The Dark Secrets of Journalists who Inspired THE STRINGER’s Antihero

Haunted by loss and made resentful by years of under-appreciation, a once-idealistic journalist dedicated to finding and telling the truth turns against his ethical basis. Shunning the quest for objectivity and reportorial remove, veteran print and broadcast war correspondent Mark Scribner, lead character of my new graphic novel THE STRINGER, yields to his darkest temptations in exchange for fame and fortune.

That’s what the book, with illustrations by Pablo Callejo, is about. But is it possible? It’s one thing for a journalist to make a mistake. That’s inevitable. But can they throw out basic morality altogether? Absolutely.

Journalism does its best to circle the wagons when one of its own goes rogue, which is why the reading and watching public isn’t always aware that the reason that what they see on the news isn’t always true is sometimes due to personal corruption. Journalists keep each other’s secrets.

Scribner doesn’t succumb, at least I don’t think he does, and I probably should know since I invented him, to drug or alcohol abuse. But drugs were and are a big part of the coping mechanism for some conflict reporters. One very well-known television war correspondent – if you watch the news, I guarantee you have seen him — is widely known in the business as a junkie. His beat takes him to countries where heroin is cheap and widely available, and he partakes regularly. And he’s hardly alone.

One correspondent assigned to the Middle East found that she couldn’t handle the stress of traveling to exceptionally dangerous areas without getting her fix first. “I would never get into that car to go to a place like that unless I was zonked out of my mind,” she told me. I’m not a particularly judgemental person, but even if I were, I have to concede that she had a point.

Jayson Blair

One threat to journalistic integrity is laziness. Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter who infamously made up quotes and stories from his apartment in Brooklyn, seems simple enough to have had the drive to get off his ass and report. I knew another reporter from the same newspaper who had every opportunity to legitimately go out into the field and collect quotes, but unlike young Mark Scribner at the fire in Cincinnati, he preferred to fabricate them and kick off for beers early. As far as I know, he’s still there.

You might ask, since I knew about such rascals, did I speak up? The answer is no, typically because I’m not a rat and also because I knew nothing would really change as a result. When the Times published a long article shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks about the strategic importance of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, I was drawn to a detailed description of the strategic border between the country and neighboring Afghanistan, then governed by the Taliban. I called a friend who was an editor there about it to point out the fact that the countries don’t have a border. A couple of days later, the paper ran a brief retraction about the absentee border, but the reporter remained even though he had clearly made up the story wholesale and had never been to this fictional place.

Then there was the colorful account of riding the new train line between Turkmenistan and Iran that appeared in a travel magazine. I was really interested in the story because I wanted to take that train myself the next time I went to Central Asia. Problem was, it didn’t exist yet. According to the authorities, it should’ve been finished years earlier. But it wasn’t.

Journalists sometimes succumb to the grandiose desire to break a big story even though they haven’t actually come across one. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her obviously ridiculous 1980 portrait of an eight year old heroin addict. Sabrina Erdeley‘s 2014 “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone had to be retracted after it turned out that her sourcing was a mess and that the horrific events described within may not have happened at all.

Then there’s the oldest motivation of all: money. In 2005 the George W. Bush administration used public funds to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to three conservative commentators in order to promote White House policy.

Judith Miller

Probably the closest any reporter has come to Mark’s rock-bottom morality was Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller broke one rule after another during the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign to gin up support for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, completely subverting the most basic ethical guidelines regarding objectivity and conflicts of interest, to hobnob with the right wing proponents of invading Iraq and run their lives as fact in the Paper of Record. It is true, as she has since argued, that we didn’t invade the country because of her. But she played a large role in the murder of over 1 million people, serving as a brazen propagandist in the nation’s most influential newspaper for a completely baseless military attack on a country that had done nothing wrong to the United States and had no intention or ability to do so.

While Mark goes further than these examples, even than Judith Miller, it’s not such a radical stretch. After all, journalists are only human. And humans sometimes do awful things.

The Deep Fake World of THE STRINGER

Mark Scribner, the antihero protagonist of my graphic novel THE STRINGER, “employs his battle-zone-honed knowledge to stir up trouble by faking a Twitter fight between two Afghan warlords that sends the rockets flying,” as the book critic for the Publishers Weekly trade magazine put it.

