Monday, January 12, 2009

The Fan

Someone I know through my job, a nice man who is head of one of the local organizations, had lunch with me today. The lunch invitation came from a meeting in an elevator, when this guy cornered me and said, with admiration, how it must be really great to be an investigative reporter. Displaying my usual charm and all the friendliness of a rabid dingo, I sarcastically said it was about as fun as being a janitor at Auschwitz.
Anyway, he wanted to have lunch and learn about the fantastic and mystical craft of listening to people and writing things down for the newspaper.
Hence, what the circle of wizards refer to as the arcane and eldritch art of reporting.
The lunch went well, but I wondered why he thought being a journalist was a worthwhile endeavor and lucrative career. The fan, a baby boomer, experienced Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate break-in. Investigative reporting was big back in the 1970s, when digging through the government's dirty little secrets and holding public officials accountable was something you did because you were patriotic and wanted the public to know. Now, the mainstream media is just the opposite, slogging around in the murkiness of infotainment and obstructing the truth.
I guess journalists to him were romanticized figures who rode into town to challenge the status quo, digging around public records, filing Freedom of Information Act request forms and filing their stories on deadline, hunched over a manual typewriter, their teeth stained with coffee, their gums reeking of cigarettes, a tiny flask of whiskey an arm's length away.
My job is nothing like that, though I wish it would be. I wish journalism was like that again, and the public more trustful and open to what we do without the cynicism or loathing most feel about the press. The fact is, the press deserves the raw feelings and low public credibility it's received. By putting business and the bottom line over their mission to inform the public objectively and without fear of repercussions from the powers that be, journalists and the media have shrunk in stature to that of just a business, a beast obsessed with making money and profiteering on the latest tragedy, celebrity breakup or war rampaging across the globe. They're the clueless anchormen and women who have hair stylists who tell you with a smile that scores of people were killed, they're the paparazzi taking photos of celebrities sunbathing, they're the political commentators whose smug, blatant partisanship is taken as gospel by their brainwashed minions.
In an age dominated by video and the Internet, where's the print reporter, wading through documents and files, collating everything, putting the pieces of the puzzle together and following an almost Byzantine set of standards they're taught in journalism school?
So I gave my fan some pointers on how to advance your career as a working journalist:

1. Know how to write. Very important if you want to work in print news. If you understand how to string a bunch of words into sentences and a bunch of sentences into paragraphs, and a bunch of paragraphs into stories, you've mastered 95 percent of journalism.
2. Play dumb. You have to convince people you talk to that you're stupid and don't understand anything, that way they'll tell you more information than necessary. This works especially well if you're a woman reporter and twirl your hair a lot. Men can't resist that and will blurt out classified state secrets to impress you.
3. Build alliances. Network and meet sources from every facet of the town you're covering. Get to know the people in all of the social clubs, the politicians and the politician's enemies. Everyone knows something and a giant list of contacts and sources can only help you.
4. Safeguard your reputation. Build a reputation of honesty, integrity and professionalism. I know it's hard when you work in a field that attracts so much mediocrity, but be that one shining example of competence in a sea of retards.
5. Write in your spare time. Don't go to the bar and fill your gut with booze like so many degenerate reporters. Write that novel, screenplay, blog or memoir after hours. It's healthy to keep writing and creative writing will make you better at your job. This hasn't happened with me yet, but one can only hope.

The fan liked my words of wisdom, but I confided in him that I felt jaded in my career. He understood perfectly, and said when he was living in California when he was about 40, he decided to switch his career and go to law school, which he did and became an attorney. He told me that you're never too old to reinvent yourself and try something new.
I told him that I always thought of myself as a college professor, teaching journalism and media studies. I said I'd teach young minds what a morally bankrupt profession journalism was and to quit now before they turn into an angry crank like me, a lone wolf gnashing his fangs and howling in the darkness.
"If I could just save one student from making that fatal blunder, then I would have saved a life," I said.
The fan was not impressed, and waxed eloquent about how investigative reporters are sorely needed today and even urged me not to quit or abandon my profession.
"We need you to get in there and keep digging," he said. "You need to find things out."
Reluctantly, I agreed with him.

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