January 26th, 2012 15:12 EST
Journalism Is About Listening
(Transcription of Hot Copy #36)
"Let us now praise famous men", James Agee said famously. Journalism certainly does that. Probably too much, especially in a public relations age when you can become famous for being famous. I`d like to celebrate the journalists who devote themselves all over the world to simply telling their neighbors what`s going on. Their tradition is much older than Greek democracy. It`s tribal. I`d like to tell you about a particular man, a mentor and a friend who exemplifies this tradition. Like me, he never became famous, but the influence he had on people`s lives was special. Every small town, every hamlet, every county has such people. They may work in storefront offices or even their basements. They may not work for metropolitan dailies or high- powered radio and television stations, but their jobs and their lives are important to us.
News is news, no matter how it comes to us.
If you listen to North African rai music, it becomes apparent sooner or later that this popular style derives from people going from one Bedouin campfire to another singing the news, finding interesting ways to tell people what is going on, to hand down tribal history, to keep the culture intact. They`re journalists. They may sing well, as journalists may write well, but they are transmitting information. Information isn`t always what media moguls tell us it is. Sometimes it`s just the way we size each other up, the way we size up situations, the way we feel about things.
After you listen to rai, which is performed throughout Europe wherever there are North African immigrants, listen carefully to American rap. The fact that there is a controversial sub-genre called gangsta rap sometimes distracts us from the fact that rap represents a large segment of our population speaking musically about its experience. First of all, you may identify similarities between rap and rai "singing without accompaniment, for example. It will occur to you, I think, that once again information is being transmitted. But the intonations and demeanor of the singer add a personal dimension. It is, for example, okay to convey anger, dissent, pain, anguish, bitterness toward oppression. And yet information is being transmitted, sometimes emotional information, sometimes factual, sometimes both. No distinction is being made between emotional information, how someone feels and why it might be important, and factual information. This of course distinguishes rai and rap from formal journalism as we know it in the West, because we attempt to separate information from opinion and we attempt to balance one fact against another. And we attempt to keep emotionalism out of the process. But having said all that, rai and rap and journalism transmit information that people gather round to hear. Some fundamental human need is being fulfilled.
Between the man who travels from campfire to campfire reciting the news and the Gutenberg press is a long period in history, just as it has been a long journey from that primitive press, bearing obvious resemblances to the wine press, to the Internet, but all along the way there have been people devoted to trying to understand what is important in our daily lives and conveying it to others. The Sunday talk shows give us the impression that journalism is performed by big shots who socialize in important circles and know all sorts of things the rest of us don`t know. That`s true. But it`s just as true that almost every town in the country and the world has one of your neighbors who is performing the same function with the same dedication and not getting paid for it well if at all. Without these small-town journalists the big shots are nothing, just the talking heads they often seem to be. Journalism is always local.
It takes a special breed to practice it. It takes people, first of all, who know that the rest of us are important. It takes people who care about the rest of us. It takes people who have faith that if they tell you what is going on you will have the good judgment and integrity to act wisely in response to this information. In other words, it takes people who trust you to do the right thing. That`s a great leap of faith, and it tells you a lot about such journalists. They believe in you more than they believe in the institutions for which they work. They believe in you when your leaders don`t. They believe in you when politicians and preachers and salesmen are trying to convince you to do things that are not good for you. They believe in your ability to sort things out, to make sense of what is confusing and difficult to grasp. Let me tell you about one of these people who have so much faith in you.
Whenever I hear the story about Jack Kerouac writing On the Road on one long continuous sheet of paper I think of one of my mentors in journalism. My first encounter with Ray Nelson was unsettling. This towering, bald Viking was the bureau chief of The Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin in Warwick, Rhode Island, one of the state`s major cities. I was on super-tentative probation, super-tentative because all the other young men and women on probation that spring and summer had journalism degrees and I didn`t even have a bachelor`s degree. I had studied at Columbia for three years and had just served a hitch in the Navy. In fact, I was still in the Naval Reserve. In short, I was scared, but I`m not sure I was smart enough to know it.
I had been temporarily assigned to Ray`s office, which didn`t seem like a good thing, because Ray was notoriously tough and demanding, and the office itself was central to the newspaper`s state staff system, that is, its system of covering the entire state as if it were the local newspaper. That system was famous in national journalism circles not only for its ambition and civic responsibility but for its success in developing first-class newspaper people, a goal I didn`t think I had much of a chance to fulfill that morning in Warwick.
