Monthly Archives: September 2011

Conspiracy Theories

A number of years ago, when I was an editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, I had the privilege of spending a month as the journalist-in-residence at Duke University’s public policy institute. I remember an occasion when a professor asked me to sit in on his seminar, and respond to students’ questions, many of which were related to how The Post had covered–or not covered–important stories of that time. I remember fielding a question from a student who argued that our failure to cover a particular story adequately obviously revealed the existence of a conspiracy (whether it was a liberal media conspiracy or a fascist media conspiracy, I can no longer remember.) But I remember laughing and saying something to the effect of, “No, actually, we just screwed up.”

Two weeks ago I delivered a speech about my book that was recorded by a professional video crew at a venue where they had filmed before. If all went well, the speech was to be broadcast on a national cable channel. Last weekend, the speech was slotted on the network’s schedule on its Website. Two days later, when I prepared to share this happy news with family and friends around the country, I double-checked the listing. It had disappeared. Further inquiry brought back the word that when checked, the video turned out to be unusable.

Now, looking at the list of authors whose videos weren’t messed up, it would be easy to develop a conspiracy theory to explain this episode. I could allow myself to imagine that an over-zealous producer with a particular point of view didn’t like my message, and pulled the plug. Or that a recently divorced audio technician just decided to flip a switch in the wrong direction because on that particular night he was mad at all women. But that presumes that someone thinks I’m important enough that the plug is worth pulling.

No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think somebody screwed up. Simple as that.

But it’s easy to fall back on conspiracy theories when we are mad or frustrated or can’t understand why the world isn’t turning out the way we want it to. At her most cynical moments, Elly Peterson believed that conservative operatives in President Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign deliberately tried to throw his race because they really wanted Ronald Reagan to be elected president four years later. She saw conspiracies where the reality was more likely simply campaign chaos and incompetence. And considering that Ford came back from a 33-percentage-point deficit before the Republican National Convention to lose one of the tightest races of the 20th century, I’d argue that the “conspirators”  failed pretty miserably.

So I’m prepared to accept that my lost video was a screw-up. And I hope I will get another chance to record a speech.

But if it happens a second time. . . .

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The Author Tour

When an author publishes a book, the question that friends invariably ask is, “Are you going to have a book tour?”

It always sounds terribly exciting. But my experience is that most authors find these tours to be very draining–even those whose celebrity ensures that they will attract big crowds. It can be very depressing to show up for a book signing at a bookstore…and hope that someone will actually show up and want to buy a copy.

I just returned from a week-long trip to Michigan, with a new recipe for improving the experience. Thanks to some early networking with some key women in that state, I was privileged to make four appearances: at the annual Women’s Equality Day luncheon of MichiganERA, at a Women’s Equality Day event, sponsored by the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, and another Women’s Equality Day gathering at the Michigan Women’s History Museum and Hall of Fame in Lansing.  With the help of the marketing department at University of Michigan Press, I got some good coverage in newspapers, websites, and radio and television stations across the state.  Better yet, my sister tagged along with me, and we turned into a fun road trip, visiting a number of places that we had lived or visited when we were children.  If we happened by a bookstore that had my book on its shelves, I’d stop to sign their copies.

We ended our trip at the Eaton County Courthouse Museum in Charlotte, Michigan. There it was very special to be able to meet two of the children of one of Elly Peterson’s best friends, Gert Powers, who had served as manager of her campaign for vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party in 1961 and when she ran for U.S. Senate in 1964. Likewise, at the other stops along the way, persons turned out who had known Peterson personally, or whose mothers had worked in her campaigns. I was further touched that several old friends surprised me by driving an hour or more to be in the audience.

Authors, of course, are rarely satisfied by the attention their books attract. There is always one more review, one more appearance, one more media mention that one could get. The trip was long, and tiring, and not helped by the fact that I came down with a cold on Day 2. But, by the standards of the typical author tour, it was very satisfying indeed.

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