That’s the moment when the grizzled washed-up war reporter breaks bad. It happens after a conversation with a young, hipper, Millennial colleague sparks a moment of bleak inspiration that sets everything that follows into motion. In a world of online anonymity, the dark web, bitcoin, no one really knows who anyone else really is. That is, as an arbitrage expert on Wall Street once told me, an inefficiency in the marketplace that someone will figure out how to exploit.

THE STRINGER relies on a host of technologies to unleash mayhem around the world. Here’s a look at some of them, all of them real, all of them around right now.

Fake Email Generators are marketed as a way to protect your precious email account from nefarious spammers, and who can argue with that? But it doesn’t take a genius – although Mark Scribner is a genius — to fathom the potential downside for society. If I can send you an email that looks in every way shape and form as though it came from someone legitimate, I can really mess you up. I can certainly mess them up.

I have some experience with that. Back in 1999 a man I didn’t know decided he didn’t like my politics, my writing, the general cut of my jib, I don’t really know what his real problem was. He used a primitive listserv to send emails under my name to a bunch of my colleagues and editors. It could’ve been worse, though it was pretty bad. The emails were pompous and self-congratulatory and annoying, or seemingly so since they weren’t really sent from me, and it annoyed my editor at the New York Times enough for him to fire me. He seems to have stopped, which is a good thing because fake email generators would have made him even more dangerous.

Misleading Social Media Accounts are as easy as pie to create. Many people, famous and not famous, don’t have Twitter or Facebook or other social media account at all. It’s incredibly easy to go online, as Mark does, and create real-sounding accounts for them. It’s slightly more challenging to spoof someone with a well-established online presence, but hardly impossible. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t bother to check the identities of people who create these accounts, you can create an alternative account under someone else’s name that sounds legitimate.

While I was finalizing the script, and Pablo was drawing his amazing illustrations, I read an article about Deep Fakes, in which existing video and audio archives are mined and fed into AI algorithms in order to build a vocabulary of gestures and speech and verbal tics so that a subject target can be made to appear to be saying anything you want. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that these are an important part of the plot line.

And there’s no end in sight. For example, it is already possible to create fake three-dimensional representations of you and me that have nothing to do with you and me. It all happens inside the VR/AR virtual world.

It’s my nature to dwell on the downside risk of new technologies, but as my father, a notable aeronautical engineer told me once, technology is neutral. There are plus sides and downsides. Splitting the atom led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear power keeps the lights on all over the world. Whether technology is a net positive or a negative depends on how it is applied in the aggregate. In the dark world of THE STRINGER, fakery becomes a tool for the most nefarious possible actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Grand Theory of THE STRINGER

Amazon.com: The Stringer eBook: Rall, Ted, Callejo, Pablo: Kindle Store

My new graphic novel THE STRINGER drops next month in April. A tale of journalistic corruption in an age of high-tech warfare, THE STRINGER is a collaboration between me, as writer, and the Spanish artist Pablo Callejo. I couldn’t possibly be more excited that I’m about to hold the book, printed on old-fashioned paper, in my hands any day now.

Probably the first question that comes to mind is: I’m a cartoonist. Why not draw it myself? The answer is the same as when I worked with Pablo on “The Year of Loving Dangerously” (2009), a gorgeous, unconventional book that came out ahead of its time in the middle of the Great Recession. (Don’t tell anyone, but Important People in Hollywood are trying to figure out how to turn it into a movie.) I have a highly stylized, economic drawing style. Some people might even call it primitive. Some stories call for a lot more detail, and THE STRINGER’s globetrotting narrative with settings and flashbacks and heavy characterization certainly was one of those.

I knew from working with Pablo before that he could pretty much read my mind and put on the page exactly what I was thinking based on my scripts. For “Year” this guy, who had never been to New York, stunningly evoked the wild and crazy New York City of the 1980s. So I was incredibly grateful when he agreed to work on THE STRINGER despite our disappointment with the original sales of YEAR. (Fortunately, NBM later graced us with an expanded edition in paperback that really does the artwork justice.)

The Year of Loving Dangerously by Ted Rall
My first graphic novel with Pablo.

