One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

April 28, 2009

“An industry of liars, traitors and … know-nothings”

Filed under: Culture,Journalism — alancochrum @ 6:26 pm
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Being laid off, it seems, can be a very educational process.

As it happens, that is true in more than one way, given that losing my longtime newspaper job is now pushing me into graduate school in the hopes of perhaps someday teaching at the collegiate level. (And just to clarify something: The master’s degree in question will NOT be in journalism. The burnt copy editor dreads the fire, as the new old saying goes.)

No, in this case the education has been in the public perception of the media — or at least the perception held by a sliver of the public.

For a while now, my regularly scheduled Web visits have included two newspaper-related sites: the McClatchy Watch blog (www.cancelthebee.blogspot.com) and AngryJournalist.com (www.angryjournalist.com). The former is devoted to the woes and perceived sins of the troubled parent company of my former newspaper; the latter was basically established as a place for Fourth Estate worker bees to … um … well, vent would be the polite word.

(One could argue that a laid-off journalist visiting these kind of sites on a regular basis is about the same as a dog obsessively gnawing at a wound — somebody really ought to put a cone collar on the dumb mutt to keep him from doing it. But I digress.)

 In one way, the posts on these sites were nothing unexpected: irate reporters and editors trading news and complaints about pay, job conditions, co-workers and layoffs. What took me aback more than I might have expected were the number of posts from other people who detest journalists.

Actually, that sentence doesn’t do their feelings justice. These are people who really really really really REALLY detest journalists, people who think the phrase “American journalist” is actually an oxymoron, people who would object if journalists were hanged with new ropes. They recall the scene in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in which the sheriff of Nottingham declares his intention of cutting out the title character’s heart with a spoon. Guy of Gisborne asks why, and the sheriff replies: “Because it’s dull, you twit! It’ll hurt more!”

Here’s a typical expression of this viewpoint, a recent post on AngryJournalist.com commenting on the financial woes of newspapers: “With great delight I read of the continued demise of an industry of liars, traitors and arrogant, self-righteous know-nothings. Now … go get real jobs that actually contribute to society.”

And yes, I knew that media is a dirty word for a lot of people. Call me naive if you wish. But the noise was sort of in the background, not something that I was really listening to. More recently I have been, and the venom — there really is hardly another word for it — that is out there is jolting.

For the next point, a prologue is required. My politics tend to be a mixture of conservatism, libertarianism and pragmatism. During my college days, I was accused — inaccurately, in my humble opinion — of being to the right of Joseph Sobran. (If the name means nothing to you, the Google button is probably someplace nearby. )

In terms of religion, I was raised in and continue to be part of a Christian fellowship that would be described as evangelical shading to fundamentalist (or perhaps vice versa, depending on your viewpoint), a tradition with a powerful separatist streak. True, I would probably be considered theologically left of “center” by a lot of my people, but that’s an internal measure and comparitively speaking.

All of this is to say that I can by no stretch of the imagination be accurately labeled as part of the “liberal left” (which always struck me as a redundant phrase anyway). Any accusation that my boxer shorts are red is (as the British comics would say) too silly, and my longtime journalistic colleagues would be happy to tell you so, right after they finished their apoplectic fit of laughter on the office floor.

So where was I? Oh, yes … I will admit that any number of individual journalists are arrogant, self-righteous, ignorant, careless about the truth and/or subject to prevarication. They probably even vote Democratic. But the idea that journalism is “an industry of liars, traitors and arrogant, self-righteous know-nothings” is simply … well, lunacy.

I think that the average journalist is just like the average person in any other industry. They are trying to do a tough job in a professional manner, with the added difficulty that their work is subject to intense scrutiny.

And despite the fact that the debate is constantly cast in terms of political/philosophical bias, a huge amount of journalism really has nothing to do with that — certainly not in terms of the Republican-Democratic debate. How much does politics bear on cop reports, the local school district, human interest stories or sports coverage?

