A question I am often asked is whatever happened to Marvin Kitman? I myself have wondered about that. This is the text of a multi-part speech which I expect to be delivering at a congress of writers, or any other assemblage of concerned citizens protesting inhumane exploitation of writers in the wonderful new post-print digital age. It should be of interest to all who have similarly lost track of where they are going or have been. To wit, Chapter I:
Welcome friends of good journalism.
Before I go on, I would like to say a few thousand words about the man who faces the challenges of a future in the digital revolution.
Usually, I am a man who needs no introduction. Still I want to straighten out a few facts about the man with more accuracy than anything you may read on Wikipedia.
He should not be confused with any other Marvin Kitman.
This is the same Marvin Kitman who was the media critic at Newsday from 1969 to 2005. His daily column, “The Marvin Kitman Show,” which began on Dec. 7, 1969, a day that will live in infamy, as far as network executives were concerned, was syndicated nationally and seen by millions, if not read. It was the reason TV was so good.
As he explained to his readers in his farewell column in June 2005, Newsday had given him a try out “and after 35 years we mutually agreed it wasn’t working out.”
He hoped to be remembered most as the author of Kitman’s Law: On the TV screen, pure drivel tends to drive off ordinary drivel.
Less is known about the author –who modestly ID’d himself all those years as “Executive Producer”– after “The Marvin Kitman Show” went dark.
He is the author of nine books, including “I Am a VCR,” which told the thrilling true story of his career as the longest sitting TV critic in history (Verification by Guinness pending). His couch will be going to the Smithsonian, according to terms of his will (also pending).
As a historian, he wrote “The Making of the Prefident 1789.” “George Washington’s Expense Account” by Gen. George Washington and Marvin Kitman, PFC (ret.) is the best selling expense account in the annals of publishing (four printings). Besides Washington, he wrote about such other iconic figures as Bill O’Reilly.
(Pardon me if I drop the disguise and slip into the more comfortable first person here)
O’Reilly grew up on Long Island, reading “The Marvin Kitman Show” in his formative years. He picked up a lot of ideas about TV journalism from his local TV critic--only the good ones. He was thrilled to give his idol 29 interviews, and I was able to write the definitive biography, “The Man Who Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly.”
“A fair and balanced book,” the New York Times Sunday Book reviewer said in astonishment. It was the only book that ever said anything positive about Bill O’Reilly –except the seven he had written about himself.
I am happy to say-- as of Nov. 25, 2012-- it had climbed to #1, 097,836 on the Amazon Best Selling List. This is an exact ranking, not a guestimation.
I guess the title must have hurt sales, although there was another shortcoming. Namely one chapter I wrote about The Great O’Reilly Phone Sex Scandal of 2007(remember the loofers?)
As a journalist, Bill told me, he realized I couldn’t ignore the widely-publicized incident. “Here’s how to handle it, Marv. Three sentences.” And he dictated them to his Boswell exclusively. “1. O’Reilly had a problem. 2. O’Reilly dealt with it. 3. It’s history.” At the time, my draft had three chapters about it, which I managed to slim down to one.
As much as a believer in a free press/ first amendment he is on the “The O’Reilly Factor,” the biographee thought that was still too much. His mentioning the book on Fox News would make it an instant best-seller, he had assured me in each of the 29 interviews. Undoubtedly, the publisher was counting on that sales strategy, judging by its not taking out ads for the book. True to his self integrity, O’Reilly told me, via his agent, he couldn’t mention such a dishonest book on the air.
“Only an idiot would trust anything O’Reilly said,” my wife explained, and she was probably right. Ironically, the way this idiot wrote the offensive chapter, it actually defended O’Reilly as the victim of employee abuse, a case of megabucks media star being blackmailed/ phonemailed for a stupid slip of the tongue or two.
You may not know this, but as one of the original contributors to the popular HuffingtonPost.com site, I have been on strike since 2010 over unethical and unprofessional practices against their workers, without whom none of its success would have been possible. l am now in the 478th day of a hunger strike over compensation. The issue: higher wages.
My starting salary as a media critic at HuffPo –where I wrote one thousand word columns, essays, posts, whatever you call them --was zero. The pay scale based on longetivity and other factors such as space availability, timeliness, hits, was zero. Nada. Zilch. It was definitely below poverty level at the time.
That was no way to treat a writer listed in “Who’s Who in America” since 1968.
And it was not just at HuffPo where writers were similarly being short-changed. Approximately 2,437, 000 writers were accepting similar pay packages elsewhere in the blogosphere (See Author’s Guild Bulletin, Spring 2011. Pps 58-9)
It was Samuel Johnson who observed in 1756, “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
How did this blockhead achieve this plum position in the world of high tech communications?
