I know about this? What are anecdotes for in journalism? It's not necessarily a matter of whether or not they are true. It's a matter of whether or not they matter. I think it's fascinating that we're in the middle of a nationwide debate over free speech when you could very easily make the case that speech has never been freer. There were times in America where you could be fired for being gay, you could be fired for being atheist. You could be fired for flirting with any kind of socialist ideas. The idea that we are now entering a uniquely censorious time? We're in, like, a free speech Xanadu.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you're not saying that every invocation of cancel culture is misapplied, are you?
MICHAEL HOBBES I don't know of a single case of a quote unquote “cancelation” where that word adds rather than subtracts to the meaning. If we want to talk about somebody like J.K. Rowling, it's much more accurate to just say that she was widely criticized for her political views. And, you know, if we're talking about statues being removed from a square, we can just say removed. It's also not clear to me that you can cancel a historical figure. I just don't see any reason for lumping all of these things together other than to whip up a purported national crisis that just isn't there. I don't know that there's an actual case of somebody who's truly canceled except for somebody like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. I don't think you want to put those in the cancel culture bucket, man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In that case, the preferred word is probably...Convicted.
MICHAEL HOBBES Convicted of rape. Maybe we don't need to put that together with somebody who loses a beverage endorsement. But I do think that there's something interesting here, because I think one of the most moral panic-ish elements of this is this systematic conflation of public figures and private individuals. You will find people making arguments that there's this slippery slope that it's like today it's J.K. Rowling, and tomorrow it could be you. And I think that it's really worth separating these two things out. J.K. Rowling has 14 million Twitter followers. The vast majority of people on Twitter have fewer than 100, and there's no evidence that normal ordinary workers are being fired due to social media posts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Central Park dog walker who threatened a bird watcher with the police. That's Amy Cooper. And Rachel Dolezal?
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. She was an NAACP chapter head in Spokane, Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Who turned out not to be Black after all.
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. Both of those cases were massive and these firestorms were so huge that these people eventually lost their jobs and really became almost kind of like national public figures due to this. There's a limit to how many of those kinds of cases can happen per year. So, the idea that this is happening on any kind of scale, that there's this iceberg of people who are saying, I stand with J.K. Rowling and then they're losing their jobs —
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't think there are that many firings per se, right?
MICHAEL HOBBES I think it's a very small number. I often make the comparison to the stranger danger panic of the 1980s and 1990s, where, you know, the numbers at the time that went around were like, you know, 1.2 million kids go missing every year – that would have been something like 7 percent of all children in the United States. Years later, we get the real numbers and it's around 115, not a hundred fifteen thousand, 115. And that panic got us more mass incarceration, it got us the sex offender registry. It got us, you know, kids that don't walk or bike to school anymore. It had all these really negative consequences. But there were 115 kids a year that really did get kidnapped by strangers and a lot of them were killed. Those cases are real, and that pain is real. And I think that we have to take seriously the fact that there are real cases of unfair, ridiculous firing. But I also think it's very important to sort of let some of the air out of this balloon and talk about what are the actual threats to workers in America. For most workers, it's not that their social media posts are going to be seen by their boss, right? It's going to be that they are laid off because there's a giant pandemic or they're going to be five minutes late to a meeting and get fired for it. So as soon as you start breaking cancel culture into its constituent parts, all of these things, the narrative just completely evaporates. There's nothing there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your podcast episode on political correctness, which clearly had a big impact on me, you said, “I think we overestimate the danger of social change and underestimate the backlash to social change.”
MICHAEL HOBBES Yes. The political correctness panic of the 1990s produced a nationwide systematic wave of Republicans defunding higher education. It built this idea that universities are these left-wing indoctrination factories, and it pushed conservatives further away from the institutions of knowledge production. We're still seeing the ripples of that now. And with this cancel culture stuff, we're seeing state legislatures going after the 1619 Project. They're trying to ban whatever critical race theory is in schools, their state legislatures that are banning, quote unquote, “divisive concepts” in classrooms so broadly defined that you basically couldn't teach anything anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is that an exaggeration?
