Sunday, May 08, 2005

Ruth, the voice behind Ruth's Morning Edition Report, says "Keep fighting."

We originally intended to profile Common Ills community member/artist Isaiah. Friday afternoon, he contacted us and asked if the interview could be pushed back a week? His reasons for this was that Ruth had been linked by BuzzFlash and he felt "this is Ruth's week."

We agree. We've loved Ruth's Morning Edition Report since it started last month. We think she provides a valuable service by addressing the issue of NPR when a lot of people want to look the other way. Maybe it's liberal guilt? Maybe it's, as she suggested last week, that people either don't listen closely or they don't listen at all to NPR? Regardless, NPR gets off some first rate howlers some days. Ruth shines a spotlight where there is often darkness.

When we spoke with Ruth on Saturday, she was very excited. Here's a rundown of Friday.

Her grandson had just woken up a few minutes prior from his afternoon nap when the phone started ringing. It was her granddaughter, Tracey, who was out of breath. Knowing that Tracey should be in school and worried as to what had her so upset, Ruth asked her to take a few breaths before continuing.

Tracey wasn't upset, she was excited. In the school library, she'd been visiting BuzzFlash when she saw her grandmother linked. Ruth had no idea.

"Once my grandson arrives, it's pretty much diapers, play time, bottles and the general routine. I don't turn the computer back on until late in the evening."

Tracey wasn't the only one excited for Ruth. She heard from family members all day Friday. Saturday, her son David and her daughter-in-law Marilyn carrying a large frame. In it were eight printed pages -- the BuzzFlash web page -- with her link highlighted.

David told her, "This isn't your Mother's Day gift, this is just because we're so proud of you."

"But it really was like a Mother's Day gift," Ruth says. "And it was so sweet and nice of BuzzFlash. I doubt they'll ever know how much joy they brought into this old woman's life. It was like winning the lotto and, like with the lotto, you should only win once. There are so many wonderful voices out there and I'm thrilled to have been chosen and honored. Tracey started saying, 'Okay, Grandma, for next time . . .' and I said this is a once in a lifetime honor and it's best to just enjoy the moment."

One of the calls that meant the most to her came Friday night.

"I'd just turned in and was trying to figure out what sort of questions you would ask when the phone rang," Ruth explains. "It was my best friend from school, Treva. She tells me she's looking at BuzzFlash and is this Ruth me because it sounds just like me? I had a little fun with her by playing ignorant for a bit but not for long because I was dying to tell her."

Common Ills members know of Treva and we couldn't believe that Ruth hadn't informed Treva about her writing.

"Well, I'd mentioned I was doing something but not really gone into it. Treva's an activist and often when we talk, she's on the road to somewhere. I was thinking I'd tell her about it in a long letter. You better believe she raked me over the coals for not telling her!"

Ruth's unique voice stands out in her writing and to read her entries is to feel like you're meeting her and her family. We decided to ask about Tracey who is often mentioned.

"A smile like sunshine and what a head she's got on her shoulders," Ruth said proudly. "This week, she calls me and says, 'Wake up, turn on NBC right now!' I do and there's this young man in a cowboy hat singing a song about when a president talks to God. She said, 'Grandma, things are changing!' We watched that on the phone together and then probably spent at least a half-hour talking about what this might mean and she kept asking me questions about who I remembered from the sixties coming on television and speaking out? The guy's name was Bright Eyes? Well, when one person does that, when one voice speaks truth, it does change things.
It was a big moment and I was thinking, 'How lucky am I? Of all the people Tracey could have shared this with, she calls her grandmother.'"

So what, we wondered, was it like in the days of Nixon and Vietnam?

"Hmm," Ruth said reflecting. "It was exciting but I guess what I'd emphasize was that there seems to be this idea that the press was telling us the truth about Vietnam all along which wasn't the case. We had to have a lot of truth tellers from outside the press pushing the truth and, as I remember it, it took quite awhile before it took hold. It's not like Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Jane Fonda or Paul Katner of Jefferson Airplane stood up once and said the war is wrong and the press immediately said 'okay.' There were all these demonstrations going on. All these teach-ins.
All these campus protests. Religious leaders were important to the movement as well. But it took all those voices speaking and protesting before slowly we gained traction in the press. If you followed the news lately, you know that the people are ahead of our leaders currently. But, maybe I'm wrong, I remember that being the case with Vietnam as well. So when Jane Fonda goes on David Letterman and says this war is wrong last month and then Bright Eyes can perform that song, you can see that there's a chance voices may gain traction. Finally."