In the summer of 2007, Arianna Huffington herself invited me to join the original band of brothers, the 933 distinguished contributors who were making her name as famous as a liberal as it had been as a conservative. I would be number 934.
Flattered, I asked a sub-editor how much they paid: Was it by the piece or word? Or is this something my agent should call about? She seemed surprised I would ask such a question. HuffPo argued they were doing writers a favor, offering a platform to express their views. We’re lucky we didn’t have to pay them for the honor, I gathered.
“Do it anyway,” argued my son and other young alternative journalists. It will make you a now person. (At the time, I was a then). Get your name out there. Advance your career.
They were right. I was soon inundated with offers to write or speak for nothing.
After 37 pieces my accountant warned that at this rate I would soon be in a higher tax bracket.
What a business plan, I remember thinking at the time.
For a while I thought I was contributing to an important economic experiment, a system bigger than socialism, communism, and even capitalism. Not paying the workers for their labor and getting away with it could be the start of something truly monumental.
Now if the garbageman would pick up the garbage, the mailperson deliver the mail, the dentist fix your teeth, the corporate executives, banks and Wall Street guys do their thing without getting paid --Arianna and other blogmasters would really have something. They were giving new meaning to the term wage slaves. Work could make us free. There was a Nobel Prize in Economics in it for someone.
As my hunger strike continued into 2011, I was glad to see other unpaid workers finally began rattling their chains. What seemed to upset the apple cart on the free ride Arianna was getting was the news that she had received $315 million for merging with AOL in February.
In March 2011, the Newspaper Guild called on HuffPo’s other unpaid workers to stop blogging in support of a strike launched by Visual Arts Source. Then, a class action suit was filed by Jonathan Tasini, a left wing journalist and trade union organizer, introducing the radical concept that the workers should bear the fruits of the merger. The suit argued that blogger labors built about one third of the value of Huffington Post, and so even if they agreed to blog for free at the time, they should be entitled to a third share of the sale value.
Given that Arianna has been able to sleep all those many nights since founding the site in 2005 based on exploiting the workers, I was not so sure the suit was being realistic in expecting monetary compensation.
In my case, I would settle my strike demands more realistically. I would accept compensation by having the boss, as an advocate of unpaid labor, clean my house once a week until the debt is paid off. Or better yet, give me free investment advice.
On the upside, since my strike began I have already lost 52 pounds and am planning to write a new miracle diet book, which I hope HuffPo will help publicize at no cost.
I am still on strike at HufPo. To prove management has no hard feelings, a HuffPo top editor over drinks at the Century recently invited me to return to the traces. ‘We would like you to write for us.”
I was flattered. At the risk of ruining the martinis, I asked what they were paying writers these days? He looked at me in astonishment. “We don’t pay writers. We give them the chance to get things off their chest. You will be in company of important people like Alec Baldwin.”
And not only that, he continued piling on inducements, you can get to be on HuffPo’s new TV channel talk shows..
I ventured to ask what the going rate for TV was? It turned out to be a package deal: Nothing for both column and TV. But I would get even wider exposure for nothing. It was a comfort to know they still had a seat for me as a rower below decks in the Arianna galley.
As an immediate result of my first encounter with the economics and joys of the blogosphere, I ran into a strange problem. Every time I sat down to write a blog, which came to be defined in my head after my HuffPo experience as something not to get paid for, I would get to the end of the first paragraph- and stopped dead. It was as if there was a red light on the screen. It was an unanticipated, unwanted, most upsetting state of affairs.
I had come down with a condition, which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt explained, was known as blogged: the Internet Age version of “ blocked.”
It turned out that I was a coin-operated writer. I don’t start thinking about writing until people offer me money. HuffPo had brought my unconscious back to my earliest painful days as a writer when it was expected that I would write on “spec.” Arianna had induced a log jam in my stream of conciousness, the most important thing a writer has except his fingers to type .
But it was nothing that couldn’t be solved by the application of money.
In June 2011, an editor invited me to contribute to www.investoruprising.com, a new daily blog site they described as “The Individual Investor Intelligence Network.” Sorry, I explained about being a mentally handicapped writer who can’t write without getting paid. “But we pay,” she said. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
I didn’t know anything about investing, having been wiped out even before Madoff. They increased my honorarium to a low three figures. What they wanted was a fresh look at the world for investors, unencumbered by facts and figures and jargon. As long as I mentioned a company whose stock market initials could be inserted, I was in business.
Every week as I sat down to write, I pinched myself. Imagine, actually getting paid to write. How long has this been going on?
As the well-read among you may have noticed, I wrote a lot of columns for Investor Uprising. It was the reason the economy was doing so well. I was the one, for example, who recommended smart investors buy Google. I liked its business plan: steal everything and pay for nothing.
This was the Occupy Wall Street period of my life as a writer, and it couldn’t last forever.
