The air is getting cooler outside, which is why Veeka and I took one last dip in the pool today before it gets shut down this Friday. Actually this week was stifling and humid, but the last few days have been reasonable. Which will allow us to indulge in my newest past-time: Biking. I have always loved to bike around and did several long-distance trips around Puget Sound and – in the summer of 1977 – a bike ride from DC to Lexington – but once I knew Veeka was coming, I gave my bike away. Some eight years later, I decided to show up at the local Labor Day sales and get a simple 21-speed bike that is *not* a mountain bike mainly because I wanted something comfortable to ride alongside Veeka. She is still wedded to her tiny bike with training wheels, but even with that, she can peddle pretty fast, so to date, we’ve taken a spin around the neighborhood together. Now if I can only get her OFF those training wheels. I even bought a bike carrier and had planned today to load up the bikes to travel to a nearby park only to learn that most bike carriers can’t carry womens’ and childrens’ bikes without the help of a “conversion bar” or “cross beam bar adapter,” which adds a cross bar to your bike allowing it to ride on a carrier. All very complicated if you haven’t tried to do this before and I knew nothing of all this before this afternoon, where I worked, fuming, on the carrier for an hour or two before figuring out I had to go buy one of those adapter things.
I got another Wall St. Journal piece published this week. I knew that National Geographic’s reality show “Snake Salvation” was due to start Sept. 10, and since I knew all the players involved, I thought, why not do a story? I happened to know the person who runs WSJ’s arts and entertainment blog “Speakeasy.” I pitched the idea to him, he agreed and he posted the piece 90 minutes before the show. Which worked well as there was already a Facebook conversation going on about the show, so I was happy to post my article as part of the discussion. I had just come back from another weekend trip to interview serpent handlers; this one in Marshall, N.C. Veeka and I stayed 10 miles – and two mountains – away in Hot Springs, where we luxuriated Saturday afternoon in one of the resorts hot tubs overlooking the French Broad River. The church – the House of Prayer in the Name of Jesus Christ – we visited the next morning had just been remodeled and was the most attractive chapel with inlaid-wood floors, a porch with cushioned seats (typically rural pentecostal churches don’t have such luxuries) and new windows. It was quite a switch from some of the humbler churches we’ve been at over the summer.
On our way there, I visited a pastor of a nearby church that I’d visited in June. Jimmy Morrow does the most amazing Appalachian folk art and I asked him if he could do a copy of a painting I saw hanging in his church and I’d buy it from him. I’d commissioned it in June, so one of my reasons for driving across Tennessee was to pick up this painting. He included Veeka and me in this newest painting along with a serpent handler! Am trying to figure out where I’m going to hang it; either in the dining room or my bedroom. We dropped by his church on Saturday morning to pick it up; then Sunday morning, Veeka and I were eating pancakes at the Smoky Mountain Diner, a Hot Springs restaurant when we noticed that the crowd behind us included Jimmy and his wife and two college professors who, like me, are interested in the serpent-handling phenomenon. We all processed to the church, where, as it turned out, the pastor decided *not* to have snakes there, partly in protest of the ‘Snake Salvation’ series! These pentecostals are quite divided over whether or not there should be such a show.
Other than that, life as a grad student is coming along. Monday nights, I take an online course in media entrepreneurship that has been a lot of fun. We get assignments like interviewing the people behind media start-ups, or watch a movie (“Page One”) about the difficulties the New York Times has had in going digital or attending tech expo’s. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I commute to Memphis, where my first class, on media ethics, begins at 9:40. From the time I drop off Veeka and drive 85 miles, I barely get to campus on time. And I have to park in one of the furthest-away lots, so it’s a 10-minute slog across campus to get to my class. We get to discuss some really interesting issues. I just did a presentation on the ethics behind weird anti-defamation clauses that freelance writers are now being forced to agree to when they do contracts. Recently, some folks had asked me to write for Newsmax, a very successful organization worth at least $36 million, to do some reporting for them. Then I took a look at the contract they wanted me to sign. It had a clause saying that I could not ”
at any time criticize, ridicule or make any statement which disparages or is derogatory of Newsmax, or any of its officers, directors, agents, associates, consultants, contractors, clients, customers, vendors, supplies or licensees.” I contacted the company lawyer to ask for a list of all these folks, as this could be several hundred people. She refused to provide one, so I told her I could not sign it, for I had no idea what I was signing onto. Plus, media organizations have traditionally had a solid wall between editorial and advertising and if you wrote something that was critical of a major advertiser, so be it. There’s no wall with this contact.
Some journalist friends told me to sign it, as it’d be put into a file drawer somewhere and forgotten; others said it was the principle of the thing. You never agree to sign away your freedom. What if I wrote something for another publication that was critical of someone on Newsmax’s list? I brought this and another case study up before the class as an example of the ethical dilemmas journalists are facing in a day where it’s hard to get any work unless you sign your life away. While doing so, I found out the National Labor Relations Board has some questions about the legality of contracts that limit what you can say about your employer. I plan to find out more about that, because the Washington Times – just before I left – was also making its employees (although not freelancers) sign a statement promising not to “say, write or do anything to disparage or ridicule The Washington Times, regardless of whether you believe it to be true, or any or all of The Washington Times managers, owners, directors, employees, work, performance, advertisers or vendors” without the permission of a higher-up. Yeah, right! Atop all that, the flexibility freelancers once had is now gone. It used to be that you could write a story about Topic X for one publication, then turn around, add a bit of new information and resell the same story to another publication. These days, publications and their web sites want complete rights to everything you’ve written so that it is near-impossible for you to write about that topic again. Moreover, the pay has dropped horribly so that some places are shelling out merely $100 or worse for a piece. The Economist, for instance, was paying me $50 per blog. And these are 800-1,000-word pieces that took hours to put together. Which is why it’s become impossible for anyone – other than J.K. Rowling – to make a living off their writing any more. I smelled that coffee in the two years post-Washington Times that I spent freelancing. Even though I was writing for a lot of famous outlets, I could not make enough to live on and for a time went without health insurance. “Your saga is all too familiar,” one freelancer wrote me. “All the rates everywhere are spiraling downward to levels unsustainable to most journalists actually making a profession of the craft…I never cared about money much. I still don’t. I do care about making enough to pay my bills and be free of general want.”