MICHAEL HOBBES No. I mean, some of these laws, like I've read these laws, they're unbelievably broad. They could apply to almost anything. And again, we have this massive moral panic based on a couple of college kids in Portland disinviting a speaker from campus or something. We're meant to really freak out about these isolated, very low stakes anecdotes. And then we have state legislatures passing laws that will restrict the kinds of ideas that kids are exposed to in classrooms. And that somehow doesn't matter. This, again, is the pattern that we've seen so many times. Panics get whipped up over anecdote after anecdote after anecdote and then real systemic attempts to do exactly the thing that the moral panic is about — free speech, right? — We have all these attempts now to restrict free speech and no outcry from the people who are telling us that everybody's being fired for talking in a Zoom meeting or whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
MICHAEL HOBBES Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Michael Hobbes is co-host of the podcast Maintenance Phase.
Coming up, the roots of the modern usage of cancelation dates back to the days of disco. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Michael Hobbs makes a convincing argument that when you look under the hood of cancel culture, the term disintegrates into a flurry of disparate examples among the hodgepodge of endorsements lost in substance made and egos bruised. Is there any dispositive evidence that cancel culture really exists at the moment? It depends on who you ask. Eric Smith thinks it does. An associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the York College of Pennsylvania, he believes cancel culture does describe a pervasive, dangerous cultural phenomenon, and it describes what happened to him.
EREC SMITH Well, the keynote address at the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication was all about teaching standard English to students of color, and the inherent racism therein. So, I criticized it on a listserv, saying this isn't really getting us anywhere. And here's the thing, I'm not the biggest champion of standard English. It's not an egregious sin to end a sentence in a preposition anymore. That is a thing of the past. But I am a big fan of giving students the tools that they will need in civic and professional context. And I think this idea that doing so is inherently racist is dangerous. And as a Black person, it angers me. I've been accused of trying to placate white people. I'm not trying to have Black students be as empowered as possible and not so fragile that they feel oppressed because they have to write “isn't” instead of “ain't.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE I read your response and it seemed a perfectly reasonable dissent. I also read one of the responses that was very stinging, and other people agreeing with that response. And then I read a few people saying, now, wait a minute here we can have discussion, and rather than just call it out, shouldn't there be a better formulated response to your response? How many people actually wrote?
EREC SMITH Let's say a dozen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK.
EREC SMITH And that doesn't count the storm that was happening simultaneously on Twitter to what I said. There is a lot of misrepresentation, if not all-out lies...
BROOKE GLADSTONE From students and colleagues, or mostly colleagues?
EREC SMITH Students and colleagues. In fact, I was accused of “going after graduate students,” quote unquote. What happened was I was scrolling through Twitter, as one does, and I saw many people slandering me. I guess it's technically libel. But I said, hey, that's not true. And I tried to defend myself and that was rendered as going after graduate students.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Have you gotten into Twitter fights before?
EREC SMITH No, not before this one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because that is how they go.
EREC SMITH Well, here's the thing. I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think I was talking to mature academics. I was certain that we could have a civil and intelligent conversation. And I was wrong. I wasn't talking to academics, I was talking to middle school mean girls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So earlier in this hour, I spoke to somebody who's very critical of this whole cancel culture idea. And he says cancelation is a word that never really contributes to the conversation. Instead, you could say someone was fired or someone was criticized. That to elevate this to a trend, creates a sense of moral panic when there is no cause for one.
EREC SMITH I guess if you're somebody like me who studies language and persuasion, it presents differently. It's a phenomenon to me. Something that is very telling about contemporary America. The idea that if you don't like something, the best tactic is to degrade the person who said it. To not only silence them, to show others this is what happens when you cross us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, what happened to you? What professional consequences did you experience?
