A job, not a career

A well-intentioned pinhead where I work my other job (in market research) - who has been more and more feverishly defending her vote for Pinhead Number 1 since his dismal performance after the hurricane in New Orleans - said the other day, "You guys [meaning journalists] have been heroes this time. Usually, I don't like reporters, but you guys have been good during Katrina."

She seemed surprised that reporters were on the ground and stayed on the ground in the midst of the carnage and squalor days before Pinhead left Crawford, Texas, and took a little helicopter trip east to the stricken Gulf to spew some platitudes on the already dunked citizenry.

Most of my co-worker's surprise probably stems from her being oblivious (how else could any person making the $10 per hour she makes vote for Tax Breaks For The Rich Li'l George twice!), but she has a point.

Journalism has gotten pretty safe and boring in America.

Journalism, more and more, not just the electronic kind, seems to attract folks who would do just as well in the commercial business sphere.

That was never the way my favorite profession operated before those two devils, Woodward and Bernstein, came onto the scene in the mid-'70s, riding Deep Throat's coattails to bring down a sitting president.

Bob and Carl, bolstered by Bob and Dustin (who played them in the movie "All the President's Men"), made journalism, for the first time, acceptable to the managerial middle class as a career. Once that happened, the raffishness and sheer fun of being a journalist was doomed. The good job had become a middle-tier profession.

John Barrymore, the great actor and even greater drinker of the early 20th century, said once, vis à vis his career as a thespian, that his only other choice, if he wanted to chase women, drink to excess, and travel the country one step ahead of law, angry scorned lovers and bill collectors, was to be a reporter.

Hookers, reporters, bartenders and actors were all considered dangerous brethren, second-class citizens, in the hidebound America of a hundred years ago. Nobody "decent" would ply such a trade.

This left the businesses open to the Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants, and some African Americans also without connections in other industries, to prosper. Merit and the willingness to work for less than middle-class money guaranteed interesting newspapers, because the reporters were from a different world than their bosses and owners.

There was a seething sense of op-position under the surface of almost every good American newspaper 30 years ago because of the tension between bosses and workers. It forced everybody to try a little harder.

The good thing about journalism, even now to some degree, is that all the corporate business-spin hoo hah in the world cannot protect someone who is afraid to go out and get the news. The milquetoast reporters can hide more easily in today's corporate newspapers, up to a point, but at least other reporters know which of their fellows are simply handout Johns and Janes, waiting for the public-relations hacks to feed them stories. Imbedded they are, imbedded they will stay, swaddled in press releases and lattes. Also, it is hard to hide an innate inability to write when your name is on everything you do.

I came in on the tail end of the golden days of American journalism, fueled by old-timers' stories of Ben Hecht, a Chicago legend who went on to fame as a co-writer of the play "The Front Page" and a screenwriter in Hollywood in the '30s and '40s.

My first boss in Cincinnati (at WCPO-TV News, the local CBS affiliate) was an old newspaperman who had begun at 15 as a copyboy for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Al Schottelkotte was old-school all the way. He became a newspaper crime reporter during World War II when all the grown men were off fighting the 'big' war.

He told me about covering murders in Cincinnati taverns from the sidewalk because he was too young to go inside where the bodies were. He had learned the business from the ground up and had a sense of Cincinnati that began at the river and didn't skip the ghettoes on its way to the downtown business core.

Schottelkotte taught me, and a lot of other young kids, how to get our hands dirty in the filthy business of covering a thriving urban area.

Nowadays, reading the two dailies in Seattle, I find that sense of the street and the backroom all but lost, as most of the reporters covering the city live in "nice" houses in "nice" neighborhoods and feel little if any kinship with the poor and desperate folks making most of the real news.

Murder and civic graft, those two staples of daily American journalism for years, almost seem to be considered beneath our two papers, as they fight to do boring analysis stories and poll-driven tomes ad nauseam.

But of course the business class, which always owned newspapers, but didn't staff them until recently with their own kind, don't really see anything wrong with two stadiums within two blocks of each other, built mere historical moments after the demolition of the just-revamped, at a cost of $40 million to the citizens, Kingdome.

"What's good for business is good for the city" is a corrupt attitude that once belonged only on the editorial page of most newspapers.

Nowadays, Vulcan's dream is Nickels' dream, and there don't seem to be any angry working-class or minority reporters digging into our current mayor's Allen-friendly regime.

Cops and social workers tell me that drugs - meth in the burbs and crack in the cities - are at almost plague-like proportions in our region now. But they evidently are not ripping apart Fremont, Magnolia, Ballard, Kirkland, Redmond and Queen Anne, and that is where the editors and increasingly the reporters live. So we readers get a few stories featuring statistics, and some outtake blurbs from a cop PIO (public information officer) after drug murders.

The papers are saving a whole lot of space for a whole lot of stories about hiking, biking, hot new wines, statistical analysis of the current economic "recovery" and, God help us, reviews of reality television programs written tongue in cheek. As if this recycled drivel is actually interesting the second time around.

I believe that the struggling daily newspapers across the country, including our own tepid twosome, should quit wasting their time trying to "reach" certain segments of a declining middle-class readership, with consensus-driven, Yuppicized featurizing that tries to ape television, and go back to covering the crooks, junkies, greedheads (otherwise known as movers and shakers) and victims amongst us, the way old-time newspaper folks claim they once did.

Who knows, they might help generate a more informed discussion amongst a populace currently divided by class, income and political beliefs, a populace that reads newspapers less and less, because they think they've already seen most of it on television the night before.[[In-content Ad]]