In June 2012, a letter arrived:
“Dear IU Contributors:
We have some disappointing news. We will be winding down the operations of Investor Uprising by the end of June. Therefore, we will no longer require your contributions. We will keep you in mind as we explore new opportunities.”
My fellow contributors and I were directed to make copies of any work we want to save “because the site is going to digital debris very shortly.”
This was adding insult to financial injury. Not since the Acropolis and the Parthenon had there been so many splendid columns on one site. Some day soon, it appeared Investor Uprising would be winding up in the waste transfer station, somewhere alongside the super information highway, where all the “delete” material goes. It was as if they were trying to get rid of bodies in a blatant mediacide case like cleaning up the crime scene after an early massacre in Syria.
“Ah, if only it was that easy to get rid of the past,” Glen Rabney explained, telling me about The Wayback Machine, a site that provides a complete history of everything that ever appeared on the internet. “Investor Uprising has been archived for posterity. Or is it some one’s posterior? I always get those confused.” (Feel free to stop reading here, and check out the archive: www.investoruprising.com. If it’s still up)
There are some who think Rupert Murdoch bought the site and closed it down. I can appreciate that theory since Investor Uprising was the first to run, during the UK phone hacking scandal, my seven part mini-series, titled “Rupert, the Red-Faced Media Mogul.”
It was not like the death of Caesar when the perps rushed into the street with the bloody daggers with which they had slain the tyrant.
Apparently what actually had happened to this noble experiment in internet journalism, I found digging into the backstory, the site sponsors had expected the site to be profitable by the end of the first year. It fulfilled their worst fears, being in the red, and it was being shut down.
“Is it any wonder that they were losing money,” explained Nick Taylor. “How did they expect to succeed by actually paying people? Arianna never made that mistake.”
The second mistake: management prematurely abandoning ship after only one year of losses. (It took Time Inc, eleven years until Sports Illustrated made money). At worse, they could have followed Sy Newhouse’s trendy innovation in daily journalism by keeping the site open three days a week. As Harriet Lesser said about the New Orleans Times- Picayune breakthrough: “I think they are on the right track. Following their model, I have been staying awake three days a week, sleeping four. I eat on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and breathe only on weekends. I inhale on Saturdays and exhale on alternate Sundays. The savings in energy and food bills has been amazing. Once I get the iron lung paid off, I’ll be on Easy street.”
There are no second acts in America, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed. That was not true in the case of investoruprising.com. The site died in May 2012 and was said to have died again on Nov. 30.
As the site kept appearing after May, I was thinking it was all a bad dream. Like Bobby in “Dallas.”
The rumors of IU’s death were premature. The site had, in effect, been cyrogenically frozen and thawed out every so often as an audition for bankers thinking of buying the site. My new columns still appeared from time to time on the old site out of the Internet fog, like The Flying Dutchman.
For example, the latest (Nov. 27, 2012) is titled “Spamalot: The Attack of Robocallers,” being about the FTC attempt to curb the blight of vicious automatic dialing (“Rachel, from Cardholder Services”) and calling for firmer laws to stamp out one of the ten plagues afflicting western civilzation, right up there with junk mail order catalogs and commercials in movie theatres. The column suggested cutting off the fingers of CEOs of companies employing robocaller services. It seemed cruel, but considering the pain they cause the punishment fits the crime. One investor follower argued I was too kind: They should all be shot, like Stalin. It worked for the NKVD.”
But the writing was on the wall, on and off Wall Street.
What next? Try for bigger game, suggested Joyce Wood. “Why don’t you write a column for the Wall Street Journal?”
While it is my other favorite satirical journal, next to the Congressional Record, everybody knows print is dead. That would be like buying the Titanic if you wanted to start a navy.
The medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan wrote. So I considered transmitting my thoughts through a reliable fortune teller (“Tarot Cards Read While You Wait”) in a basement off Amsterdam Ave. on Manhattan’s West Side. Or delivering it by robocallers, if there were any still in business after my fatwa on InvestorUprising.com.
I also considered communicating through Twitter. Some of our most distinguished communicators today have Twitter accounts. The trendy Rupert Murdoch’s laughing stock has risen by sending eight or twelve twitters a night on major issues, although his Fox News Channel has already made a mockery of TV journalism. It’s also the place to find out what goes on in Donald Trump’s head below the hair.
As this post today might indicate, 140 characters could be a problem. But novelist Robert K. Blechman has just published a highly praised humorous murder mystery live-tweeted on Twitter. “Executive Severance,” as he calls his “Twistery,” shows off what can be done in the 140 character art form with style and mastery. It only took him 14 months, twittering twice a day on the nines (9 AM and 9 PM).
I better stop here. I’m running out of ink. The thrilling story of one writer’s search for a bigger paycheck and the challenges of the new forms of communication will continue same time and space tomorrow. Or whenever.