EREC SMITH At the time of my attempted cancelation, I was writing a book where it was about the teaching of writing the meaning behind standardized English. After this incident, however, I realized that I have to write about these trends in academia. About the idea that everything is about power dynamics, the idea that everyone is reduced to being a body and not an individual. And I decided to revamp the book, I added chapters, I revised substantially other chapters. I wouldn't recommend doing that with three months left to the deadline – that took its toll on my psyche, but it was worth it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, you didn't lose tenure, you're still able to publish and teach. You've said the experience has made you more outspoken.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And created a book that is perhaps more relevant to this moment. You got slammed, but you're functioning in the world. And in some ways you're participating in the mainstream discussion now.
EREC SMITH Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How is that ultimately a bad thing? Especially since the number of teachers and professors and academics who are actually fired because of mobs on social platforms is vanishingly small?
EREC SMITH I speak up because I can. What I'm saying is something that many people agree with but aren't able to talk about. So, I'm not doing this woe is me thing. What I am doing is trying to address what I see as a problem in my field. There was a time in academia, and that time was like 6 years ago where, you know, if you criticize somebody's work, you're criticizing somebody’s work, not that person. That is gone, and when we can't have academic discourse, we are no longer academics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even given all of that, what I see is this cancel culture notion, lumping things from criticism to murder into the same basket and then proclaiming it a threat to the American way of life. That is why I resist this phrase.
EREC SMITH I guess if I were to somehow justify the term, I would cite the idea of free speech and people silencing themselves on purpose, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But it can be argued that this is the freest time for speech that we've ever had.
EREC SMITH Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it's just different things that are at this moment, particularly explosive.
EREC SMITH I would agree with that. My main issue is just the lack of academic discourse. We can't ask questions anymore. It's called trolling now. If you ask a question after a panel presentation at a conference, for example, anything other than some variation of “how can I be more like you” is seen as threatening. It's not academia anymore. It's more like a church. You can't stand up in church and say, "Uh pastor, I don't agree with your interpretation of John 3:16."
EREC SMITH That's frowned upon, to say the least. Now, academia is like that. Becoming like that anyway. I think it's detrimental to the very people it's trying to help, specifically Black and indigenous people of color. The concept of anti-racist pedagogy is fine. I like that. I think I do it. But when it becomes this infantilization of students of color, I don't like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm not arguing against agitating for all ideas to be heard. I'm arguing against the notion of a cancel culture. That is the thing that concerns me as somebody who looks at how the national narrative shapes and reshapes itself.
EREC SMITH Call it what you want. The label is less important than the actuality of it, what it implies about our ability to communicate as a society. Those are my issues. I'm focused on academia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
EREC SMITH Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the York College of Pennsylvania.
So, quote, "cancel culture" now possesses a fantastically murky definition on and offline, but its predecessors, the phrases ‘call-out culture’ and ‘being canceled’ have long been well defined terms within the Black community. In fact, that's what started to bother Washington Post features writer Clyde McGrady. Many words leak from Black culture into the mainstream, but what he saw with cancellation was a phrase being turned on its creator. So he decided to go back to the beginning, and what he found wasn't political hyperbole or social anxiety or cultural reckoning. Instead, just a man. Music impresario Nile Rodgers and a bad date and some disco.
CLYDE MCGRADY He was out on a date with a woman who is being a bit rude to the people at the club where they were. There were some people sitting down at a table that he wanted and she said, you know, "why don't you make these people get up?" And he's a guy with pretty humble beginnings. So he was a bit put off by that and he is like, you know, "that's not how I roll." Sometime later, he's also obsessed with television. He says it's on 24/7 at his house. So he is sitting around thinking about this date and then the lyrics start coming to him "... unsuccessful television shows tend to be canceled." That's the language TV executives use, like we're canceling the show, it's over. So that was the context in which he writes the song, "Your Love is Cancelled."
[CHORUS OF "YOUR LOVE IS CANCELLED" PLAYS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that it wasn't until a while later, like in the 90s, when Barry Michael Cooper, who was a journalist at the time, had been hired to rewrite the screenplay for this gangster classic New Jack City. And it comes up again?
