Monday, April 29, 2013

Author Spotlight, Bob Priddy

The Art of the Missouri Capitol by Bob Priddy and Jeffrey Ball 
 After fire destroyed Missouri’s capitol in 1911, voters approved a bond issue to construct a new statehouse. The tax to pay the bonds produced a one-million-dollar surplus, leaving a vast amount of money to decorate the new building. A special commission of art-minded Missourians employed some of the nation’s leading painters and sculptors to create powerful and often huge pieces of art to adorn Missouri’s most important new structure.

Q:  Did it really take you ten years to write this book? 
 Give or take a decade or three, I suppose.  I know the precise day that I first saw the Missouri Capitol and got my first exposure to its art.  I was on my way back to my hometown of Sullivan, Illinois with my classmates after our senior trip to the Lake of the Ozarks and we stopped at the Capitol. We took the standard tour that included the Benton mural in the House Lounge.
A little more than seven years later I became the news director of a Jefferson City radio station and began covering events from time to time at the Capitol.  One of our listeners had a copy of the 1928 final report of the Capitol Decoration Commission and gave it to me. That would have been in the late 60s. It was my first exposure to the scope of the art in and around the building.  I noticed several of the paintings had been done by artists from Taos, New Mexico wondered how that came to be. 
The mayor of Jefferson City in those days was John G. Christy, who had been the Speaker of the House when Benton painted his mural. I had heard him tell of his efforts to have the mural painted over when he saw how vivid it was. And when Benton died in 1975, I recorded Christy telling me that story.
By then I'd become the news director of the Missourinet, a statewide radio network and I covered the House when the legislature was in session. The House press gallery is right below Schladermundt's "The Glory of Missouri at Peace" window and directly across from Hoffbauer's "The Glory of Missouri at War" mural.  Since moving to the Senate twenty or so years ago I have occupied a seat at the press table on the Senate floor, right beneath one of Richard Miller's senate paintings.  So I’ve been surrounded by the art for a long time.
My sister-in-law and her family lived in Albuquerque and I decided that I would go up to Taos one day while we were visiting her and see if I could find any relatives of the Taos artists.  I wound up recording interviews with E. L. Blumenshein's daughter and Oscar Berninhau’s daughter.  I also got in touch with Buck Dunton's son who sent me some photographs of his father working on "The First Train to Tipton" painting. 
Somewhere during all of this a thought had begun to grow that somebody needed to write a better book than the 1928 report that didn't really tell us anything about the artists or how they'd been chosen and how they created these works. But I didn't have any idea how to go about doing the research.
A few years later I met Jeff while he was working with the School of Art and Archaeology on the collection of preliminary works the Capitol artists had submitted for commission approval. We exchanged some notes and kept in touch.   And then in 2001, Tom Sater--who was in charge of the restoration of the Senate chamber--suggested we combine our efforts for a book on the construction and decoration of the capitol. 
Somebody had to be the writer and since I stayed in this area while Jeff went off to teach art in out-of-state colleges, I became the one who put fingers on keys and saw letters appear on a screen. But we still had so much research to do because none of the major records of the decoration commission survived.  So, most of the decade was spent ferreting out information. 