Ray opened the door to our storefront office and promptly jumped into a three-foot trash bin. I was pretty athletic in those days, but at five feet, nine inches I couldn`t have performed the feat. He stood there stomping reams of teletype paper and staring at me. Who are you? he said. I wished I was back in the Navy. In fact, I was thinking hard about it. But I introduced myself as best I could. Do you shoot? he asked. The Navy had in fact taught me how to use those cumbersome but wonderful Speed Graphic cameras that everyone in those days associated with the press corps. Ray, a formidable photographer who had also learned to shoot in the Navy, was gratified to hear I could use a Speed Graphic, so he sent me out on more photo assignments that day than any reporter could handle and certainly more than the paper could use. He always did that. Pictures of handshakes, of passing the gavel and giving awards made everybody happy, except of course the photographers who hated them and the photo lab that developed them knowing they probably wouldn`t be used. Nonetheless, we were always trying to make these handshakes interesting.
If you had asked me that night what my chances of survival were on The Journal I`d have said poor to worse. I was exhausted. I didn`t like Ray, and the other guys in the office struck me as aloof and not particularly hospitable. It was going to be a bad spring. I looked back fondly on my worst days in the Navy. The Navy seemed like a piece of cake in retrospect and I started my campaign of talking my first wife into reenlisting, something she was dead set against. If you had told me that two of the men in that office, including Ray, would become my dearest friends, I would have scoffed. But journalism is like that. First impressions give way to second impressions and second impressions give way to facts, and then the facts start reshaping themselves into a picture.
I don`t want to talk about my apprenticeship here. I want to talk about Ray, because he had certain qualities that helped dozens if not hundreds of young journalists become newspaper people. First, let`s talk about those rolls of paper. This was the 1950s. There were no computers. Just clackety typewriters and teletypes. Newsrooms were noisy, sloppy and frenetic. The teletypes were used to transmit stories, copy as we called it, from the bureau to the newsroom in Providence. We had no single-lens reflex cameras, which meant we had to use those big, heavy Speed Graphics even in atrocious weather, and we all shot our own pictures. Some of us were better than others, which is true of every job in journalism. Ray was so good that he easily could have been a professional photographer. I wasn`t too bad myself, but not that good. The teletype used big rolls of cheap brownish paper, and we used the same paper to type our stories. Ray was an incredibly fast teletypist, because that`s what he did at The Journal when he got out of the Navy. The fact that Ray, myself and Neild Oldham, one of the other reporters, were Navy veterans was a bond between us. Ray was a native Rhode Islander whose Swedish forebears had been hardworking wage earners. He knew Warwick and the state intimately.
He was in the habit of leaving interminable instructions to reporters when he went home. Sometimes his notes were four or five feet long. We hated them, but we grudgingly had to admit that they were often helpful, giving us important background and even instructions about how to get to obscure places. He would assign stories to us, tell us who to talk to, what to ask. These instructions were the subject of much aggravation in the office. Sometimes he would assign two stories at the same time and then tell you how to get both of them. Sometimes he would even assign two shoots at the same time. He was like a puppet master, and some of us didn`t like it. He would leave the private numbers of politicians and other poobahs, and he would tell you exactly why a story was important and what its significance was in the scheme of things, the very thing many reporters don`t do. For a probationary reporter it seemed impossible. He was setting a standard I couldn`t possibly live up to. For the veteran reporters, it often seemed insulting. But there was great method behind this micromania, and, to my credit, it didn`t take me long to figure out that it could make the difference between getting a permanent job offer from The Journal and being let go in the fall. The Romans would have called Ray Nelson the genius of the household, the spirit who presided over its well-being. I think I rather regarded him as the god in the machine. The fact that he wasn`t an Ivy Leaguer, as so many Journal people were, made him somewhat more approachable, to me at least, because I was ashamed of my failure to complete my degree work.
The fact that we were both Navy veterans was a kind of bond, too. Neild Oldham was in fact something of a World War II Navy hero, which may have explained his animus toward the professional veterans who abound everywhere. Ray didn`t look at the city with the cold, dispassionate eye the rest of us could bring to bear on it. He knew its people and their foibles. He knew the good guys and the rascals. He was not a great writer on a paper that had great writers, like Ben Bagdikian, C. Elliott Stocker, Phil Gunion, John Quinn and so many others. They were world-class newspaper writers, and if we were smart we emulated them. Some of us had more innate writing talent than Ray, not necessarily because of education, because education alone doesn`t guarantee writing talent. Neild, for example, with his Cape Cod terseness and acerbity, could write crystalline hard news stories with relative ease. I, with my good antennae, could find interesting things to say about people. But Ray had a superior talent. He loved people. He loved them unabashedly, even when they were scoundrels and crooks, perhaps especially when they were scoundrels and crooks.