CLYDE MCGRADY I asked Barry Michael Cooper, you know, where did you come up with the line canceled from? And he was like, well, when I was writing the screenplay, I had this playlist, the soundtrack, playing the background to help with his writing process. And one of the songs was "Your Love is Cancelled." He used it in this pivotal scene, the main character, who, as Cooper describes him, is a malignant narcissist drug dealer named Nino Brown, played by Wesley Snipes. He uses this child as a human shield during a shootout. And later on, he goes back to his place and his girlfriend is so distraught and he throws her against the table and he pours champagne on her and he says...
NINO BROWN Cancel that b-----, I'll buy another. [END CLIP]
CLYDE MCGRADY Cancel that B-word. Barry Michael Cooper really wanted to get at what the drug era had done. And so that scene really brings it home, and it becomes this iconic line. Rappers used it. Like 50 Cent used it in a line. Lil Wayne used it in a line. When it makes the jump in the social media age is in the show Love and Hip Hop. And a producer who is getting into an argument with his girlfriend says “you're canceled,” and it kinda takes off on B lack Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you said in the piece that the word canceled at that point was used mostly as a joke.
CLYDE MCGRADY Right, right. It was mostly used to express disgust or disdain for some celebrity who did something that you didn't like. You know, like I'm done with this person. I don't deal with them, they're canceled. And it wasn't necessarily a call for any more serious action than just publicly announcing your own personal preferences.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Your own personal preferences? When did it start transforming into a word with more serious implications?
CLYDE MCGRADY I'm thinking about the Mute R Kelly movement, which had been building and building and building for so long after all these allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate sexual behavior towards minors. Once these allegations hit television, you see this really concerted effort to boycott R Kelly. To encourage artists that have worked with him to no longer work with him. To encourage radio stations not to play his music. To encourage people not to play his music. Then, of course, you have #metoo, and this is when it really takes off. All of a sudden people start speaking out publicly because maybe they don't feel empowered through the regular channels. So, they take to social media, right? So I'd say around 2018, 2019, this is when it really, really starts to bubble up into the consciousness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's the difference between calling out somebody and canceling them? Could you give me an example?
CLYDE MCGRADY Right, Justin Timberlake, who has been accused of culturally appropriating Black music for his own gain and profit, he was also involved in the 2005 Super Bowl infamous wardrobe malfunction incident with Janet Jackson. And the way he handled that did not sit well with a lot of people. A lot of people, particularly Black people, felt that Justin Timberlake kind of hung her out to dry. And also, he dissed Prince.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He dissed Prince?
CLYDE MCGRADY Yes, he did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But the thing is, is that Justin Timberlake is a good example of the difference between call-out culture and canceling because people weren't saying time to boycott.
CLYDE MCGRADY Right. They weren't calling his record label saying, you know, you should drop Justin Timberlake or telling DJs not to play his music or anything like that. They were just like I'm done with this dude. He has committed one too many transgressions, I'm through. And that was that, like Justin Timberlake still doing fine and still releasing music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can we talk about the appropriation of words that began in the Black community and then migrated to the white community? You wrote that not only have these words been appropriated from Black culture, but they've been weaponized to sneer at the values of many young Black liberals.
CLYDE MCGRADY Yes, which is an ironic twist because usually Black slang is appropriated for its proximity to cool, because historically what young Black people have done in America is considered cool. And in order to be cool, a lot of white kids will adopt that same language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observed that the word cool itself emerged from Black culture, and you quote James Baldwin, who wrote in 1969, "I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any Black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way that they sound." But you also mention words like lit and bae, and on fleek that have come into popular vocabulary and then seemingly left. Do you think the phrase cancel culture is here to stay or will it just get folded into the history of the American lexicon?
CLYDE MCGRADY I put this story out and some people pointed out that politically correct had a similar trajectory. You know, it started as an in-joke among the left and then all of a sudden it grew and grew and then was used unironically. And then it was used to deride the things that they stood for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And hence, you have Bill Maher's show, Politically Incorrect.
CLYDE MCGRADY Yeah. So maybe, you know, there will be a show called Cancel Culture, but it's about 50 years later and we're still saying politically correct. So, who knows how long –
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, some of us are saying that.
CLYDE MCGRADY Right, right. I mean, who knows? We may still be saying cancel culture. As long as it is politically useful to do so, I think it will be around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
CLYDE MCGRADY Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clyde McGrady is a features writer for The Washington Post with a focus on race and identity.