Q:  Do you have any favorite stories that came out of that research?
 Loads of them. People sometimes ask me to take them on a tour of the art and when I do it takes at least three hours to visit most of the major interior decorations and tell stories about them.  I call those tours "Gilligans."  You know---after the crew of the Minnow that went on a three-hour tour.  No way can we do that here. But some stories kind of stick out. 
Some of the most remarkable canvases in the building are the rotunda murals by Sir Frank Brangwyn, who was the United Kingdom's foremost muralist for the first third of the twentieth century.  They're remarkable because of their size AND because Frank Brangwyn was never in the building. He painted these huge canvases at his studio in London. They're also remarkable because he was dealing with some significant perspective issues because of the vertical and horizontal curvature of the rotunda walls.  The story also has a melancholy part to it, too. 
When the first paintings were unveiled in January, 1921, a state senator from Jefferson City who admitted he knew nothing about art got all puffed up and tried to block any more funding for any more decoration.  That was a fun story to tell because he wound up tangling with a woman who was the art critic for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
The story of General Pershing's speech at Lafayette's tomb, which is one of the few paintings not in the book (at least I haven't found it), interested me because it's a painting about an event that did not happen and the portrait uses the body of someone other than Pershing.  
The story of the "Signing of the Treaty" bronze grouping on the river side of the Capitol is an interesting one, too, because the original plaster statue was well traveled and almost thrown away before it was cast in bronze. It captures a second in history that Thomas Jefferson thought was the most unconstitutional act of his Presidency---the signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. 
Q:  What pieces are your favorites in the Capitol building?
I suppose my previous answer goes to that.  My problem, though, is that I've been so submerged in this stuff for so long that I don't know whether I like something because of its artistic merits, the historic event or person it portrays, the story of the artist and the way he created the piece, or the controversy the work generated.  

I'm in love with the Capitol as a whole, with the story of its construction and its decoration, and with the stories of the people who made all of it happen.  So it's really hard to separate the elements into favored categories.

Q:  What do you want readers to get from the book?
 Lots of things. I want people to appreciate our capitol for the gem that it is and the gem it can be. I want people to understand the greatness of the art that makes it unique among the nation's capitols. I want readers to learn the significance of this decoration project; the commission didn't just go out and hire some artists and sculptors and tell them to do this painting or carve that figure.  The commission hired some of the foremost painters, sculptors, and stained glass and tapestry artisans in America whose names remain familiar in the entire history of this country's art. Only a few people who visit the capitol know what they're seeing or understand that they are looking at the works of some of this country's greatest artists.  
Most of all, I hope readers, including the public officials who have bought and will buy this book, will develop greater pride in this greatest symbol of our state. This building has been neglected for years: paint is peeling; lighting is bad, bronze sculptures are in need of restoration.  The very steps people walk on are cracking. But it is more convenient to ignore these conditions than it is to invest in making repairs and restoring this great symbol to a dignity and a grandeur it deserves.
Capitols are intended to represent the strength, beauty, and dignity of their states.  They're supposed to be uplifting symbols to the people, inspirations to the citizens, and representations of the strength of democracy. 
Our building needs help becoming those things.  I hope this book helps others discover their pride in the building and gain the courage to bring it back to the glory the builders and original decorators gave us. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Author Spotlight, Michael E. Shay

Michael E. Shay presents a complete portrait of this notable American and his many merits in Revered Commander, Maligned General. This long-overdue first full-length biography of General Clarence Edwards opens with his early years in Cleveland, Ohio and his turbulent times at West Point. The book details the crucial roles Edwards filled in staff and field commands for the Army before the outbreak of World War I in 1917: Adjutant-General with General Henry Ware Lawton in the Philippine-American War, first chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, and commander of U.S. forces in the Panama Canal Zone. Revered Commander, Maligned General follows Edwards as he forms the famous Yankee Division and leads his men into France. The conflict between Edwards and Pershing is placed in context, illuminating the disputes that led to Edwards being relieved of command.

Q: Why did you write this biography?
This book is a natural outgrowth from my previous two books, both about the 26th (“Yankee”) Division in the First Word War. My paternal grandfather was an original member of the division and served in the 103rd Field Hospital Company all through the war. My first book was about his service and that company in particular. My second book was a history of the Yankee Division in the war, told from the viewpoint of the soldiers themselves. In addition to original archival records, my wife and I scoured New England for first-hand accounts like diaries and letters. We were able to find materials from about 350 soldiers. Maj. Gen. Clarence Edwards formed the division in 1917 and served with it until he was relieved by General Pershing about two weeks before the end of the war. That action alone remains controversial to this day.

