That’s the truth of it, and frankly that might be a knock on most dogs I know. Because dogs, despite their habits of hygiene and, shall we say, companionship, indeed are loyal to their keepers and seek nothing but to give their hearts to their loved ones. Not so reporters and their news room handlers. Nope. I count as among my most exciting, rewarding and formative experiences the decade I spent as a newspaper reporter and editor. I loved it. (See NewsWalker for details). Then, unexpectedly, the charms of being a news hound vanished. I’m not sure what did it. I’m still working that out, more than a quarter century later. I expect it was the usual combination of factors that leads a person to take a walk, which in my case was across Third Avenue to the oil company looking for help telling their story. (See WordSmith for details).
America counts among its formative texts the rantings of ingrates and incorrigibles. The Founders, though motivated by the highest of ideals, could work the low road with the best of them; and employ agents of scandal to do their trade and let a target of such scrutiny beware. The names of these scandal mongers are icons of American journalism: Zenger, Callender, Greeley, Bennett, Hearst, Pulitzer, Patterson, McCormick. These were gifted people of a singular incorrigibility, though they were often exceptionally unattractive human beings. They simply would not be told what to do and would say what they wanted for their own reasons – which was a mélange of greed, lust, ego, ambition, psychosis and fun. If their efforts in pursuit of their enterprises happened to coincide with the public good, well it was a happy coincidence. This fortunate coincidence persuaded the wider public -- over time -- to permit the enterprises to continue to function. They built the American Free Press. There was a genuine utility to a society which had at least some legally protected institutions that “let it all hang out.”
It was changing technology that messed things up for these original press barons. When radio and later TV broadcasting got into the act, the info merchants got all uppity. As they grew in profitability and scope broadcast networks aspired to behave responsibly – in the public interest. The fact that these corporate sector instructions rested on a public license – in effect were given monopoly controls by the government to function and to make private fortunes – remained well, perhaps an embarrassing fact that could be overridden in its ideological dissonance if its owners and practitioners worked in the high-minded public interest and never admitted the core nature of their work or the fact that they were licensed to do it by a greater public. If anyone ever challenged them, the corporate for-profit institutions with public licences could shout the "free press" had "constitutional rights" enshrined in the First Amendment! (Editor's aside: This ignored a subtle but important nuance - the right to a press free of government interference belongs to the people not the owners of a printing machine or holder of a broadcasting license. The behavior of reporters, editors and publishers are still subject to common law.)
Setting aside this point, Sarnoff, Paley and the others went uptown and employed Ivy leaguers with advanced degrees, artists and creative technicians whose graphic output on paper, film and video could dazzle with its storytelling magic. Borrowing the arts, crafts and techniques from the companion movie industry being assembled at the same time in Hollywood, these broadcast outlets changed everything for news. Newspapers tried to compete, but folded by the score, many also borrowing from -- and feeding on -- the show biz industry to survive. Corporations grabbed up remaining new outlets and began a homogenization of news operations to sell to the mass markets being developed in a unified emerging soon-to-be globalized world economic union. Politics, news and entertainment all found their way of merging into various common narrative streams in Media-ville. Of a sudden, in the space of just over 50 years, where the society and nation which once tolerated news hounds for their entertainment value and occasional public utility and treated practioners with all the respect due a carney barker, what emerged was the Mainstream Media, the monopoly media, which employs ever-so-over-well educated humanitarian and liberal arts generalists who all mean so well. These professionals are so high-minded in their self-importance and civic rectitude they aren’t even aware of the actual nature of the work they do. (Editor's aside: and it is this attitude that brings up my concerns -- deadly serious concerns -- as it relates to this generation's war against tyranny in today's "new battlefield.")
Face it: the notion that a news hound is supposed to be responsible has been all been a sham from the get go. The patina of respectability that the news professionals of this current generation have adopted is wearing out and being exposed for the fraud it is by yet another wave of technology – the internet and the blogs - and by their own pathetic and occasionally blatently partisan performance. The earnest claims of objectivity and fairness, of public service, the wider good… Puh-lease. There may be respectability and even nobility displayed by the professionals among its ranks. But the core value of the news hound remains the story. And what is in the head of the news hound - their normal human preferrences, prejudices, values, morals, mythology, assumptions -- is what determines what story is to be told. Some of these practioners are so self-involved in their rectitude that they can not even admit to themselves that their professional standards to apply what they believe is "fairness" has the effect of tainting their job performance. In addition, for all their virtues, news guys are notorious buttinskies, worrywarts, fuss budgets, ingrates, incorrigibles who are often crippled with anxieties, and all manner of obsessive compulsive disorders and who are supervised by the similarly afflicted. These persons also possess -- sometimes embarassingly and unfortunately -- the technological and economic power to expose to the wider public interesting and sometimes secret facts and get paid money to do it.