Both the interviews you just heard originally aired in the spring. Coming up way back when – actually, not that long ago – when women reporters were muzzled on the battlefield. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Before the Vietnam War, there was a law that banned women from reporting on the front lines of any war for the U.S. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam, an opening appeared: no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance and little or no formal training. Reporter Elizabeth Becker, former Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia and then NPR's foreign editor and then national security correspondent for the New York Times, has just published. You Don't Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War. Chronicling Catherine Leroy, a French photojournalist Frankie Fitzgerald, an American long-form journalist, and author, and Kate Webb, an Australian combat reporter. Elizabeth, welcome to On The Media.
ELIZABETH BECKER Well, thank you, Brooke, it's great to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I want to start with where you started. You give your initial experience very short shrift when asked why did you cross the ocean to cover a war when you were so young? You said the short answer was a nightmare. I was all too keen to leave behind. My Master's advisor had rejected my thesis on the Bangladesh War of Independence after I refused to sleep with him and he said one wasn't related to the other. What happened?
ELIZABETH BECKER I took my fellowship money and bought a one way ticket to Cambodia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, of course that's what anybody would do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that the first of the three profiles, although they weave in and out of each other, begins with Catherine Leroy, the French photojournalist. Explain how she came to be in Vietnam.
ELIZABETH BECKER She's a very petite French woman, about 5 feet tall, barely 90 pounds, and she was something of a rebel from her childhood. Rebelling against her petit bourgeois French Catholic background. She was pianist. She quit piano playing. Then she was a parachutist and then she was bored. So she decided, looking at Paris Match, that why not become a war photographer? I'm serious. There is no more to it than that. She had no reason to think that she could take a photograph, but she bought a Leica camera and a one-way ticket to Saigon and arrived. The Leica camera around her neck, tied with a shoelace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me how she was instantly welcomed into the fold of photojournalists.
ELIZABETH BECKER Well, first, she was a curiosity. She was lucky that a great photographer named Horst Faas, a German who was himself a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, said he'd take a chance and he'd buy a good photograph from anybody, even a woman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was at AP?
ELIZABETH BECKER Associated Press, correct. He was the head of the photography. As is the custom back then, he gave film to Catherine and if she took a decent photograph, he ran it. She started to be good, very good and very competitive. So her welcome was, in fact, an attempt to get rid of her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned in passing she was a parachutist. She was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.
ELIZABETH BECKER She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. So you can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne. She jumps and she's got three cameras around her neck and you'd think one of them would have flown in her face. But no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet and then she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it
BROOKE GLADSTONE And tell me about some of her other photographs.
ELIZABETH BECKER She's totally untrained, so she teaches herself. She makes a rule for herself. The photograph has to capture their eyes, which makes sense if you're in a photo studio. But when you're on a battlefield, it's crazy. So she uses her teeny little body like an acrobat. Crawls in the mud, gets unusual angles and gets those eyes. For instance, a very famous photograph of hers is from the Battle of the Hills. She sees a medic trying to revive another soldier. The soldier dies, he smothers his face and the guy's body then gets up, screams and runs after the Vietnamese who killed them. The photographs are everywhere and the guy sees them. He says, where was she? I didn't see her. And that's the way she does everything. She's so close, she's so small, it's like this magic sprite all over the place and it's the humanity she always captures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Something else you observed. I don't know whether she was the first or the only photographer to capture both sides of the war at great personal risk.
ELIZABETH BECKER Right. And this is in the great Tet Offensive. And this is in Huė which was the center of it, dangerous beyond belief. And she and a Agence France Presse reporter, they get on a bicycle and cross to the other side, which is crazy. They're immediately captured by the North Vietnamese. They take away her cameras, they handcuff them. But speaking French and using charm, the two of them convince them that they're not Americans, they aren't part of the other side. And she gets her cameras back, takes photographs, convinces them to let her go. Sends the photographs back to Saigon, and then she'd photograph the combat from the American side. Nobody else did that during the war. And the courage it took is unbelievable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about Frankie Fitzgerald, daughter of a CIA officer, Desmond Fitzgerald, and an absolutely irresistible socialite Marrietta Peabody Tree.