Q: Did you find a difference between writing a biography and your other non-fiction works?
Definitely. Writing a biography is all about maintaining the proper balance. It is important not to become so involved in the subject that you lose your perspective. That is not to say that a biographer cannot come to love the subject, but the writer must never forget that the subject is, after all, a human being with all their good points and failings. When it is finished, you hope that the reader comes away satisfied that they have been introduced to a very real and important person.

Q: What did you discover about General Edwards?
Most mentions of Edwards are brief, negative, and refer to his relief by Pershing. He has been referred to as a political general and a failure as a commander. While he may have owed much of his rise to his and his family’s political connections, so did virtually all successful commanders of his generation, including Pershing.  I discovered that, in point of fact, he enjoyed a very long and distinguished military career. Not only was he cited three times for bravery in the Philippine War, he was considered an exceptional administrator. Also, while he often let his mouth run away with him, at the same time, he enjoyed the confidence and friendship of President Taft and other important figures. Most telling was his relationship with those under his command, particularly the men of the Yankee Division, who revered him and affectionately referred to him as “Daddy.”   Edwards was a family man, and lost his only child in 1918, his daughter Bessie, who was in training to be an Army nurse. He deserves to be remembered for his rich and full life, and not for one incident taken out of the context of the whole.

Q: Why do you believe that it is important to write about the American participation in World War I?
During my lifetime, the last veteran of the Civil War died, and just this year, so did Frank Buckles, the last American veteran of World War I. So much continues to be written about the former, but for a variety of reasons, relatively little has been written about the latter. In all of our wars, the bulk of the fighting was, and continues to be, fought by citizen soldiers. The First World War was no exception. The Yankee Division was a National Guard division. Out of the nearly thirty divisions that saw some fighting in France, only about a half dozen were Regular divisions. The rest were either National Guard or National Army (draftees). Of the four divisions that collectively suffered nearly thirty percent of the casualties, two were Regular and two were National Guard. They were referred to as the “Old Reliables,” and the Yankee Division was one of them. It is important that we keep alive the memory of the sacrifice made by these brave men and women. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Author Spotlight, Marian Janssen

Born to an elite family, Isabella Gardner was expected to follow a certain path, but that plan derailed when she caused a drunk-driving accident. Being sent to Europe fanned the romantic longings and artistic impulses that would define her life. She became associate editor of Poetry; poet Allen Tate left his wife to marry her but then abandoned her for a young nun. Gardner associated with many of the most significant cultural figures of her age, but connections couldn’t save her from herself. Her life was emblematic of the cultural unrest at the height of the twentieth century.

Q: How did you, a Dutch woman, come upon the American poet Isabella Gardner, while most Americans don’t know her? 
It all started in the rare book room of Washington University in St. Louis, where I was doing research for my book on the literary magazine The Kenyon Review. Holly Hall, its librarian, asked me if I would like to see the Isabella Gardner collection there, which no researcher had yet looked at closely. For me, Gardner had been merely one of the few women poets to be published in the male dominated Kenyon Review, but I enthusiastically accepted because nothing is more fun than to see what no one has seen before. Learning from hundreds of letters to Gardner, I realized I had been shamefully inattentive to a poet whose books had been nominated for National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize and whom Sylvia Plath saw as a rival to the title of “The Poetess of America.” Yet, when I first made Gardner’s superficial acquaintance, she had been virtually forgotten.

My admiration for her poetry had to overcome my having been steeped in the quasi objective approach to poetry as preached in The Kenyon Review. Gardner’s first collection of poetry, Birthdays from the Ocean, had earned glowing reviews in the 1950s because she had clothed naked feelings of sex, terror, and death in perfectly crafted intense lyric verse, but her other three collections were out of touch with the poetic fashions by which I was swayed. However, being her self-designated biographer I had to immerse myself in her poetry, as even her most distanced poems are very autobiographical, and I was caught. In my book I use snippets of Gardner’s poems because they are the footprints of her life, and I am happy to find that my very first (Kirkus) reviewer is blown away by Gardner’s “stunning” poetry.  

