Three Books in the Bag (or, A Year of Living Creatively)

It is always worth a celebration when you get a book project finished. You naturally want to share with the world the results of your labor, and you watch with great anticipation how your work is being received one way or the other. These past few years I’ve been lucky enough to get at least one book project (and sometimes two) brought to completion in a year’s time.

About this time a year ago I started burrowing down into my work — deeply investigating, researching, then writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing. It was a long haul and, I confess, at times I wondered what I had gotten myself into by taking on so much with barely enough time to sleep or to literally exhale.

A year later, and the results are finally in for all to see. The creative spirits, as I like to think of it, kept me productive and busy this past year. I’ve surpassed my own past personal records now by getting not one, not two, but three book projects in the bag this past year. So, naturally, I get to celebrate and share this personal milestone by (how else?) writing even more words for people to read. Such is the life of an impassioned writer….

Putting it to the Tests

As anyone who has spent time living and working in Japan can tell you, the language business is a major industry (some might even call it a racket), with lots of money to be spent by consumers and lots of money to be made, in turn, by publishers, by private and public language schools, by bookstores and on down the line.

Nowhere does that seem more apparent than in the testing field, with its promises of helping Japanese young people to pass the seemingly endless array of exams that will let them open doors and overcome various barriers in society, and ostensibly lead them to find a measure of success in life. And ranking high up there in the royalty of the Japanese testing field is the Test of English for International Communication, or TOEIC.

At any given time, there are literally dozens of TOEIC and other related test books on the shelves of booksellers throughout the Japanese archipelago, so choosing just the perfect study guide to help you pass that big exam on the test day can be a daunting task for any student or learner of a language. That’s where the “racket” part comes in: The educational quality of these kinds of testing books, like any other genre of publication, can range from totally worthless to remarkably high.

I have always consciously aimed for the latter. For several years now I’ve been invited by a few different Japanese university professors writing for various publishing houses to participate in making TOEIC test books to be used at the university level throughout Japan. I’m not a full-time educator, but I do have one hand in the academic field as a university-level instructor of journalism, so naturally I do take great pride in putting out something that will have real meaning for the students and other readers who eventually use them.

Hot off the presses are two new books I’ve co-authored that have just been released by the Tokyo-based Asahi Press, one of the major publishers of educational books in Japan.
Step-Up Skills for the TOEIC Listening and Reading Test (Level 2) is an intermediate-level TOEIC book that my fellow authors and I have created from scratch. As with past TOEIC books, I’ve not only done writing and editing on this one, but also some of the graphic design work as well, which means I had some say both in the substance of the book and in its style. And if I may be so humble in saying so, I think this one is our best TOEIC book yet as a team of four authors. The high editorial quality is there, and it really catches the eye as well (though you probably wouldn’t know it by the plain-looking book cover). But trust me — as far as TOEIC books go anyway, this one rocks.

The other book of ours that Asahi Press has just released is
Step-Up Skills for the TOEIC Listening and Reading Test (Level 3), an advanced-level book that we had published in the past with a different cover. We have updated the contents to include some of the new changes in the TOEIC testing procedures and polished up the contents with our magic touch as co-authors. The result is an old book of ours being given a new lease on life.

Asahi Press is releasing these two books (and another one to be published later) together as its first-ever foray, I’m told, into the marketing of its TOEIC books as a set series — something they have not done before. So our books will apparently be the test case to see how well this strategy works, and Asahi Press is no doubt counting on the past strong sales of our books as individual projects to continue now that those books are released as a new three-part series. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but somehow I’m confident that classroom instructors across Japan and their students will give it a thumbs-up, as they have so graciously done in the past.

I have to give credit here where it is due: We could not have pulled all this off without the teamwork and cooperation of everyone involved. Some publishers can be like plantation owners to work for, but the good folks at Asahi Press have been nothing but flexible and supportive in making sure every that little detail is worked out to our liking as authors. And the efforts of that cooperative partnership have indeed paid off, both sales-wise and in the personal satisfaction that comes with knowing you have put out a damn good book for the people to read.

So, if you are a teacher of the TOEIC test somewhere here in Japan who is looking for substance and style in your lessons, look no further. Our brand-new TOEIC book series is now off and running, and how it does in the long-term future will be determined, of course, by none other than you and your students.