ELIZABETH BECKER Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How did this upper crust Radcliffe graduate get involved in reporting on Vietnam?
ELIZABETH BECKER Sort of almost in a classic way. She wanted to do serious reporting. Her degree was in Middle Eastern history, and she went to Newsweek and she asked for a job as a reporter or a writer, and they said, no, women aren't qualified for that. Women are only qualified to be researchers. So she bought a ticket to Vietnam. And it's her privilege that was held against her. Oh, of course, she's going to do well, her dad's number three and CIA, she's got plenty of money. She knows everybody. She rejected that. And she created a very serious alternative way to view the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You note that she wrote to herself, you must not forget. You simply must not forget that this war is a tragedy, that the greatest sin is to speak of politics in the abstract. You must stick to the concrete because that way you'll be able to see for more points of view than the abstract.
ELIZABETH BECKER Fabulous, isn't it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah.
ELIZABETH BECKER She's not a trained journalist, but that should be at the head of every journalist notebook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You do observe, though, that as unfamiliar with war as she was, she knew a great deal about Washington politics and couldn't be snowed.
ELIZABETH BECKER That was very much to her advantage because all journalists claim to be skeptical. Yes, but particularly in a war and this is the beginning of war, you're very much pushed to not betray your country. Maybe you have some problems being skeptical about how they're doing this, that and the other, but underneath it all, you support your country's war effort. When you see people dying, that's what happens. She was skeptical all the way, and that's hard. But because she was so fluent in the ways of the elite and elite politics, it was possible for her. You're absolutely right. That's one of the roots of her genius.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She also understood the importance of the Buddhist protest movements in Vietnam in a way that most of the political experts just basically ignored.
ELIZABETH BECKER For her, it was the key. She thought she'd done a good bit of homework, but she was shocked by the strength and the size of the Buddhist movement against the Saigon government. Then it opened up her eyes to all kinds of things she did not understand about Vietnam. And even though they didn't meet at that point, Catherine Leroy herself was covering the same Buddhist demonstrations and coming to the same conclusion. Those protests told them the Saigon government was not what it was supposed to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The irony is that the political and military elite didn't seem to recognize that the only real bulwark against the communists that they were so afraid were going to create a domino effect across Indochina, were, in fact, these Buddhists.
ELIZABETH BECKER And why was she able to see that? And the people running the war weren't? The classic mainstream appetite was who's winning on the battlefield, who's on top in Saigon? And she went out to places like civilian hospitals after a battle to see how poorly they were cared for. She covered Saigon from the slums to show that all the money was going to the predictable, corrupt people. And what was left for those Vietnamese fleeing the war whose villages were being destroyed. They were stuck in these slums with nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's go to Kate. She's the woman who first welcomed you to the war. The Australian Kate Webb.
ELIZABETH BECKER Kate comes in 1967. She's from Australia Intellectual Family. She has a horrible experience where her best friend commits suicide in front of her using a rifle that Kate gave her. So Kate's charged with homicide. The charges are dropped, but you can imagine what that would do to a sensitive 15-year-old. And then a few years later, while she's in college, her parents are killed in an automobile accident. So, by the time she arrives in Vietnam, again, with no resume to speak of, one-way ticket, a portable typewriter, she's already had more trauma than most of us will ever have in our life. And in some ways, that made Kate more sensitive, but also more vulnerable. She's the one who decides that she's going to be like the guys. She cuts her hair into a gorgeous pixie that makes her even more attractive. She wears fatigues. She drinks with the best of them, but she knows when to leave so she doesn't have to hold off a guy. She eventually gets work with United Press International, and she makes her big moment during the Tet Offensive. But in Saigon, not in Huė. She's one of the first at the US embassy when the Viet Cong breakthrough take over the bottom of the embassy. Kate's there. She writes an amazing dispatch and uses a phrase that becomes quoted in all the history books, that it looks like a butcher shop in Eden, the amount of destruction and the beautiful new US embassy in Saigon. So, from there, she just does amazing combat reporting. Again, like the others, she wants to know the South Vietnamese army better than the Americans were covering it. So she uses her vacation time to cover the South Vietnamese and get to know them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of people listening to this will think, well, these are just like, you know, the men who run to danger. They need to be adrenalized.