In a future blog post here I will describe my collaboration process with Pablo. He has already posted about that here as well.

99% of the work that I do, whether it’s editorial cartoons or essays for the Wall Street Journal or graphic biographies, by necessity are required to work within formatic and editorial constraints. Editorial cartoons have to run fairly small. Anything that runs in a “family newspaper” can’t include cursing or obscenity. There are a number of conventions in working within the political longform format. And of course that’s true about this graphic novel as well.

But, like a lot of artists, I’m sensitive to criticism and I often think that my most “Ted Rall” work is least popular with readers, and vice versa. I’m sure this is something that I should work out with a psychologist, but in the meantime, I struggle with self-censorship, with trying to tone down my internal voice and my real personality when I write scripts for a story.

THE STRINGER is a rare exception to that.

Mark Scribner, a classic antihero protagonist if there ever was one, is basically me as all Id, no ego or superego. He’s an experiment. What if I drowned myself in my deepest moments of cynicism? What if bitterness and ambition became my personal religions?

Like Mark, I’m disgusted and angry at what has happened to old-fashioned journalism, and I don’t mean the disruption caused by the Internet but rather the atrocious short-term profit orientation and mismanagement that has destroyed the newspaper industry responsible for generating over 90% of news. Also like Mark, I have done some war correspondency. NBM published my most well received example, TO AFGHANISTAN AND BACK (2002), which was the first book about the US invasion of Afghanistan published in any form.

Comix Journalism: Send Ted Rall Back to Afghanistan to Get the Real Story  by Ted Rall » FAQ — Kickstarter
Yours truly in at the frontline in Khanabad, Afghanistan, 2001.

I was sitting at a journalist guest house in Kabul, Afghanistan, a compound once owned by Osama bin Laden himself, in 2010 when the germ of THE STRINGER occurred to me. In addition to reporters from all over the world, guests included NGO workers and what were euphemistically called “contractors” — mercenary soldiers employed by the US and its allies in the war zone to do the dirty business countries pretended that they weren’t responsible for. As I watched the contractors pick up the NGO do-gooders, I thought to myself, what a bizarre mix of people. They have unique skill sets. And when I ventured out into the countryside, it all came together. I was meeting local commanders, warlords and arms runners. A war reporter, I realized, knows everyone. Obviously, they know members of the press. They know people who fight wars, often on multiple sides. They know who supplies them. And they know all the intermediaries, like those mercenaries. It’s kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about connectors on speed: a war reporter knows everyone and everything needed to start and maintain and grow a war.

Anyone who has that much knowledge is dangerous. Take away everything that they love and care about, and who knows what they might do? That was the theoretical construct behind Mark Scribner.

Ace in the Hole': Beware the Seductive Allure of Cynicism in the Workplace  — Jim Carroll's Blog
Kirk Douglas as a cynical reporter in “Ace in the Hole” (1951)

There was never any doubt in my mind about what kind of voice he would have. I love film noir. One of my favorite films, one that AMC described as the most cynical film ever released in the United States, is Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole” (also sometimes called “The Big Carnival”), starring Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling at the peak of their formidable powers. Douglas plays a washed-up Manhattan reporter who finds and exploits the story of a lifetime in New Mexico, to viciously cynical ends. I knew that Mark had to have the most noir, utterly hard-boiled, unapologetically masculine verbiage of any fictional character in any form ever. And that’s exactly how I wrote him, although there were many times when I questioned myself, tempted by the desire to make him more likable.

Yet I resisted. Mark is as close to irredeemable any character I can think of ever, and that’s just the way I like him. Because after all, that’s the way the system made him. He wasn’t always like that. As you’ll see when you read it. For better and for worse, mostly, he’s a totally Ted Rall character.

Decline of News-on-paper: United States - Ross Dawson

The grand theory of THE STRINGER is that you can’t destroy one of the most fundamental societal needs, the documentation of history in real time by journalism and the retroactive analysis of what it means, without grave implications both personally and structurally on the world stage.

Next time, I’ll talk about the story.

Update in my lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times

You may have followed my three-year lawsuit against the LA Times for defamation and wrongful termination. Whether journalists in California will keep basic employment protections and whether libel will remain actionable are now important issues in the hands of the California state Supreme Court. We filed our Petition to Review with the court yesterday. Please read it here. It’s a good primer about an important case. And please wish me luck. I need it!