Spies and the Media — A Love Story

My third book project for the year is one that I’m especially proud to be a part of. The U.S.-based media watch group
Project Censored puts out a book annually on what it deems are the top censored news stories that went unreported or misreported by the esteemed U.S. corporate press, and this year marks the milestone of 40 years for the group.

My contribution to their new book,
Censored 2017, is a chapter titled “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer” about the historically close relationship between the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the institution of the free press in the USA. We all know that the freest press on the planet used to play footsie with the CIA, but what many of us probably don’t know or may not remember is that the relationship between the spies and the journalists never really ended. It was a “tryst” born of shared anti-communist, propagandistic Cold War values in the late 1940s, and continues 70 years later in the digital age in a much more subdued and hidden way. In other words, the two are still fooling around together and keeping it very discreet.

Is this healthy for a democracy? Definitely not, when you consider the finer details of that CIA-press relationship, as I did over the course of several months. There were no naïve notions on my part going into this investigation, of course, since I knew what I was diving into from the start. But as I pored through news archives and databases, public and private documents and all sorts of printed and online sources of information, it became clear that the CIA-news media relationship had gone far deeper than the press itself had ever reported in the past, far deeper than those in academia had ever researched, and certainly far deeper than the U.S. government had ever dared to admit to the public.

The big, influential news companies — the
Washington Post and New York Times newspapers, Newsweek magazine and the CBS television network, to name just a few — were the guiltiest parties when it came to cooperating with the CIA in its various clandestine operations and keeping those ties a secret from the public. Journalists worked covertly for the agency as paid (or non-paid) operatives, CIA officers were given press credentials and posed as reporters, and the U.S. Congress just looked the other way until it was forced on a few occasions during the 1970s to hold public hearings on the issue.

I won’t ruin the suspense by naming the names here; you can pick up the new
Censored 2017 book and read all about it there. But suffice it to say that you are going to find out more about the CIA and the news media than you probably knew about or cared to remember.

I will add that I noticed a distinct pattern emerging in my investigation, one I hadn’t expected to find so clearly: Starting from about the early 1970s, some big news reports would surface in the media about the CIA and journalists working together, the story would generate controversy (or not) for a short time, the U.S. Congress might investigate it (or not), then the story would die out and the media would conveniently forget about it. Then, a few years later, the same cycle would play out, and then die out again. Over and over that pattern would repeat. And still the news media establishment treats this as an invisible story today. Why the continual memory lapse on the part of the media and the refusal to confront this issue openly and honestly over the course of several decades? What is there to hide? Why not just “come out” and admit that the press has been cooperating with an agency as unlawful as the CIA? Isn’t openness with information what the free press in America is supposed to be about? Or is a “free press” about something else entirely?

The spark for this chapter on the CIA and the press actually came when I was researching the “Dark Alliance” story of the 1990s and the fate of journalist Gary Webb in breaking the big CIA-contra-crack cocaine story back then, in a chapter I was writing for Project Censored’s previous book,
Censored 2016. I had dug up so much information on the CIA-press relationship in the course of doing that “Dark Alliance” chapter that I knew I had to devote a whole chapter in itself to the CIA-media story in the future. The good folks at Project Censored were receptive to the idea, and now you have the whole story in your hands in Censored 2017.

This is by far the longest, most substantive piece I’ve ever gotten published, and I can’t think of a better book in which to have it released. Project Censored has been fighting the good fight for 40 years in keeping the media honest and relevant to our daily lives, and I’ve long been a fan of their work. I’ve now contributed essays of my own to five editions of the yearly
Censored book (and edited/ghostwritten a couple other Censored book essays by Japanese authors), and it’s been a great experience all the way. Just as I’ve done above with the Japanese books, I have to give credit where it is due: to everyone at Project Censored and at the New York-based Seven Stories Press for their teamwork, cooperation and flexibility in seeing it all through to fruition. I’m convinced that there is great power in joining forces with other like-minded, dedicated people for a common higher good — in our case, the informing of the public and the holding of news media accountable in society.

So, hats off to all those who have worked so hard together to get the 40th anniversary edition of
Censored 2017 out to the people. It’s been a long time in coming. We all benefit from the timely and important information the new book provides us, and we will continue to benefit for as long as Project Censored is around and doing its good work. Which is surely more than we can say for certain U.S. government spy agencies and some of their lapdog followers in the American poodle press.
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