ELIZABETH BECKER No, well, first of all, like the other two women, Kate was involved in the whole country. And it's not just adrenaline. All three of these women, truly fell in love with Indo-China, and I'll throw myself in there, too. You get to know the people, the culture, and it gets into you so that your whole life is covering this story. And I have to say, Frankie never covered another war and neither did Kate. Catherine covered the Middle East, but then quit. These were not junkies. These were people committed to the story. And in those days, there's not even the word PTSD, much less an understanding of it for soldiers or female reporters. So Kate and Catherine were never treated. Kate, essentially after the war became a functional alcoholic and Catherine had severe problems. She alienated people that she didn't need to. And that's very much a part of PTSD. So even though she won those awards, she was the first George Polk, she was the first Robert Capa gold medal women to win those. Her career petered out and she died, essentially broke in Los Angeles.
The interesting thing about Franky is that she realized at what point she had to leave, she became very ill, she was having a hard time keeping up. She knew she had to leave. So she went on her own back to the United States. Still very committed to Vietnam, and spent the next few years doing amazing research on the history of Vietnam and wrote the book Fire in the Lake. She wins the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Bancroft. In the process, beating out one of the great heroes of the American press corps, David Halberstam, because that's the same year Best and the Brightest came out. She won all the prizes and that did not go over well with her former colleagues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why did she win all the prizes?
ELIZABETH BECKER She answered the questions that every American wanted to know. What are we doing in Vietnam? What does this have to do with the history of Vietnam? Whereas Halberstam wrote a good book about the roots of the war in Washington, you know, the best and the brightest about the John F. Kennedy cabinet and how they continue the war. Daniel Ellsberg had already published the Pentagon Papers. More on how did we get into the war from the American point of view, Frances Fitzgerald wrote, From the Vietnamese point of view as well as the Americans, it was exactly what Americans wanted to know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the big glass ceiling was broken by these women. But it does it make a difference fundamentally in how wars are covered.
ELIZABETH BECKER Frankie's first longed for peace, Life and Death of a Village, December 1966 New York Times magazine. That was a precursor for all of the immersive work that's done, when you go to a village and you watch how war is destroying it. You talk to the people, the everyday life. This was a first. This was before Jonathan Schell's Village of Ben Suc. When you look at Catherine's photographs, nobody had done it before. Art critics later, photograph, critics just amazed at the way she used her positions on the ground, above, below, with a sense of humanity, but also action. Kate, reading her stuff, it was so much better than I remembered, and stands to the test of what it means to be a war reporter, not just write baseball scores. Good guys: 6, bad guys: 7. That's pretty much a lot of what was going on then. She's covering some pilots of a helicopter, and just as she's writing the story, they're killed. She writes that. She writes about covering a battle in Saigon and she's having fun with a couple of the mid-level Saigon military officers. So she knows she talks about them by name, what they look like and how much fun they are. And then she goes to file a story, comes back and they're dead. And she writes that too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You came so hard on their heels. Did you go through much of what they went through and what were you able to avoid because of them?
ELIZABETH BECKER Because of them, I had the confidence that a woman could do this. I knew that it could be done and that's huge. And I knew from them what the cost was. And then their example was such that I understood when I went back to Washington as a reporter at The Post that I wasn't the only one who couldn't forget Indo-China. So I made sure that I got a visa to visit Cambodia under Pol Pot. It's not like consciously, oh, I think blah, blah, blah, it's just it was part of the atmosphere that they created for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elizabeth, thank you very much.
ELIZABETH BECKER Well, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elizabeth Becker is the author of You Don't Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War. We first aired this interview in the spring.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Calender and Eli Cohen with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Elin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited by me and Katya. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.