Thank you for your continued support.

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/400652560/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&access_key=key-K8zgwzhF5kkLMQ5MkGXF&show_recommendations=true

 

Greetings NBMers!

THE YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY

I’m not new to NBM but I am new to the new and improved NBM blog so an introduction is in order. Below is some biographical information. I’ll be chiming in now and again about my latest project for NBM, the revised, bigger paperback edition of THE YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY, my “graphic memoir” about surviving post-Ivy League homelessness in 1980s New York City.

Ted Rall’s Bio

Editorial Cartoonist Ted Rall became nationally known for his work during the 1990s, when he brought the multiple-panel format of newspaper comics to the political cartoon format. Rall helped modernize political cartooning, inspiring a younger generation of alternative-weekly artists with a more direct, less metaphorical approach to satire before moving on to publishing his work in major daily newspapers including The New York Times, where he became its most reprinted cartoonist.

Born in Massachusetts and raised in Dayton, Ohio, Rall left in order to attend Columbia University in New York, which became his home and inspiration for his gritty urban style. New York was where Rall met pop artist Keith Haring; it was Haring who suggested that Rall take his political cartoons directly to the people by posting them on subway entrances and other public spaces in order to attract attention and find readers. Within a few years, his cartoons were published in weekly newspapers such as NY Weekly and The Village Voice, as well as across the United States and Canada.

Rall’s work was signed for syndication in 1991. He has been with Universal Press Syndicate (now called Andrews McMeel Syndication) since 1996.

Rall’s cartoons have appeared in hundreds of publications around the world, including Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, Esquire, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and smaller papers like the Des Moines Register and Dayton Daily News. Today he is one of the most widely syndicated U.S. political cartoonists, as well as a nationally syndicated opinion columnist.

Rall is also a graphic novelist, having won prizes for his works of comix journalism such as “To Afghanistan and Back,” the result of his on-the-ground cartoons and essays filed from the front lines of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 as an unembedded reporter living with local families, and his series of cartoon biographies “Snowden” and “Bernie,” about the NSA whistleblower and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. “Bernie” was a New York Times bestseller.

As an editor, Rall has worked to elevate and promote cartooning. He edited the three-volume “Attitude” book anthology, which defined the “alternative” genre of modern political cartooning that followed the donkeys-and-elephants era. He edited round-ups of comics for sites like The Daily Beast and is now the Cartoon Editor at Forbes.com. As Editor of Acquisitions and Development for United Media, Rall worked to diversify daily comics, signing more women and people of color into syndication than any other executive in history.

Rall’s most recent book is a graphic novel-format biography of Pope Francis.

10 Years Later: The Year of Loving Dangerously Paperback Edition

THE YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY

In 2009 NBM published my first and only collaboration with another creator, THE YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY. I wrote the story—my story—and Pablo G. Callejo, the Spanish genius behind BLUESMAN, drew the artwork. I was really happy with the way it turned out. Despite never having visited New York before, much less during the 1980s, Pablo managed to channel what NYC felt like during the bad old days of the Reagan era.

YEAR OF LOVING is about my year (really a year and a half, closer to two) that followed my expulsion from Columbia University for both academic and disciplinary reasons. In short order I lost my girlfriend, a place to live and my job. With only a few buck in my pocket I got ready to face the reality of homelessness in Manhattan.

Until I lucked into a place to stay with a woman who picked me up.

YEAR OF LOVING did OK. But it was, I think, ahead of its time. Besides, the economy was terrible. With 500,000+ Americans losing their job every month, not a lot of consumers were picking up graphic novels. Personally, I think the 6×9 trim size of the hardback didn’t do Pablo’s artwork justice.

The new paperback coming out in April 2019 fixes the size problem: at 8.5×11 the artwork really shines and you can easily read it. The #MeToo movement puts this story into a textured context (I’ll blog about that next time); here’s a story about a man relying on the kindness of women rather than the clichéed opposite scenario in which men wield their power over women. And of course the paperback is  more affordable and the economy doesn’t suck as badly.

More on the book.