Thursday, July 1, 2010

Journalism: Don't Do It

If I could go back in time to 1991, I would warn my younger self not to study journalism if it wouldn’t cause a massive alteration of the space-time continuum.
You never know with time travel. You could go back and tell your grandfather to sell his stocks in 1929 before the Great Depression hits, and when you return to the present, you shockingly discover that Hitler won the war, everybody’s driving Volkswagons and Glenn Beck is a senator.
So if my meddling in the past wouldn’t screw up history, I’d tell myself the following:

Journalism is a difficult profession. You have to really love writing, love informing the public and love being paid the same as a busboy at Sbarro Pizza.

If you want to be a reporter, you can’t be shy, can’t have thin skin and can’t care about what people think of you. Martial artists are taught to lose their ego, for without the ego you will be unfettered and open your mind up to higher teachings. The same with journalists: lose your ego.

Politicians are often insecure and shallow. They flock to public office because of some deep-seated psychological need for acceptance. Many politicians I’ve dealt with, particularly at the start of my career, were very inadequate and flawed adults who bloviated about the high ideals of public service while digging their claws into the juggulars of their political enemies. Psychoanalyze many of these people and you’ll find children who were weaned from breastfeeding too early, serial bed-wetters or schoolhouse bullies.

Authority figures hate the media. They loathe the scrutiny and the last thing they want to deal with is a reporter asking questions. That’s why they’ll pass you on to a press secretary or public relations lackey instead of deal with you directly. Getting through to important people is often frustrating, with gatekeepers telling you that the important person you want to speak to is in a meeting, when in fact they’re cringing underneath their desks in fear or humping an intern in the cloakroom.

Develop an internal bullshit detector. I can tell when somebody is lying to me. Be a skeptic and check everything out.

Total objectivity is a myth. Journalism professors and professionals repeatedly proclaim that journalism depends on objectivity, that reporters must not only include any opinions in their stories but also must eschew personal opinions of any kind. Bias indicates a tilt in coverage favorable to a particular side or opinion, yet some journos believe that they mustn’t have any opinions themselves. Self-actualized adults have their own beliefs they’ve formed over a lifetime. These beliefs shape and distinguish us from everyone else on the planet. Conversely, people bereft of opinions, beliefs and creeds are automatons best suited for careers in government, advertising and public relations.

Read everything, even if it challenges your personal ethos. I despise Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter, yet I’ve read their books. I’ve also read works by liberals such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Al Franken. The more you read, the more well-rounded and educated you become.

Your editor is your best friend, not your adversary.

If you’re still going to go through with this journalism bullshit, you need to read the following: The Vintage Mencken (collected writings from journalist H.L. Mencken), All the President’s Men (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson), The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Tom Wolfe), and The Elements of Style (William Strunk, E.B. White).

In addition to these, you might want to (if you’re not busy playing video games) read the following: Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville), America: What Went Wrong? (Donald Barlett) and the United States Constitution.

Realize that as a journalist, you will be lumped with every bottom-feeding member of the media in existence including paparazzi, supermarket tabloid journos and vapid pundits. The public’s estimation and approval of journalism and journalists is just above the flesh-eating virus and just below cannibal pedophiles. If you think the world will kiss your ass like it’s made of marzipan and treat you like royalty then you’re in the wrong line of work. Grow a spine, pay your dues and ignore the ignorant bastards. If they insist the media is part of some vast liberal or Zionist conspiracy, so be it. If you’re truly bothered by what some amateur media critic spews about your career, then leave the newsroom, sit at home and write Star Trek fan fiction.

Cultivate sources from various sectors of government and the public. Get to know the local police and fire departments and have a contact person in city hall. Become chummy with city council and members of community groups. Only by gaining their trust will they willingly impart information. Also, learn how to request documents from the city clerk’s office. Not everyone will want to cooperate with you.

Since people bitch about inaccuracy in reporting, invest in a high-end recorder. I have a digital recorder I use when I conduct interviews. If some slapnuts complains that I misquoted him, I just play the tape back and watch him cringe with shame.

Be ethical. I know it’s hard to do in an America where everyone is on the take, but ethics in this business will distinguish you from the rest of the parasitic whores who prosper from corruption. If you’re honest, admit to your mistakes and write balanced and fair stories, you’ll develop a good reputation. However, if you goof around and sleep with a politician like one reporter I knew, you end up being a hooker with a steno pad. As a side note, the reporter went on to a career writing for some shitty medical publication after the politician got her into grad school.

If you’ve been paying attention and are serious about a career in journalism, then my mission failed. Most communications majors don’t write for newspapers and instead work in public relations, advertising or at the Olive Garden.

Life is tough. There are no guarantees you’ll end up a success. Sometimes you’ll fall into a job that becomes second nature and you gradually improve. Spend enough time at it and you’ll be a veteran reporter. If you’re really persistent and competent, you might receive awards for your writing, which is validation for slogging through documents or having elected officials threaten a libel suit.

Yet the reward of a media career is a sense of accomplishment, of informing the people, exposing corruption and making this country a better place. It's the First Amendment in action, a free press that educates the populace about its government, community and world.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return to the year 2010. I don’t want to miss my shift at the Olive Garden.

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