These professionals can make it all high-hat. But the best of them know in there hearts the game they are in. Among the most popular lines from The Front Page, the iconic play and 1931 film was written by Ben Hecht, an ex-news hound, and Charles MacArthur about the antics of Chicago newspapers. (QN) When asked why he wanted to reform and take a respectable job in advertising, Hecht & MacArthur gave the game away in their great script. What do reporters do, asked character Hildy Johnson:
It’s peeking through keyholes. It’s running after the fire engines, waking up people in the middle of the night to ask them what they thought of Mussolini, and stealing pictures off old ladies after their daughters got attacks in Grove Park. And for what – so a million hired girls and Mormon wives will know what is going on….
What is a newspaperman? A peeper, an invader of privacy, a scandal peddler, a mischief-maker, a busy body.. a comic-strip intellectual, a human pomposity dialating on his constitutional duty, a drum-thumper on a demogogue's bandwagon, a member of the claque for this week's fashion, part of next week's goon quad that will destroy it...
So now this week we have John Roberts, a perfectly presentable middle-aged lawyer with a nice wife and two cute kids. Bush 43 tagged him to do a big job for the wider community – help decide the rules of what is and what isn’t. So in the process of pols agreeing to Roberts' appointment, the matter of Roberts’ suitability becomes a topic of general interest. A news hound with an assignment to work any angle he can find for a story about this question thinks to himself: so what’s the deal with this guy being such a rich right-winger, who has this all prim, pro-lifer wife, and they have a couple of white kids they adopted from Latin America… So what’s that all about…? Abortion is the big issue this guy will face on the 5-4 Supreme Court. If this fancy guy, rich, Catholic, pro-lifer with adopted kids, had somehow gotten his kids through some kind of special or cozy or shady deal, it would be a terrific story. Stuff that like happens, you know.
It is just that simple. All other values do not enter the equation. Sensitivity… appropriateness… decency… humanity? Or the social, religious and political prejudices and assumptions involved in the crude stereo-typing of the Roberts' family? Get off it. And, of course, the wider public knows this perfectly. Still the American people love stories like this. What the public can’t stand is sanctimony and hypocracy (which is what the reporter was after.) But this sanctimony and hypocracy was at work in the story-telling assumptions of the reporter too, and also was precisely what The New York Times itself displayed when it got caught red-handed raking through the sewer muck for news nuggets. (Malkin, HH, IP, PL, RWN) (Editor’s aside: check out the lawyerly weasel words of the guy from the "Office of the Public Editor" (What the heck is that?) being sent to those complaining about the NYT tactics:
Dear Reader: Thanks for writing to us. While the public editor does not usually get involved in pre-publication matters, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the paper, told us that he would not stand for any gratuitous reporting about the Roberts's children. He said that as an adoptive parent he is particularly sensitive about this issue. In addition, a senior editor at the paper wrote, "In the case of Judge Roberts's family, our reporters made initial inquiries about the adoptions, as they did about many other aspects of his background. They did so with great care, understanding the sensitivity of the issue. We did not order up an investigation of the adoptions. We have not pursued the issue after the initial inquiries, which detected nothing irregular about the adoptions." Sincerely, Joe Plambeck, Office of the Public Editor, The New York Times. Note: The public editor's opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times
This has litigation strategy from the NYT's Office of General Counsel written all over it. Quillnews suspects a few of Schulzberger's suits told NYT lawyers to consider whether they need to hire a guy like former AG Dick Thornburgh, now communications lobbyist/lawyer, like CBS did after Rather's stunts? And check out Plambeck's Clintonian (Nixonian?) rhetorical touches, particularly the mentioning that NYT Editor Bill Keller’s got adopted kids too. Quillnews question: so? I also like the careful way Plambeck separates out roles and corporate responsibilities among the NYT itself, the Office of Public Editor, the executive editor Keller, and "a senior editor at the paper" before you get to the reporter making the calls. (Editor's aside to the reporter: hey, man, sh** roles downhill. Maybe next time when you make your first calls to nail down a possible story angle, you call the right lawyer for help. Maybe you'll be smarter (sneakier, wiser?) next time, and only talk to a lawyer you can trust to keep his yap shut and not get all high and mighty about your brazen indelicacy.) The problem with too many news hounds (or at least with the guys who thought this inquiry up) is that they are so full of themselves they actually believe that stuff about their own entitlement to know facts for the wider public good. They don’t even have the common decency to know when they are doing something that is -– in real life -- indecent. They are exposed like any political grafter caught doing something shady. And they are reading the script taught all regulars from the Queens Democratic Central Committee to tell the judge in the Queens Court House if they've been pinched: “admit nothing, deny everything, and scream you was robbed.” Stay tuned... Part 6