The irony is that the phrase “an industry of liars, traitors and arrogant, self-righteous know-nothings” is precisely the sort that the real leftists — the kind of people who ran Stalinist Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia — used to toss around. In their mind, if you belonged to a particular class, you were automatically an Enemy of the People — and we all know what happened to them.

Journalists are people, too, ya know. That ought to go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t.

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September 8, 2008

That whirring sound

Filed under: Business,Journalism,Newspapers,Texas — alancochrum @ 9:03 am
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When I was on the editorial board of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, every now and then a reader who was unhappy about some aspect of the paper’s performance would remark that Amon Carter must be rolling over in his grave.

Amon G. Carter Sr. was the North Texas businessman/publisher who put together the newspaper about a century ago. He was also a notorious community booster, and the story goes that when events required him to go to Dallas, he would take a sack lunch so as to avoid purchasing anything in Big D. Given that he has been dead for more than five decades, I found it rather amusing that letter-writers would still invoke him as the guiding spirit of the paper.

 (The curious can read about Carter in Amon, a 1978 book by longtime Star-Telegram scribe Jerry Flemmons.)

However, I am fairly certain that I recently heard the old boy doing a few rpm’s in his final resting place, given that (insert pregnant pause here) the Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News have agreed to a joint distribution agreement in parts of their circulation areas.

Given the economic crunch in the industry — the cumulative total in recent years of employee buyouts and layoffs at the two papers is in the multiple hundreds — the venture does make a certain amount of economic sense. But if the soil over a certain Cowtown publisher’s casket looks unusually disturbed, you now know the reason.

August 8, 2008

Author! Author!

Filed under: Creativity,Newspapers,Writing — alancochrum @ 9:13 am
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I finished a consulting job yesterday. A family friend asked me to analyze a weekly newspaper in which he’s considering investing. He thought it might be handy to have an ink-stained wretch take a look at the product, and I was happy to oblige him.

The sense of relief/accomplishment that I felt when I mentally typed “30” on my report — don’t worry if you don’t understand; it’s a newspaper thing — merely confirmed something that I’ve long known about myself: I enjoy the writing process much more when it’s over.

When I was working years ago at the Waco Tribune-Herald, one of the opinion writers whose work I copy-edited was Lewis Grizzard, a longtime humorist for the Atlanta paper. (For those who are too young and/or insufficiently Southern, Grizzard was the Jeff Foxworthy of his day, with his roots in newspapers rather than TV.)

In his 1982 book They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat, Grizzard wrote: “I was back at my typewriter writing newspaper columns eight days after my [heart valve] surgery. … [I]t’s what I do for a living. I hate it. I curse it. But without it, I’m somebody else.”

Unlike the late Mr. Grizzard, I don’t really detest the creative process.  But as Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman noted once about herself (long after I had decided the same thing, independently), I like having written much more than I like writing.

July 31, 2008

Dallas’ mournful news

Filed under: Journalism,Newspapers — alancochrum @ 12:32 pm
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A rumor reached me this week, and then I read a report. The Dallas Morning News is embarking on another round of cutbacks.

Parent company A.H. Belo is planning to dump 500 jobs — 14 percent of its work force. The Morning News “is expected to lose around 40 of its approximately 390 full-time newsroom staffers,” the report says.

My mind flashes back a few years. The News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (then my employer) are fighting over eastern Tarrant County. The competition is fierce — so fierce that the Star-Telegram‘s managerial regime at the time basically tells news staffers that if they’re even caught playing job footsie with the Enemy, they’d better hope that a place has been prepared for them, because they’re out.

Flash-forward to the present. That particular turf war is history. The Star-Telegram recently laid off about 130 people, myself included. The News has seen even more severe weight reduction and is going under the knife again.

Something tells me that at both papers nowadays, the news that a staffer is planning to jump to the other side of the Trinity River would be greeted by secret relief (except, perhaps, in the case of a handful of Big Names). When your big concern is trying to keep the ship afloat, having one less person aboard is not necessarily a problem.

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