Q: How did her poetry figure in Gardner’s life?
When I got acquainted with Gardner in St. Louis, I was struck first by the range of her correspondents in the literary world, from T. S. Eliot to Erica Jong. Also, Gardner called forth inordinate openness in her friends, who told her about their loves and lusts, their marriages and money problems, their ambitions and abortions. But the drama of her life encompassed much more than her being the focal point of an intimate literary circle. Born into one of the first families of Boston, cousin to Robert Lowell, she was a child of wealth who rebelled against her privileged surroundings. Before she became a poet, she was an actress on Broadway; she married into the theater world, then wedded a prominent Russian-Jewish photographer with connections to the mob, who was followed by one of the millionaire Chicago McCormicks; he, subsequently, was cast aside for the southern writer Allen Tate, who then deserted her. During her last years at the Hotel Chelsea in New York she was ravaged by the tragic fates of her wayward children, and struggled with enemies, friends, lovers and the bottle. 

Q: As you live in the Netherlands, I suppose your biography is mainly based on published sources?
No way. I have indeed read hundreds of studies dealing with American history and culture, from ballet to business to poetry, and countless biographies, from Elizabeth Bishop to Ernie Kovacs to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but they merely firmed up my book’s foundation. I derive my intimate insights from over a hundred interviews and thousands upon thousands of letters, many of them from private collections, most of them never seen by anybody else. In all, I spent two years in America reading Gardner related correspondence in archives and talking to family, friends and acquaintances. They were the best two years of my life.

Q: Why the title Not at All What One Is Used To?
My first choice was Poetry and Passion: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner, but I decided that title, though fitting, was too static for Gardner’s inordinately tumultuous life. Then my publisher suggested Dead Center of All Alone, a line from one of Gardner’s poems and the title of the tragic last chapter, but this does not do justice to the lust for life that is so very much part of Gardner. Not at All What One Is Used To is the title of a Gardner poem in which she describes her life as an actress, poles apart from her aristocratic background. The title is unexpected, unusual, and as such emblematic of the drama of Gardner’s life.

Q: If you had ever met her, would you have liked her, do you think?   
My feelings for Gardner have rollercoasted over the years. A young, impressionable scholar, I started out with admiration for this passionate woman and anger at her being sidelined as a poet in the male-dominated Cold War period. But after I had read the love and hate letters between Gardner and Tate,,  I felt she was mired in self-pity. Interviews with people who knew her during her last years and described her as an imperious, nymphomaniacal dipsomaniac increased my moralistic attitude. Then I became an administrator and put Gardner on the backburner for over a decade. Re-reading the letters I had gathered, the interviews I had held when I returned to her after my time-out, my admiration for Gardner came back with a vengeance. Self-pity? Well, perhaps, for a while, but with a philandering husband like Tate she had much reason to. An alcoholic? Yes, but during her last years, she pulled herself together and managed to write some great poems again. I don’t think I have mellowed over the years, but the break has helped me to cut through the surface.   

Q: Why should we read this book?
Because it is a super-dramatic, compelling story of a talented actress and most gifted poet, whose kaleidoscopic life under the weight of her aristocratic parentage and wealth, played out in close connectedness with a number of central cultural episodes in America. It is a must for anybody fascinated by American aristocracy and interested in American culture of the twentieth century, from Poetry Magazine to Virgil Thomson, from William Carlos Williams to Yoko Ono, from Cape Cod to Ojai, from the Ballets Russes to the goings-on in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. I share the estimate and confidence of the Kirkus Reviews critic that it is a “long overdue study that will surely spark new interest in Gardner’s work.”

