Confessions of a recovered journalist

Reformed ex-editor Gordon Hirsch left a particularly thoughtful — and, given his background, well-informed — comment on this last post. Full disclosure: I put him up to it — I e-mailed him to ask for his input. And since he came through, I hereby elevate his contribution to its very own post, so it’ll be more visible:

I used to work with Brad a long time ago at The State. It was was my third of four SC newpaper jobs. I don’t practice journalism anymore, but I like to watch. Once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, you understand that journalists can’t even agree amongst themselves on "the issues," much less conspire to attain any specific goal. As for companies they work for, the media biz is all about ad revenues and meeting shareholder expectations of earnings. News is just the "content" that compels audiences to suffer ad exposure.

Part of my job at The State was to make final, deadline decisions about what to report or print, what not to report or print, and prominence of story placement in the paper, three editions a day. As a result, I spent much of the next morning answering to readers who phoned to accuse "us" (me?) of bias, poor judgment, or just plain stupidity. I can’t remember anybody ever calling to say, "Good job," although there were those rare letters to the editor to that effect, mostly from partisan types whose compliments made us cringe.

After all, the practice of good journalism is supposed to be an "objective" and "fair" process, free from personal prejudices and the influence of those who would try to sway "the media."

In reality, everything about the editorial process involves subjective decision-making, governed by experience and notions of fairness and objectivity, as best we can apply them as human beings on a daily basis. What’s interesting or important to me may not be to you. Multiply that fundamental disconnect in all people and their belief systems, and you’re wrong most of the time by a lot of other people’s standards. You get used to it, but (good) editors never stop listening to complaints from the gallery, because that’s how we learn to respect other points of view — and that’s how readers got our attention. If you cared enough to call, we’d listen. It’s a lot like government and, yes, the squeaky wheel oftens gets the grease.

The same was true of the newsroom and its people. For example, much of what Brad considered crucial, I did not, but I respected his passion and diligence. We discussed, argued, debated, all day long sometimes. Ditto for just about everybody else on staff. We disagreed amongst ourselves as much as any other group of  individuals. As a result, by the end of each day, we were more informed than when we started. Everybody had their say, time ran out, and we made a decision about what to publish, and where to "play it."

Of the McCain story at issue here, I have no recollection, but I can imagine how the newsroom debate might have gone. There are political implications, fairness issues, insights into McCain’s character, all worthy of consideration. But in my opinion, it’s a mean little story at the expense of an intensely private little girl whose parents were, ummm, distracted by "other matters."  Personally, I remember feeling compassion for Chelsea. She seemed quite frightened by it all, a sitting duck for for the commentators on all things Clintonian.

Adolescence is tough enough without having the Washington Press Corps at your birthday party. Is that "objective" on my part? Fair? Nope. But it still seems "right." So, in the end, I probably would have agreed with The Washington Post that the story was "too vicious to print."

If McCain benefitted as a result, so be it. I could handle your call the next morning with a clear conscience. As far as I know,  that’s still allowed in newspapers today.

7 thoughts on “Confessions of a recovered journalist

  1. weldon VII

    OK, guys. McCain did what I didn’t think he would have done, apparently.
    Which drops him from also-ran to also-ran, another jerk masquerading as a saint.
    But I’ve told worse jokes. And I never would have told anyone I thought the press gave us an accurate representation of just about anything, not purposefully, anyway.
    Heck, Camelot still sells, right? And Marilyn Monroe. But what “serious” newspaper would ever cross the two? Journalists protect Democrats right and left, no matter what they do, but talking heads crucify Republicans for sport, like Texans used to hunt Mexicans.
    It’s all the news the ads leave room for without prompting lawsuits, promoting the New World Order and the latest social theory, and little pink houses for you and me.

  2. Gordon Hirsch

    >It’s all the news the ads leave room for without prompting lawsuits,
    >promoting the New World Order and the latest social theory,
    >and little pink houses for you and me.

    hehe … You’re actually right about the ads part. They go in first and news fills what’s left over. 60/40 used to be the average ratio, before corporate takeover of the nation’s newspapers. (Family ownership  was a little less greedy than today’s shareholder expectations, in most cases. I guest you could blame that on the GOP, too, since they have most the money.)

    As for the promoting a New World Owner, you might appreciate this report from America’s fastest growing weekly newspaper.

  3. Brad Warthen

    Robert Ariail and I have been kicking around a comic strip idea for years. Part of it would be set in the newsroom of a fictional newspaper. Its motto: “All the News that Gives You Fits.”

  4. Gordon Hirsch

    There’s certainly a lot of raw comic material in any newsroom. … Not sure that the muckety-mucks upstairs have the stomach for self ridicule, though. You might point out to them that The Onion now is the fastest growing (only growing?) newspaper in the country, which would suggest the straight media just plain take themselves too seriously. Or, that readers need a laugh after being beaten down and depressed by you nattering nabobs of negativism. (I miss ol’ Spiro)
    There also would seem to be plenty of blog material in considering the age-old question: What do readers really want? (And how would they react if you gave it them?) The Onion seems to have figured it out, which is pretty truthy commentary on our national condition. It is funny as hell sometimes, though.
    You have to see this one to believe it:

  5. weldon VII

    New World Owner? Wait, Gordon. I wrote “New World Order.”
    Of course, one thing does lead to another.
    As to the ads going in first, well, sure, in dailies they do, but at some newspapers, unless the pages have left the building, it’s never too late for an ad of any size whatsoever, especially a big one, to make the paper.
    And should that mean your award-winning column falls victim to an advertising manager who simply sticks a 2-column x 4-inch ad on top of your slyly schemed conclusion, without reading one word of what you wrote or caring a whit about your feelings or the readers, well, so be it.
    But that wasn’t why I left the newspaper business. No, actually, I left because a forgetful editor accidentally denied me the chance to meet Mark Sanford.
    Then today I find out Sanford’s campaign manager back in those days now runs a blog where he insults Clemson fans with astonishingly glib ignorance.
    And three days hence I’m going to Disney World, where I will discover yet again that it’s a small world after all.
    Still, I can’t go without covering one other issue.
    The GOP might have more money, all things considered. But I wouldn’t think that when George Bush ran for president he and Laura were wealthier than John Kerry and his wife the ketchup baroness.
    And I do wonder how many Republican candidates for the Senate might possibly be as wealthy as Ted Kennedy.
    And as rich as Ted Turner has become, well, I wouldn’t think that he would marry Jane Fonda and vote a straight GOP ticket.
    Hollywood isn’t exactly an empty piggybank for the Democrats, either.
    So let’s not label merely the GOP as the money party. From my point of view, New World Order is becoming New World Owner all the time.

  6. weldon VII

    That’s OK. The doctors say I’ll recover eventually, when football season ends and my new brain stem grows in.

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