November 10th, 2006 09:41 EST
Who makes the news? Who should make it? - Hot Copy #10
This is Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook.
There’s entirely too much big-name, big-shot journalism going on. Journalists need to help the people take back government instead of reinforcing the impression that government belongs to those who can steal it, either by rigging voting machines or gerrymandering voting districts.
That’s a pretty radical idea, I admit. Tom Paine would have liked it, maybe Benjamin Franklin too, but you can be pretty sure the people who run today’s media conglomerates won’t like it, because when you come right down to it, the big shots entertain quite a few doubts about whether the people can handle their own governance.
When I say big-name, big-shot journalism, I don’t just mean rounding up the usual suspects in Washington. You know, the Rose Garden crowd, the Capitol Hill suits, the think-tank thumb-suckers, and, not to be forgotten, the television pontificators. No, I mean the local big names in every town, city, county seat and state capital. The whole lot of them, everyone who feeds at the public trough and blames the other guy for high taxes, bad behavior, and the disappearance of the American Dream.
There’s an adage in journalism that ought to be disgraced; it’s that names make the news. So when you get your first job on a small newspaper or television outlet, you find out who runs the town council, the planning board, the two parties, the zoning board, the highway department, the cops, the firemen. And then you think you know what’s what or who’s who. You figure you know who to call for stories, to get comments, the usual he-said/she-said baloney that passes for news.
Well, you’re wrong. Let me tell you how to cover a town or a city or a state. Let me tell you how to personally hand the government back over to the people. First off, see if you can befriend the local undertaker. They’re calling him or her a funeral director these days. He knows everything. But he’s professionally tightlipped and cagey, so you’ll have to work at getting into his confidence. It’s worth it. He not only knows where the bodies are buried, he knows where they’re going to be buried. He knows where the news is buried. He knows all the dirt. Literally.
Next on your list of confidantes could be the lady who pours your coffee in the local diner. She’s heard it all, every day, over and over again. She knows what’s going on, and hard as she might try to mind her own business, knowing so much is one of her fringe benefits. She doesn’t get paid much, and she’s overworked, so she has a good ear for the injustices of the world.
Next on your potential source list might be the homeless. They see everything. They don’t miss a thing. Their lives depend on it. They know where things are stored that shouldn’t be stored there, if you catch my drift, because they know every nook and cranny of the town. They know who’s out and about in the wrong place at the wrong time and up to no good. And the fact that you take them seriously will dispose them to tell you things. Something else about the homeless: They’re often well educated and most of them are struggling with mental illness, and that makes their paranoia extraordinarily sharp. Be nice to them and listen to them.
Then there are the road crews who work for the highway department. They earn a poor living by the sweat of their brows. They know whose driveways they shouldn’t be plowing or repairing on taxpayer money. They know which developers get the extra favors and who’s lining his pockets with payoffs from them. They’re not going to trust you. But they’re human beings, and if they see you’re one too, they may just get the idea they can trust you not to rat them out.
My list of such people, such news sources, is endless. Truckers, cops, firemen, volunteers of every stripe, day laborers, migrants, secretaries, busboys, pizza delivery kids, all the lowly clerks who work for crooks, you name them.
If you ignore these people because they’re not big shots, because they can’t tell you anything officially, then you’re not a reporter, you’re a hired stooge. The reason the big shots can tell you so many things officially or off the record, depending on how they choose to jerk you around, is because they lie a lot. They have a vested interest in lying. They have a lot to protect, and sometimes to hide. So they’ll tell you any darned thing, and you, poor fool, go away grateful because your notebook is filled up and you think you have a story, whereas what you really have is one of those he-said/she-said pieces that are boring Americans to death.
How did journalism get this way? Well, first of all, it’s not entirely this way. We still have our guys like Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, Dan Baum, Greg Palast, and many other enterprising news people, but we’re definitely on the slippery slope. It got that way because calling up some blowfish and getting him to say one more self-serving, backbiting thing is easy, it’s cheap, it’s quick, it’s surefire. Big mouth shoots off and bingo, you’ve got a story.