Monday, April 8, 2013

Photographer Quinta Scott has documented the progression of the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, with hundreds of stopping points along the way. Scott explains how we have changed each site depicted, how we try to manage it, and the wildlife that occupies it. This majestic book is nothing less than a natural biography of the Mississippi, showing that, to understand the river and its floodplain today, we must understand the natural processes we have disrupted.

Questions and Answers about the Mississippi River and Hurricane Katrina.

Q: What is the connection between the geology and the history of New Orleans?

            To understand how Hurricane Katrina came to be so damaging to New Orleans you need to know a little bit of geology and a little bit of history.

Start with the geology: When the Muddy Mississippi floods, it washes over its banks, dropping its heaviest sands and silts closest to its channel. Flood after flood it builds a natural levee to an average height of fifteen feet above the adjacent floodplain. Relieved of the heavy sands, the floodwaters wash a carpet of fine silts across the low-lying floodplain and create a poorly drained, marshy backswamp in which cypress and tupelo flourish.
Now a little bit of history: In 1718 Sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans on the natural levee of the Mississippi north of its mouth. Over the objections of engineers he laid out the town on the left bank of the river at the point where the river swings nearest to Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Residents built their houses on high ground, on the natural levee of the river and near the head of Bayou St. John, which gave them a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico through Lake Pontchartrain. A cypress forest fronted by a marsh, the backswamp, lay between the village and the lake and protected the village from storm surges in the lake. New Orleans held to the natural levee until the 1920s when developers cleared the cypress forest, drained the marsh, reclaimed land from the lake, and built a floodwall to keep the lake from flooding the neighborhoods that followed. The newly drained land compacted and sank below sea level.

Q: How does a river build a delta and what does that have to do with Katrina and New Orleans?
            When a fast moving stream meets a still body of water, it almost comes to a halt and deposits its load of sediment in the still body of water. In this way the Mississippi built its delta.

And: When the river becomes too long and its slope to the sea too flat, it finds a shorter, steeper route to the sea. The Mississippi, south of Old River at the head of the Atchafalaya, has done this at least five times in the last 7,000 years. First it deposited its sediment on the western edge of the delta, where Hurricane Rita touched in mid-September 2005. Then it shifted to the eastern side of the delta, southeast of New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina tore up the landscape in August 2005. Then the river shifted directly south of New Orleans. Then, a little to the west of there, and finally, about 1300 years ago, it began to deposit the modern delta, laying it down between two older deltas and contributing sediment to them also.
More delta building: A distributary channel is one that breaks off from the trunk channel of a river and carries its sediment to the sea. Such a channel functions much like a trunk channel. Like the trunk channel, it builds a natural levee, adding to it with each flood. Like the trunk channel, it washes fine silts and clays over its natural levee into a poorly drained backswamp. And, it can split into a splay of branching channels: each one pushing into the Gulf, each one forming a natural levee, each one washing fine silts and clays into a poorly drained marsh. Together they form a delta lobe laced together by a network of natural levees.
Basins, which form between the branching channels, fill with marshes--saline marshes closest to the delta front, freshwater inland swamps farthest away from the delta front. In between, the marshes progress from freshwater to brackish to saline as the lobe pushes out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Q: What is subsidence and what does that have to do with Katrina and New Orleans?
Finally, there is a natural process called subsidence: As long as a distributary continues to deliver sediment to its delta front, and as long as flood deposits feed the basins between the separate channels, mud flats form in the basins and are quickly colonized by fresh water vegetation. Once the distributary ceases to deliver sediment to its delta front, once flood deposits no longer feed the basins between separate channels, and once the cycle of growth and decay in the marsh can no longer sustain the marsh, sea water seeps in and begins to eat away at the marsh, replacing it with shallow lakes or bays.