This truth about my intimidating mentor dawned on me one summer night when he sent me to get a picture of the governor at a swank dinner. He didn`t tell me the picture would be one the governor wouldn`t want me to take. He didn`t tell me the odds of getting it were pretty slim. Dennis Roberts, the Democratic governor, was at continual war with The Providence Journal, which was a moderate, fair and thoughtful Republican newspaper. In fact, it enjoyed a superb reputation. Roberts noticed that the kid with the big box camera looked scared. He came over to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "I`m Denny Roberts, I hate The Providence Journal but I like most of its reporters and I think most of them vote for me." He was probably right about that. He was the guy who once said, "The difference between me and the Republicans is not that one of us steals, we both steal, but I give some of it back to the people." I got my picture and Ray was duly impressed, because he asked me at great length how it happened, and I just played Mister Cool rather than tell him that Denny Roberts had taken pity on me. What dawned on me is that it`s all about people, journalism is all about people. More than that, it`s about listening, not the act of cocking an ear, but the act of really hearing what people have to say. If you`d like a visual example of hearing people, just take in the difference between Lou Dobbs on CNN and Charlie Rose on PBS. Dobbs can hardly wait to get his two cents in, but Rose leans over the table and listens intently and then asks his next question based on what his subject has had to say. Another example of this good-listener style of interviewing is Leonard Lopate on WNYC Radio in New York City.
Ray Nelson was the sort of human being people needed to talk to. When they saw him on the street or at some public gathering they felt a compulsion to tell him things. His presence cheered people up. There was so much dynamism in his persona that people crowded around him to share it, the way people draw close to a fire. They knew he was a reporter, but somehow it felt to them like depositing money in a Swiss bank to give him information. I always thought that nobody was ever sorry to see Ray coming along, except perhaps someone we had just roasted. That`s quite a phenomenon. Usually you`re careful about what you tell reporters, because you know where it may end up. But Ray somehow rewarded people for telling him things. They felt as if they had gotten something off their minds. They felt lighter, unburdened. It was a remarkable quality, and somehow I sensed it in those long rolls of notes that he would leave. He had come by this information because people liked and trusted him, but he was relying on us to turn it into stories, not only because his managerial duties kept him from writing as much as the rest of us, but because he understood that some of us at least were better writers but not better reporters. Ray was a superb reporter. He could find out damned near anything. He understood that most working-class people feel helpless when confronted with official intransigence or corruption. The press is their out, their leverage against injustice. But it was hard for them to impart their complaints and their inside information with Ivy Leaguers from outside their experience. Ray was a member of the working class. He was the guy next door. He was there for the long haul, not just to make a name for himself and move on.
Prior to the 1960s most newspapers had rewrite desks. So if you were a reporter like Ray, you could call in your notes and a rewrite man would turn your rough notes into pure gold, or at least fool`s gold. Ray had started out, not as a rewrite man, but as a guy reporters on the scene of a story would call with their notes. He would then turn them over to a rewrite man. He served The Journal best by digging up story ideas, leads, as we called them. And sometimes when we got stuck he would know just who to call, somebody with a private number, somebody who knew everything but didn`t want to be quoted, somebody who could point us in exactly the right direction, a Rhode Island Deep Throat. Ray`s attitude was that there was an answer somewhere and we had to find it. The only thing he didn`t have an ear for was excuses. If you left him a note telling him why you couldn`t get a story, he`d wait for you to report to work and then he`d throw your note at you in the form of a paper airplane. It was trick I remembered years later at The Baltimore Sun when a snotty beat reporter asked me what it was about her story that my teeny-weeny copy editor`s brain didn`t understand. I turned her story into an airplane and sailed it out a third story window. I thought I had lost my job that night, because Miss Snotty was kind of famous, but it turned out the night managing editor loved the gesture.
I can`t tell you to start loving people the way Ray did, because you`re either like that or you`re not. But the concept of intently hearing people out and sorting out what they have to say is invaluable. Many reporters act as if they don`t have time to hear what anybody has to say. For example, Ray understood that the bums who slept in various public places saw things most of us never saw, and so he took time when he could to hear what they saw. He understood that janitors in city hall know more than most people, because they clean up the evidence and maybe even do some snooping. He understood that cops have a lot of beefs and if you listen to their beefs they may confide something to you that you`d like to know. I had a natural inclination to listen to the little people, and I think that was a bond between Ray and me. We were both willing to listen to bums.
