By SAM SMITH*
From a talk given at a 1997 book fest.
I started in journalism in the summer of 1957 as a 19-year-old radio reporter in Washington. Inspired by the likes of HL Mencken, EB White and Edward R. Murrow, I tried to write well, get the facts, and tell the truth. I thought that was what journalists were meant to do.
Now forty years later, still in Washington, still in journalism, I find that none of these goals seem of much value on the local exchange. The truth no longer sets people free; in Washington at least it only seems to make them drowsy or, if still awake, to lead them to accuse one of conspiracy theorems. Facts come in a bad fourth to polls, pronouncements and perceptions. And as for writing, well Washington is a hard town on prose.
No longer does the Washington Post include stories like this one by Harry Gabbett in 1968: “Paul (Race Horse) Mitchell, 57, of one address right after another, died on the street here yesterday, unexpectedly, and after a long illness, but mostly from two bullet wounds in his chest. . . ”
And the story ended:
“The grief, if it may be allowed to pass for that, was dry-eyed enough, but it had those overtones of sincerity which lend a definite, if indefinable, dignity to the human spirit on such occasions. This is to say that only one man was really glad the rascal was dead — and the police were looking for him.”
The language of the city draws its inspiration from Bar Association Gothic, Form 3874 expressionism and the neo-romantic styles of Will, Broder and Kristol. I dream of the day when interactive TV develops to the point that viewers in the privacy of their own homes can actually goose boring panelists on Sunday morning talk shows.
Much Washington writing reads likes a database held together by transition sentences. It’s the sort of writing of which Norman Mailer once said: that’s not writing, that’s typing. It is a town where you are not expected to use a metaphor unless reading the inaugural poem and if you argue by anecdote rather than by data you are not to be taken seriously.
There are peculiar hazards. I, for example, have been banned from the Derek McGinty show on the local public radio station. When I asked the political editor at the station why, he explained it was for “excessive irony.” Similarly, one reviewer cited me for “tossing insights off with abandon.” This, I believe, is a violation of the DC code, a lesser included offense of paradigm abuse. In Washington you are expected to wallow in the your insights, using no more than three per book.
You are also expected to restrict one’s conversation to the limits of Beltway discourse and remain attentive the appropriateness of one’s remarks. Even the worse sins are no longer described in terms of the evil they have done or the pain they have inflicted, but by the fact they are considered inappropriate.
You must always be somber lest, as Russell Baker has pointed out, someone thinks you are not serious and, finally, you must always be literal.
This is, I think, I not unfair summation of the rhetorical framework in which knowledge is transferred from Washington to the rest of the country, in short it’s a lousy way to get the news. . .
When I started out forty years ago, over half the reporters in the country lacked a college degree. Reporters were in status much closer to that of the average reader and their attitude and approach reflected that.
Over the years a rather remarkable thing occurred. The media became the first group in human history to raise its social and economic position simply by writing about itself. It stopped being a trade and became a profession, its members felt embarrassed about belonging to the newspaper guild, and the notion of competition for a story declined along with the number of newspapers in town.
To be sure, to compensate for this lack of competition, some publishers employed an ombudsman. These ombudsmen hear the paper’s confessions and lend an aura of morality to the enterprise. Yet while they – like the hireling priests of the old nobility – often provide speedy absolution, truth and the readers are not as well served. A column of polite self-criticism hardly substitutes for having a second paper in town breathing down your neck.
Thus, in just a few decades, the American journalist has been transformed from an idiosyncratic and independent-minded member of a trade identifying with the reader to a carefully shaped, loyal corporate employee.
The result has been bad writing, poor journalism and panels at which we sit around and wonder what to do about it all.
It’s really not a mystery. Saul Alinsky was once asked by a seminarian how he could keep his values as he made his way through the church hierarchy. Very simple, said, Alinsky. Just decide now if you wish to be a priest or a cardinal.
It’s no different in journalism. Once you decide that the approbation of the powerful is more important than the interest of the reader, the game’s all over.
I’ve gone through my life with the idea that I was the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. I did not try to hide my biases, neither did I seek to bore people with them. In the introduction to my previous book, I explained it this way: “Consider me simply someone 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.”
The relationship is not a professional one, it is a human one. And like all good relationships it must be based on trust. If you don’t like the people you are writing for, if you don’t trust them, if you feel intellectually and socially superior it will come through in your writing no matter how many conferences and retreats you go to.
Chesterton offered perhaps the best guide when he wrote about a great journalist by the name of Charles Dickens. Dickens, he said, “didn’t write what the people wanted. He wanted what the people wanted.”
There is no better way to start bringing media and the public together.
*Sam Smith, 78, who graduated from Harvard magna cum probation, covered Washington under nine presidents, has edited the Progressive Review for 51 years, wrote four books (the latest of which is “Why Bother?: Getting a Life in a Locked Down Land”), been published in five anthologies, helped to start six organizations (including the DC Humanities Council, the national Green Party and the DC Statehood Party), was a plaintiff in three successful class action suits, served as a Coast Guard officer, and played in jazz bands for four decades. A native of Maine, where his parents were organic beef farmers since 1946, he returned in 2009 and now resides in Freeport.