Q: How does subsidence increase the intensity of hurricanes?
There is a rule of thumb: Every mile or two of marshland reduces a storm surge from a hurricane by as much as a foot. At the beginning of the twenty-first century Louisiana was disappearing, subsiding, at the rate of one acre every twenty-four minutes. Project that rate over a year, and Louisiana was disappearing at the rate of 20,000-25,000 acres per year, which correlates to twenty-five to thirty-five square miles per year. In the eighty years before 2000 Louisiana lost 600,000 acres of vegetated wetlands. If this continued, the Louisiana shoreline would creep inland some thirty-three miles in some areas of the coast. Louisiana was disappearing and New Orleans was threatened by hurricanes, as coastal marshes receded.

Q: What changes to the Mississippi and its delta aggravated the threat to New Orleans by hurricanes?
            The process started with the first levee built at New Orleans in 1723. Every change we have made since to the natural functions of the river has decreased the amount of sediment delivered to the Gulf of Mexico for the construction of coastal marshes.
            James Eads’ jetties at the mouth of the river may have allowed the river to cut a thirty-foot navigation channel through the sandbar blocking the South Pass of the modern delta, but delivered sediment carried by the river to very deep water at the continental shelf, where it washed away, never to be used for marsh building. Closure of the old distributaries of the river may have prevented flooding in the bayou country of Louisiana, but cut the flow of Mississippi freshwater sediment to the coastal marshes. Revetments built of concrete mats may have stabilized the navigation channel, but reduced erosion of the banks, a source of sediment in the marshes. Artificial levees, extending clear to the Gulf of Mexico, may have made human habitation of the Mississippi delta south of Cape Girardeau possible, but prevented the Mississippi from refreshing Louisiana’s swamp and marshes with freshwater and sediment when it did flood. Channel dams may have made navigation on the Upper Mississippi economically feasible, but they retained its sediment north of Alton, Illinois. Dams on the Missouri, from which the Mississippi drew sixty percent of its sediment, did the same. In short at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the coastal marshes south of New Orleans received eighty percent less sediment than they had at the beginning of the twentieth and had been servely eroded away. And, they became dependent on rain for freshwater.

Q: How did oil drilling in the marshes cause their destruction?

The destruction of the marshes was further aggravated by the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century. Oil companies dredged long, straight navigation and exploration canals--an urban-like grid laid over the meandering bayous that laced the coastal marshes together. They dropped their dredge material along the edge of their canals, created spoil banks, levees that disrupted the natural flow of water across the marshes. They prevented water and sediment from refreshing the marshes; they created open lakes. Each vessel passing through the canals dragged a wake behind it, which spread out and eroded the banks, creating still more open water. Finally, the canals broke down the zone between fresh water and salt water, allowing salt to bleed into fresh water marshes, killing the native plants and trees, forcing wildlife to adapt or go elsewhere.

Q: What about the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet?
The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet barge canal may have shortened the distance between the Port of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico by 40 miles, but its construction decimated the marshes southeast of New Orleans—marshes that would have absorbed the brunt of hurricanes like Katrina. On August 29 MR GO, as the locals call it, funneled Katrina’s storm surge into its shared channel with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, into the heart of New Orleans, where the surge breached the floodwalls of the Industrial Canal and flooded the lower ninth ward in the eastern part of the city.

Q: What are those other canals that caused the flooding of New Orleans?
            Because the city lies in a bowl surrounded by levees, every drop of rain that falls on New Orleans must be pumped out through drainage canals built at the beginning of the twentieth century. The design and/or the construction of the floodwalls along the 17th street and London drainage canals were flawed. Rather than overtopping the floodwalls along the canals, Katrina’s storm surge undermined them. They collapsed, flooding the rest of the city, all but the French Quarter, which was built on the natural levee.