Ray taught me something else. You have to learn how to read documents in city hall and the school department. You have understand legal language. You may hate it, but you have to do it. Otherwise you are at the mercy of lying lawyers and other tale twisters. Some of us were better at this than others. Ray himself wasn`t as good as some of us in this respect, but he taught us the importance of reading zoning decisions, bond issues, annual reports, audits, and other public documents. They`re public for a reason, he would say, and we are the reason. For example, in those days fire departments preferred vehicles made by American LaFrance, but if the communities they served insisted on competitive bidding, the firemen might not always get the vehicle they wanted. So they wrote the specifications in such a way that nobody but American LaFrance could meet them. It wasn`t easy to determine if they had done this. I remember having to ask a number of companies, like Ford Motor, if they could meet these specifications. I took notes on their responses and finally a pattern of collusion emerged with which I could confront the procurement officers. The story took patience and persistence, and it`s not the kind of journalism you see much of on television these days or even in newspapers, because The Providence Journal`s famous state staffing model has largely been abandoned by cost-cutters. Consequently local journalism all over the nation suffers from a lack of investigative inquiry. This was great stuff to cut my teeth on as a journalist, and Ray guided me through it with his frustratingly detailed notes and his irrational insistence on doing everything he had asked. The fact is we often did do everything he asked, but The Journal didn`t always find room for it.
One of the most precious aspects of journalism that we have been losing in our age of talking heads and celebrity journalists is that good journalism is more about listening than it is about writing or talking. Watch any Sunday talk show and you will see and hear much too much of the host and far too little of the guests. The hosts` big egos have plastered their guests to the walls. Same with the daily news shows. They`re shows, not reports. We see and hear too much of the anchors, their frivolous banter, their strained efforts at humor, their know-it-all demeanor. They don`t know it all, and the beauty of journalists like Ray Nelson was that he didn`t know it all, didn`t think for a minute that he did, and really wanted to hear from the least people in his community, because he happened to believe they were as important as the governor or the president or a news anchor.
We are living in a period of truly repellent journalism, of fantastically big egos with very little to say about almost anything. A lot more humility would suit the public and its future much better than this brand of look-at-me journalism. The advent of ratings services has done much of the damage here. This is journalism in service of ratings, not the public, and yet it is practiced by the only profession specifically noted in the Constitution. In my view we are watching a betrayal of the public trust in the name of corporate greed. And when Congress allows the information industry to continue its relentless consolidation, Congress is betraying the Founding Fathers too.
Ray Nelson probably could have become the governor of Rhode Island or a U.S. Senator. He would undoubtedly have been a populist. Instead, he chose to manage the first senatorial campaign of Claiborne Pell, who was then a long shot for the Democratic senatorial nomination. In fact, Pell was facing Dennis Roberts, the governor who helped me get that difficult picture. Some of his friends, like me, had doubts about whether Ray should have done this. He wanted to make a bigger difference than he felt he was making as a reporter and bureau chief. I told him he should go for the nomination himself, if he felt that way. Some of us thought he had more than a fair shot at it. He was much better known than Claiborne Pell, but of course Pell was rich and Ray, like all of us, had a hard time making ends meet. Pell won. I didn`t vote for him that year. I voted for Roberts. I told Ray so and he was annoyed with me, but a little amused, too. That was his way. As it turned out, Pell made a splendid senator and the state was proud of him for many years of far better than average service in Washington, largely due to Ray`s tending of fences back home and his astute sense of state politics. He served Senator Pell in Washington in several positions, but none of them matched his energy, his compassion and his political savvy. I felt when Ray died as I felt when he joined Pell, that he should have run himself. Ray was murdered in his apartment in Northeast Washington, bludgeoned by his own typewriter. The District of Columbia police have never solved his murder. He didn`t get the reverent obituary that Senator Pell got, but he should have, because he made a huge difference in many lives, and of course because the senator owed his own political career to Ray.
The next time you watch one of those smart alecks on television or read a famous columnist who seems to understand everything under the sun, think of Ray Nelson, who didn`t pretend to understand and who listened to everyone.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at www.DelMarbrook.com or www.myspace.com/delmarbrook.