That’s how the midterm congressional elections have been covered. George Allen in Virginia calls somebody a macaca, and his opponents call him a racist, and then he comes back says Jim Webb, his opponent, is a sexist and write obscene novels. And that passes for politics, because the press lets it pass. The big names are calling each other names. We still don’t know how Jim Webb treated women when he was Navy secretary. We don’t know whether the little people who knew Virginia Senator George Allen when he was governor thought he was a secret racist. Nobody has talked to the newsstands where they bought their papers or the diners where they drank coffee or the janitors who cleaned their offices. And yet we say the country is run for these people. The big mouths claim they run for office for the privilege of serving the janitors and the waitresses and the cops and the secretaries. Do you believe it? Does anybody believe it?
Okay, well then, why doesn’t American journalism reflect this general doubt? It’s because journalism has been sucked into the power game. We think the news is where the power is, whereas in fact the news is that the power has been stolen from the people.
I never made a practice of rifling my colleagues’ desks when I was a newspaper reporter and then editor. But I’ll bet you most of their Rolodexes and computer address files were filled with the names of people with titles. I’ll bet you only the very best reporters had filed the names of those waitresses and beat cops and ditch diggers and undertakers I’ve mentioned.
Let me tell you a little story. Once, when I was an editor, there was a big fire in a small city, and it was kind of a mysterious fire for several reasons. First of all, it had started in a controversial area that some hotshot developer wanted to clear and develop, and here suddenly one night you had this big fire that was clearing the place. You get my drift, right? Well, understandably the cops and the firemen were being super circumspect about what they they told the press. They knew perfectly well an arson investigation would have to be conducted and maybe swept under the table, so here we were on deadline with very little information and one huge fire lighting up the night sky. We were going to take a big beating from television, because they had the visuals, and, as usual, they weren’t as interested in details as the print media. Woe is me! I paced around the newsroom looking stupid and helpless. And then one of my younger reporters came up to me and said, “Um, Del, I know this old drunk who lives in a condemned building on that street. Actually, he’s a retired truck driver,” the reporter said. “Ya think he has a telephone?” I asked. “I can try,” the reporter said, “I have a number, but who knows, maybe the fire has burned out the lines.” The reporter called the old guy and got him and got an eyewitness report you couldn’t beat with a stick. Verbatim. On a hand-held recorder. Then it dawned on us, selfish newsmen that we were, that our poor source was probably in danger. We all looked as if we’d committed murder. The composing room was shouting at me about holding up production. The copy editors were shouting for the rest of the story. We had probably just killed this poor old guy, and we still hadn’t digested the significance of what he had told us.
We had a lot to think about and no time at all to think about it, and the odor of potential lawsuits was in the air if we were to make any big mistakes. After all, this guy wasn’t the most reliable source in the world. And of course, I, with my quirky mind, was wondering how in the world this young untried and very resourceful reporter had befriended this old guy. There was a story there, too, I was sure.
The first responders, the old guy told us, were cops. He thought they had stood around the cruisers on their radios for a godawful long time before any firemen arrived. There was a firehouse less than a mile away. But how long, really, had they stood around? We didn’t know. All we know is what the old guy, who was probably swigging on a bottle, told us. But we could find out when the first alarm was sounded, and we could find out from other people when they first saw fire or smoke, and it did seem as if the firemen had taken a long time to get there. Were they out on other calls? No, they weren’t. Hmmmm.
We already had the property maps out, so we had an idea who owned the property, although there could have been owners we didn’t identify right off. And one of the owners was certainly the controversial developer. Then there was the question of why only one firehouse responded when it was clearly a huge fire.
I decided, with everybody breathing down my neck, that the questions were the most interesting part of the story right now. So we did a little sidebar—well, it wasn’t so little, actually—with just the questions, and then we wrote the main story on the basis of what we did know. And of course we ran a lot of pictures. And we did a little story about our source, as much as we knew.
Now that’s not a bad story between us journalists, right? But what’s really interesting is what happened the next day and the next day and the next day. The next day television was not a big concern. They’re butterflies. They flit from one story to another. Well, that’s too strong a blanket condemnation. Let’s just say television is known for that, but more and more does try to stick with stories, even when there are no good sound bites or visuals. So we knew that if we wanted to, we could own the story. What we didn’t know is that our readers liked what we did in the blink of an eye, under so much pressure. They liked that we didn’t just take no for an answer from the fire chief and the police chief and the mayor and all the other interested parties. They liked that the old truck driver emerged a kind of hero. And so beginning on Day Two, for months we kept getting tips from people in the neighborhood, from cops who couldn’t be quoted for fear of their jobs, from retired firemen who saw that something had been fishy, from the homeless whose warehouses and abandoned buildings had been burned out. And we wrote about the homeless losing their grocery carts full of dirty belongings, their bedding, their hidden and treasured belongings. They were victims, too.