Q: What is the value of Louisiana’s Marshes and can they protect New Orleans and other coastal cities?
            Louisiana’s coastal wetlands buffer storms. One to two miles of marshland can reduce a storm surge by one foot. The marshes absorb nutrients, sediment, and contaminants. They serve as breeding, spawning, feeding, and nursery grounds for fish and shellfish, which migrate to their freshwater nurseries in the summer, and return to the Gulf when temperatures drop in the fall. Migratory birds rest on Louisiana’s barrier islands on their annual migration from Central and South America. Waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds colonize its freshwater marshes, attracted by their diverse menu of fish, shellfish, and vegetation. The marshes provide habitat for the endangered brown pelican and seventy pairs of bald eagles. Fur bearers—nutria, muskrat, mink, raccoon, otter, bobcat, beaver, coyote, and opossum—thrive in the marshlands. The American alligator—once endangered, now abundant—nests along the their banks.
            Louisiana’s commercial fishermen harvest 1.1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, up to sixteen percent of the nation’s catch, valued at 1.5 billion dollars a year to Louisiana’s economy. Recreational anglers contribute another 235 million dollars. More than forty percent of the nation’s fur harvest comes from Louisiana. Alligator meat and hides bring in thirty million a year. Twenty to twenty-five percent of the nation’s oil and natural gas supply moves through Louisiana. Four hundred million tons of goods move through the Port of New Orleans.

Louisiana’s three million acres of coastal wetlands are more productive than many agricultural lands. If the loss of wetlands continues, commercial and recreational fishing will likely decline by thirty percent, putting fifty thousand jobs at risk. Migratory birds and fur-bearers that depend on the marshes will decline. The cost of treating drinking water will rise, along with the cost of salt and other minerals taken from the coast. Alligator meat will once again become a delicacy.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Author Spotlight: Anthony Collings

Name a hot spot, and Collings has likely been there. From AP correspondent to Newsweek bureau chief to CNN reporter, he covered the Middle East, Rome, Moscow, London, Paris, and Washington. Now he has gathered stories about his work in a book that is both a journalist's memoir and a commentary on the current ethical crises in the news media and how to address them. Collings reveals the dangers and pressures of covering the news and the difficulties of overcoming obstacles to the truth.

Q: What was your most dangerous story?
            Covering fighting in Beirut in the early 1980s. I was captured and held for several hours by unidentified gunmen and Syrian forces during a 1981 missile crisis in Lebanon. Also I was in buildings or vehicles that came under shell fire several times in 1981 and 1982. I was in a hotel in East Beirut that was hit by a bomb.
Q: What was your favorite story as a journalist?
            My most satisfying story was a Newsweek piece about a divided Czech family. The parents had fled to West Germany during the Cold War but their children were not permitted to leave by the Communist Czech government. After my story, and those of other journalists, the Czech government relented and let the children rejoin their parents. I will never forget seeing one of the little girls hugging her mother, who was blind, when the children arrived at the train station in Germany.
Q: What is the main theme of your book?
            It is a combined personal memoir and critique of journalism that gives my thoughts about the profession. Its main theme is that journalism, for all its faults, is an honorable profession that serves the public interest, and is all the more needed in these times of change and challenge.
Q: What is your main critique of journalism today?
            Too much opinion. I am a believer in the idea of “just the facts,” hard news reporting. I fear that once journalists start giving their personal slant on the news, even if it is dressed up as “news analysis,” the audience no longer trusts the journalists to be as objective as is humanly possible.
Q: Are journalists biased?
            I get this question a lot from audiences. The simple answer is that journalists, being human beings, naturally have feelings, but the professional ones try to keep their personal feelings from distorting the truth. The best ones are as objective as is humanly possible. Most journalists are decent and honorable, and want to find out the truth and report it to the public so that citizens can make informed decisions.
Q: What do you think about the future of journalism?
            It is impossible to predict, given the highly changeable nature of technology including the Internet as a means of gathering and distributing news, and changing market conditions, but in general I would say that there will always be a need for a reliable, truthful account of what is happening in the world. Although some printed newspapers and magazines are dying, and other changes are taking place, I remain optimistic about the survival of news media in one form or another.