"But what worries me, did you see the article in The Nation, is that NPR isn't the NPR of the seventies. Amy Goodman does a brilliant job but she can't do it all by herself and she's one of the few national voices we have in broadcasting. We have The Nation and The Progressive now like we did then. But the only broadcaster coming close to the prominence of Walter Cronkite is Amy Goodman. Air America is buidling up and adding stations and there's the woman on the weekends, Laura? [Laura Flanders] and during the week you have Janeane Garofalo, Tracey loves her, and [Mike] Malloy. But you also have a lot of people who really don't seem to want to take a stand."

Of Laura Flanders, Ruth says, "I only am able to listen to her on Saturdays but isn't she wonderful? She can handle any caller and deal with them as a human being. I really think she's amazing."

So besides Amy Goodman, Laura Flanders, Janeane Garofalo, Mike Malloy and magazines like The Nation and The Progressive, what do we have going for us?

"The interent," Ruth says firmly. "Tracey's already announced that Sunday everyone will be watching the clip of Bright Eyes performing his song. Amy Goodman's show [Democracy Now!] reaches people by radio and television but it also reaches people via the internet where people can listen, they can watch or they can read. Now, as I remember it, we had alternative magazines back then. But they tended to be more regional. Thanks to the internet, you can have the same access whether you live in Miami or Chicago, Boston or Tulsa. Ideas and information can travel much faster, provided you have internet access. It's not just a group of people putting together an off campus newspaper and reaching that one general area. Now you can have this alternative source of news and, for now anyway, you can bypass physical borders and the thought police. From Treva, I know that text messages are very important to protests today but I don't know enough about that to speak of it. But information can travel much faster now which really stamps out isolation and allows people to make connections. So blogs and web sites make a world of difference. BuzzFlash gives you the best of the nation's paper, as well as some international press, in one viewing. We didn't have anything like that in the sixties."

How bad was The Times back then?

"It was erratic," Ruth declares. "They were never fond of covering protests and they're still that way. But people will hear of something like the Pentagon Papers and think that The New York Times was breaking news constantly when that's simply not how I remember it. I don't know if any of you have ever heard of Phil Ochs but he titled one lp All The News That's Fit To Sing, which is a take off of The New York Times' slogan 'All the news that's fit to print.' We were quite critical of The New York Times back then. There were some 'fluffers' back then as well. No one remembers them now. It's like the article that you did on swap meets that went to legacies. On the op-ed pages, I see stronger voices then I remember from back then. I'm thinking of Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert mainly but even Maureen Dowd. Thomas Friedman, on the other hand, won't be remembered. He does need a weathervane to tell him which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan would say. The right won't applaud him. The left doesn't need him. He's a man without a country because wishy-washy doesn't build a legacy."

But some would argue, we wouldn't, he's had best selling books?

"That means nothing. If you went back and studied any week from the late sixties or the early seventies, you'd find a large number of people with bestsellers brimming with the then conventional wisdom and today you'd look at those authors' names while realizing you'd never heard of them. At best, he can hope for the written equivalent fame of The Monkees, a group that was a joke to people who lived through the period, a Saturday morning live action cartoon. He can rake in the dough right now but there's no legacy there."

Music is something we wanted to ask about. It seems so exciting looking back?

"It was exciting. Even a lot of the vanilla songs were memorable. But I do think there's strong music today. What's killing your experience is that you've got a group of companies deciding on a national level what you will hear. The start of the fall semester was always a big deal when I was in college. People would come back from their hometowns from all over the country, bringing with them the news of some new artist that was just breaking in their area. Also back then, radio stations really had to compete with one another because you didn't have one company owning several stations in the same area. So if one station wasn't going to play Dylan's 'Rainy Day Women,' another station would. And if a song like that could break through on one station, others in the area would have to start playing it. Now you've got what's basically a central management system on the national level. If they don't play you, you're not going to be heard. But I know Ani DiFranco and Bright Eyes from Tracey and my grandson Arthur listens to a great deal of rap music that really has something to say, a message. So the music is out there but it's hard for it to become a national soundtrack the way it did when I was a teenager since we're now dealing with so many obstacles."

So looking at where things stand today, how does she rate them?

"I guess," Ruth says slowly, "I'd say we're at the turn of the tide. That's my guess. That's what it feels like to me. The Bully Boy's played every card trick he can play. It's over. We've had over four years of floating along on a fantasy but now reality is seeping in. Maybe I'm being too optimistic but it really feels to me like the tide has turned. Finally. It's past time to bring the troops home from a war they never should have been sent to fight. I don't think that's going to happen tomorrow or next month but I think we will be hearing more calls for that and, hopefully, the troops will be brought home. But, based on the way I remember it, I'd add that the call and the pressure have to build and build before anything is accomplished. Keep fighting. "

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