And after a while, with all that anecdotal evidence mounting that what we had seen was an insurance fire and a quick and dirty way to clear out a neighborhood, the officials who had been in cahoots started to panic. They broke ranks with each other. They started blaming each other. The mayor launched a phony investigation to cover himself and his cronies. The fire chief retired and kvetched about dirty politics, when in fact he had been party of those dirty politics as long as they benefited him.
So what was the big challenge to us at that point? Well, the publisher wanted to move on. He felt the story was getting old. And it was. So the big challenge was not to lose our nerve. To hang with it. To spend our human resources, our money, until the story finally stood out clearly. That doesn’t happen often enough in journalism. Publishers want to entertain readers. They fear boring the readers. They fear using too much of their resources covering a story that, while it may help keep government honest, isn’t making readers happy. But the publisher had a hard time getting us off this story because it had captured the public’s attention, and it had captured the public’s attention because of the way we first covered it from Day One when we called that poor old guy and got down his firsthand account.
There’s one story we didn’t write and should have written. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and wish we had written it. It’s not the one you think. You’re wondering what happened to the old guy. Well, we wrote that story, several times. He lost everything. He almost didn’t get out of there with his life. The young reporter started shouting at him to get out, and he started mumbling about his radio and his clothes, and the reporter shouted, Forget it, get the hell outta there. He made it. The reporter went and fetched him after deadline and bought him an early-morning breakfast and took him to a church shelter. Over time people raised a little money for him and he settled down in a new apartment, or a new hole in the wall, as he called it. And we all raised a little cash for him in the newsroom, too. I remember that fondly. But I also remember that we were so engrossed in the story we almost got the poor man killed.
But the big story, the one we didn’t write, was about the way we handled the story and the way the readers reacted to it, the way they went out of their way to tell us things they ordinarily wouldn’t have told us because they started to trust us. The big story was that that isn’t the way stories are usually covered, although it should be. The big story was that we’d broken some new ground. We didn’t get any prizes, because the people who give them out didn’t see the real story and we didn’t have the mother wit to tell them, to point it out to them. They thought we were just doing an ordinarily good job covering a tough story, and as far as they’re concerned, that happens every day all over the country. Well, they’re wrong. And we were wrong not to see what we had done. Not to see what the people had done in cooperation with us. We had handed government, power, back to the people, and the people had helped us.
Every day you see studies saying the people don’t like the press, they don’t trust the press. Politicians run against the press. They blame the press for everything. The war goes wrong in Iraq, and it’s not the big shots’ fault in Washington, it’s the press. because the press isn’t reporting all the good things that are happening in Iraq. Sound familiar? Come on, get a life! It’s a game. Maybe the real reason the people don’t trust the press is because the press is always playing the big-name, big-shot game.
Let’s put it in starker terms. Why isn’t the waitress at the corner diner as important as Dick Cheney? Isn’t that the kind of democracy we say we want, isn’t it the kind Dick Cheney and the other poohbahs are always telling us they’re protecting? So why isn’t her opinion important? I know, I know, you’re saying, So, Del, if we went down to the diner and interviewed her, would the metro editor take it as seriously as Dick Cheney’s latest side-of-the-mouth commentary? Okay, you got me. I know what you mean. But I’m sticking to my guns, and I’ve been a journalist since my twenties. That woman is important, and there are ways to write her story, to prove that she owns city hall as much as the mayor, even if he’s parking his carcass in it. But first you have to listen to her, which brings me back to where I began. And remember, she doesn’t need to tell you anything, but the mayor just keeps on blabbing and blabbing because he’s selling something or hiding something, and there you are, spending all your time listening to that blabbermouth when you could be listening to someone whose life is real and earnest, to quote the poet. And someday she might just tell you about the conversation she heard between the mayor and the police chief, you know, the one where they talked about the skeleton in the closet. But not if you treat her like the police chief does, like a waitress, and not an important American, which she is. More important than you.
You have been listening to Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook. If you’d like to know more about what I think, go to www.djelloulmarbrook.com.