From someone (me) who spent a good bit of time in the newspaper biz, here are a dozen things you might not know about the press ... six good, six not so good ... plus some of the characters I ran across ...
NOT SO GOOD ...
1) A shocking number of journalists can't even spell or know what words mean. I remember an article in the Naples, FL, Daily News ... where I live now ... about a subdivision that was celebrating its anniversary. The president of the neighborhood association proudly told the reporter about how upscale the residents were ... how genteel. Only you can imagine how that last word unfortunately came out in the paper ... "Gentile." Even at the most prestigious, high-paying papers that you think would have towering intellects ... some of them can't get words right, either. In an otherwise entertaining new book called "The Red Leather Diary," author Lily Koppel, a New York Times staff writer, mentions a rich guy who was a "real estate magnet." Lily, if you want to fix it for the next edition, it's on page 64.
2) Some journalists let their personal interests get in the way. When I was a feature writer at the Miami Herald, my editor (I won't name her because she's long gone and did far more good than bad) assigned me a story about people who'd gone bankrupt. My story said for a lot of them, it was their own fault. She had me rewrite it to be more sympathetic. Turns out she and her husband had once gone through bankruptcy.
3) You surely know that some journos ... OK, a lot of them ... have political biases and slant the news accordingly. You might be surprised at how pervasive it is ... even into sports. When I was with Gannett News Service, I found out how it worked at the supposedly reader-friendly USA Today. I remember a lengthy "cover story" dealing with some social issue topic or another in sports, and the writer talked to three congressmen ... all Democrats. He didn't talk to any Republicans, even though they controlled Congress at the time.
4) Some journalists are less than straightforward in bridging the gap between what they say and what they do. When an editor in Phoenix in the late '90s became irked at some laid-off reporters and called them "fat, lazy, incompetent and slow," guess what ... the ex-reporters sued him for defamation, claiming "severe emotional distress." Let's see now ... no one was supposed to sue those same reporters for libel when they were employed ... why, that would be a blow against freedom of speech ... but they, of course, could sue anybody they wanted. I don't have the faintest idea what happened with this case ... hopefully, well-deserved oblivion.
5) Some of the biggest names are the littlest people. When Gannett proposed buying the Detroit News, company chairman Al Neuharth stood before an all-staff meeting in the cafeteria and promised that the top editors would continue as before. Of course when the deal was completed, Gannett gave the top editors one year to find another job or then be fired, including the best editor I've ever worked for, Lionel Linder. Now when I think of Big Al being lionized for single-handedly creating USA Today, and in truth it was a stupendous feat, or think of Lionel, who went on to Memphis only to be killed by a drunk driver on a New Year's Eve, what sticks in my mind is if Neuharth had meant what he said, maybe Lionel would still be with us.
6) Some, or many journalists, aren't always as fair and thoughtful as they could be in producing their stories. I remember one writer at the News who did a just-for-fun reader participation story on how the drab Joe Louis Arena could be improved in appearance. After the story came out, the architect of the arena wrote in, saying he didn't think it was so drab, that the arena was a functional success that people liked and that he was hurt the reporter hadn't contacted him for the story. He was absolutely right ... I should have.
AND NOW SOME GOOD ...
7) You wouldn't think, judging from the mundane, humdrum nature of most papers, that some quality lurks within. But it does ... sometimes in a clever but obscure headline on page 6B, maybe ... but it's there. One example: I remember Lowell Cauffiel from when I was at the News (a good paper at the time) ... I didn't know him well ... just another staffer, as I was. Then he left to write books ... and what a phenomenal talent he turned out to be. If you want to read a mind-blowing true crime thriller (based on a story in the News), try his first book, "Masquerade," from 1988.
8) The Associated Press is kind of looked down on by most journalists because its work is so much noncreative drudgery. But when I was starting out with AP in Richmond, I encountered three guys I'll never forget ... Ed Young, John Daffron and Marshall Johnson. Each could write lickety-split and deftly. What set them apart is that each could also dictate a story point blank off the top of his head on a complicated subject with no hesitation and keep going until it was wrapped up in a little knot ... that's right, talk a story, not write it. I know because I took dictated stories from all three. It was an amazing gift I never saw duplicated when I went on to papers.
9) When I began at the Herald, I sat next to Harvey Steinem, the restaurant reviewer. Early on he gave me a sheet of paper and a pen and said if I could write down all 50 state capitals correctly in 10 minutes, he would give me $5. I wrote down all 50 in seven minutes and collected my $5. He told me no one had ever collected from him before. After Harvey left the paper, I thought about it some more and realized that perhaps he was breaking the rookie in ... seeing if I was "Herald material," seeing if I was good enough to be a member of the most crackling staff I've ever seen, one whose standards he cared about.
10) Chauncey Bailey was shotgunned to death last year in Oakland while investigating criminal activities at a Black Muslim bakery. He was the first journalist murdered in the U.S. in many years. So why is this item in the "good" category? To honor his memory ... I knew Chauncey as he had worked for me in Detroit in the '80s ... and to note that it isn't out of the question for some journalists, particularly the investigative reporters, to deal with threats or even dangers to ferret out tough stories for you.
11) Up and down, back and forth, up and down, back and forth ... there I was on a fishing boat in the Atlantic with several dozen other guys who had responded to an ad in the Herald for a free afternoon out on the water. The purpose? To do government-required retesting of the efficacy of a certain over-the-counter medicinal product. The name was kept confidential from us, but it concerned a pink liquid in a bottle for stomach upset. Up and down, back and forth ... the crew kept serving us all the baked beans and beer we wanted. Up and down, back and forth ... they were DELIBERATELY trying to get us seasick to either test us with the product or use a placebo. Most of my shipmates being grizzled homeless guys, only one passenger truly got sick ... can you guess who that was? Ah, but that just goes to show the crazy situations you can get into, and those make the best stories.
12) A parade of figures flies by as I think of all my years in journalism ... scamps, scalawags, poets, drones, a few hot chicks, chronic malcontents, manipulators, people who were journalists by default because they couldn't do anything else in life, alcoholics, recovered alcoholics who were more vicious sober than drunk, and good, solid honest people. We had one thing in common ... the pounding excitement of one shot. We had one shot to to write a particular story and make it useful, meaningful, stylish, memorable. One shot to make it worth something, even for just a day. One shot ... like an actor on the live stage, only we were taking it one step farther and writing the script anew each time. One shot and it's over and in print ... and then the realization that hey, not too bad but you could have done it better in big ways or small ways no one else noticed, but you notice now .. until the next time, when there'll be another chance, another story, another shot.
P.S. But then ... a harried auto mechanic gets only one shot to fix your car correctly, a busy cook at a diner gets only one shot to cook your breakfast correctly, a surgeon gets only one shot to cure your disease when you're cut open, a lawyer gets only one shot with a
closing argument before a jury ... most of life is just one shot ...