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Published:March 10th, 2007 04:11 EST
Hot Copy #19 - Washington's Unofficial Source

Hot Copy #19 - Washington's Unofficial Source

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Here is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 19, Del Marbrook`s weekly podcast:

Back when Sam Smith, the founder and editor of the Progressive Review and Undernews, was using summer interns, a common practice in journalism, one baby-faced, squeaky-voiced intern turned out to be particularly memorable. Sam describes him as a "totally innocent-looking guy." He set him to work finding out everything he could about the District of Columbia Board of Zoning Adjustment. He told the intern, By the end of this summer you`ll know more than about six people in town. That turned out to be something of an understatement. By the end of the summer, because of the innocent-looking intern`s work, two members of the board had resigned.

Sam thought of the incident when I told him by e-mail that I was going to devote one of these weekly podcasts to his work. District government in Washington is notoriously Byzantine and corruption is routine. I like the intern`s story because it makes a point that can`t be over stressed. If you learn how to cover life and government in a small place you can cover anything anywhere. To my mind, but not to the minds of most journalists or their professors, small-town journalism is more important than big-time journalism because, in fact, it is big time. America is a republic of communities. Most people nowadays come from somewhere else. Our moral strength, our integrity and vision come from small places and are reflected in bigger places.

It`s true we`re busy making every town look like every other town, and that`s a tragedy, a tragedy born of greed. The places that are being turned into zombie towns by developers and chain stores have by and large lost their independent newspaper and radio voices to corporate media giants. The people who care what happens to these places have no voice. Why would a local newspaper owned by an absentee chain speak out against a developer who is spending money advertising in that paper? That`s the reality of journalism today. So whenever you hear somebody blather about the free press, remember it isn`t as free as you might think it is.

It`s this very situation that day in and day out Sam Smith has addressed since 1964. Today media explorations may be found online at Progressive Review dot com and in his daily e-mail reports, Undernews. If you`re not getting his e-mails and reading the review, you should be, because Sam Smith is a hero in the mold of I.F. Stone, Ben Bagdikian, Seymour Hersh and Greg Palast. He`s not a big-money hero, like Bob Woodward, but he`s important, because he tells you every day what has been missed, what is out of focus, what is underreported, what is poorly reported, what is misreported, what is distorted, and what should be reported. He`s like a diamond cutter examining a stone before he strikes it with his hammer. He collects reportage from obscure places and from famous places. He tries to put it in perspective, and when the reportage itself won`t quite render the big picture, Sam himself writes an assay report, giving you the value and weight of the reportage. I guarantee that if you read his reports you will be astonished and disquieted by the performance of the mainstream media.

The reason he can do this is not just his many years of experience in Washington; it`s the fact that Sam doesn`t have any media bosses. He doesn`t have an assignment editor telling him what to cover. He doesn`t have an executive suite complaining that his work is not in the best business interests of the newspaper or station. He`s his own boss. The price he pays is that he has to raise his own money to do what he loves and he has to labor in relative obscurity, unlike the byliners at The Washington Post or the big heads on cable and network news whose annual blarney isn`t worth a single issue of Undernews.

I intended to tell you all this and maybe get a few quotes from this skilled idealist, but to my surprise and great pleasure Sam warmed up to the subject and wrote his own advice to journalists, which it is my privilege to read to you. Here is what Washington`s most unofficial source, as he likes to say, has to say to you (by the way, he calls them filler items for young journalists):

""The basic rules of good journalism are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, `if you can`t be funny, be interesting.`

"Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.

"Serve not as an expert but rather in the more modest and constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider yourself a guide who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.

"Help citizens tell their government what to think instead of helping government tell the people what to think. Serve your readers, not your sources.

"The greatest power of the mass media is the power to ignore. The worst thing about this power is that you may not even know you`re using it.

"Contrary to the view of many editors, most people still like finding out who, what, when, where, why and how more than hearing in the first sentence how it all affected Roberta Mellencamp, 46, of East Quincy. Try to sneak the news as near the beginning of the story as your editor will allow.

"News is something that has happened, something that is happening or something that is going to happen. News is not what someone said about what is happening nor what someone perceived was going to happen nor what the editors thought the impact of something happening would be on its readership

"One of the traits of a good reporter is boundless curiosity. If you can pass a bulletin board without looking at it, you may be in the wrong trade.

"Reporters don`t have to be smart; they just have to know how to find smart people.

"Strive to match A.J. Liebling`s boast: `I can write faster than anyone who can write better and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.`

"Objectivity, it has been said, is just the ideology of journalism. I`ve never met an objective journalist because everyone of them has been a human. Try going after the truth instead. It`s an easier and more fulfilling goal.

"The best way to get past writer`s block is to write crap. Then, the next morning, save what isn`t crap and finish the story.

"Don`t be afraid of seeming a bit dumb. It`s a good way of getting both the kind and the pompous to open up to you.

"Think of journalism not as a profession but as a trade, a craft or an art. Your copy will be a lot better as a result.

"Avoid the rituals of journalism whenever your boss will let you. For example, news conferences are just a way to keep large numbers of journalists away from the news for awhile. Eugene McCarthy once said that reporters were like blackbirds on a telephone wire. One flies off and they all fly off. If you have a choice, do something else.

"Study anthropology. The greatest unintended bias in journalism comes from being a part of a culture different from that about which you are writing.

"If something happens that makes you say, Holy sh**!, it may well be news. Check it out.

"Act like a homicide detective. Follow and report the evidence but only as far as it takes you. Be prepared for lots of unsolved stories.

"I.F. Stone noted that most of what the government does wrong it does out in the open. Don`t assume that the story is buried. It may just be on page 27 of the report.

"Repeat what people say to you as a question and often they`ll think you haven`t understood and will try to explain it better to you.

"Find an easy shorthand on the web or elsewhere and learn it.

"G. K. Chesterton said that `journalism consists largely in saying `Lord Jones died` to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. If you`re writing well about Lord Jones that will no longer be true by the end of the story.

"Learn to hear the real story and best quotes as you interview someone. If you approach an interview just as a stenographer, you`ll be so busy writing you may miss your own story.

"Some of the best stories out there are numbers. Most journalists are educated in the social sciences or English and so tend to ignore numbers. Some even treat them as just another adjective. Go after numbers as if you were were an IRS agent and you`ll be surprised how many scoops result.

"Following some of the above may get you fired. Find out which before it happens."


Now you`ve heard it from the horse`s mouth. I don`t think you`re ever going to hear it as straightforwardly again, simply because the media most of you will be working for belong to the vested interests you`ll be reporting. Pay special attention to what Sam has told you about not being afraid to appear dumb. The people who don`t want you to know about something or to understand it specialize in trying to make you feel dumb. Don`t let them. Most of them either don`t know what they`re talking about or don`t want you to know. Remember, the military-industrial complex keeps on promoting people because they`re tall, and the voters keep on electing people because they look like leaders, not because they are leaders.

If you want to sign up for Undernews or contact Sam Smith yourselves, here`s how:

1312 18th St. NW (5th Floor) Washington DC 20036 202-835-0770 Fax: 202-835-0779 E-mail: Editor: Sam Smith Latest headlines: Latest Undernews: Subscribe: or

This is Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.