Honoring journalists, dishonoring journalism


It was a late spring afternoon during my first visit to Florence back in 2013, and technical problems with our plane had delayed our flight home until the next morning. The airline had installed us in a travel hotel on the outskirts of town, but after an exhausting day of dragging our luggage around and wrangling with officials, it was too late for any more sightseeing.

We decided instead to try and salvage the remains of the day as dusk was falling, and take the hotel shuttle back into downtown to stroll a bit through the shopping district before we surrendered entirely and turned in for the evening.

In the heart of Florence a few steps from the bustling Mercato Centrale stands the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, an imposing 15th century Renaissance palace that was once home to the legendary banking family. But for all the Palazzo's monumental size and reputed splendor, you could be forgiven for missing it, because at street level most of its exterior walls are deliberately understated to the point of being nondescript.

And so it was that I found myself unknowingly wandering past the rear of the Palazzo on the back street of Via Ginori, when my attention was unexpectedly drawn to a simple plaque mounted next to an otherwise unmarked pair of wooden doors.

It read:

Provincia Di Firenze
Sala Stampa
"Oriana Fallaci"

Now this was an extraordinary thing! As a former journalist, I was of course familiar with Oriana Fallaci's work; in her prime, from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, she had been one of the most famous and recognizable reporters in the world. She had graduated from features and celebrity profiles for the Italian weekly newsmagazine L'Europeo to globe-trotting war reportage in hot spots from Vietnam to the Middle East (she took several bullets and nearly died while covering the 1968 student uprising in Mexico). She had conducted a legendary series of interviews, collected in the volume "Interviews With History and Conversations With Power," where she aggressively confronted the likes of Henry Kissinger, the Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Ariel Sharon,Yasir Arafat, and others. She wrung a concession from Kissinger that Vietnam had been a "useless war," tore off her chador in the presence of the Ayatollah and called it a "stupid, medieval rag," and elicited an admission from the Shah that, were she an Iranian woman writing as she did, he would "probably" throw her in jail and put her on trial.

By the 1980s, she largely withdrew from journalism to concentrate instead on novels. And in the early '90s, she was diagnosed with cancer--a disease that earlier claimed the life of her sister Neera, who had also been a writer--and retreated to her townhouse in Manhattan's Upper East Side where she quietly battled her illness as a virtual recluse. But in 2001, her outrage and revulsion at the 9/11 attacks on her adopted country, even her adopted city, drew her out of seclusion. In a feverish burst of activity, she wrote two lengthy polemics (each of which became a best-seller) denouncing the Islamization of the West in terms so harsh and uncompromising that attempts were made to ban the books, and she was even criminally charged in an Italian court with defaming Islam. In response, she doubled down on her increasingly intemperate rhetoric, relishing the notoriety.

By the fall of 2006, after a painful and debilitating struggle, she had returned to her beloved birthplace of Florence; there she died.

And now this. Translated, the plaque on the wall outside what I later learned was the official local government media center read:

Province of Florence
Press Room
Oriana Fallaci

The woman who began her life as a teenage volunteer with the Italian anti-fascist resistance movement, who fell in love with a Greek resistance fighter imprisoned for the attempted assassination of the head of the Greek military junta, who covered the news and made the news, who fearlessly confronted the most powerful despots in the world-- she was now obscurely memorialized in the seat of local government where, it would not be unfair to say, it is perhaps the very last place you would go to speak truth to power, or to cover any real news beyond self-aggrandizing handouts, talking points and photo ops.

This melancholy reflection was prompted by the recent news that our City Fathers (there is after all, only one elected woman currently serving in city government) have similarly seen fit to "honor" one of our own widely liked and respected local journalists, renaming the room behind the City Council Chamber as the Rick Orlov Memorial Media Center, where his plaque commends Rick's "professionalism and commitment to ethical journalism."

Meaning no disrespect to Oriana and Rick, nor to their brothers, sisters, predecessors and successors in the business, this strikes me as a singularly shallow and self-serving gesture that ultimately dishonors the journalism profession while purporting to honor its practitioners.

Why? It's no accident that all this took place the same week in which the Mayor's office announced the hiring of a second press secretary--because the current press secretary, the director of communications, and various other communications assistants, coordinators and the like apparently still aren't enough to effectively communicate His Honor's "bold agenda to create a more prosperous, safe, livable, and well-run city."

Behold the result of more than two decades of the slow-motion collapse of aggressive, comprehensive, independent news coverage in Los Angeles. Government flackage at all levels has largely supplanted outside reporting, open-meeting and public- records laws are routinely violated with impunity, the once-robust local government beat has been reduced to a skeleton crew of harried, overworked reporters, and the dwindling handful of gadflies, cranks, and government groupies who attend official meetings--the feeble remnant of authentic public participation--can be openly abused when they're not ignored. Municipal voting, consequently, has plunged into single digits.

So Oriana and Rick now have their government press rooms, and as my people say, "May their memories be a blessing." But if elected officials truly want to honor their memory in a lasting and substantive way, they could begin by submitting to regular unscripted and on-the-record media availabilities, scrupulously observing (not to mention aggressively enforcing) the Ralph M. Brown Act open-meeting law and the California Public Records Act, and enacting a stringent sunshine ordinance that goes above and beyond those state laws that too often, as they say, are more honored in the breach than the observance.

Journalists themselves, for their part, might do well to honor these exemplars by cultivating a little more of the unflinching impertinence Oriana expressed in a 2006 interview for The New Yorker, one of her last, published only three months before her death.

Speaking of the "respectability" conferred by her age, the 77-year-old Fallaci said, "But you don't give a damn. It is the ne plus ultra of freedom. And things that I didn't used to say before--you know, there is in each of us a form of timidity, of cautiousness--now I open my big mouth. I say, 'What are you going to do to me? You go fuck yourself--I say what I want.' "

Joel Bellman retired from the County of Los Angeles after 26 years as press deputy for three Supervisors representing the Third District. He currently serves as chair of the Nominations Committee and member of the Board of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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