The scene of the crime
(Note: This essay was originally written in June 2011 and survived last month's wholesale destruction of my writing archive. I discovered it tonight on a thumb drive in a sports coat. It was the only text file on the drive.)
At 14 I read William Manchester's The Glory & The Dream, a two-volume pop history of America from the Great Depression to Richard Nixon's reelection, and I decided that I was right all along, journalism was the career for me. I would tell stories for a living and my words would serve to educate, to enlighten, to entertain.
("And there's no heavy lifting," as my younger brother would tell me years later. This came from a guy who drove a deuce-and-a-half truck and rolled dollies full of soda for a living, so he was eminently qualified to judge back-breaking jobs, and he nailed one of the beauties of journalism — for all the potential pitfalls of being caught in the wrong place at the worst time, there is very little chance of wrenching your back while interviewing someone, or while banging out a stellar paragraph.)
I never looked back from those moments of clarity. Even the worst days of reporting — live radio blurbs from a livestock auction market, late-night school-board meetings, feature stories on the latest centenarian — were sips of sweet air in a stagnant world. As a journalist You Are There, witnessing history — no matter how slight — with a backstage pass.
Question a president? Done it. Cover a pope? Betcha. Dead bodies? Smelled 'em. Witness murderers go free and innocents condemned? Yes and yes.
As a club, journalism was fairly exclusive. You had to be smart; you had to be curious; you had to be willing to ask hard questions to people far above your station in life. You had to be an expert on whatever you covered, even if just for the day, and you had to get it as right as you could because you were creating the documents that future historians would use to retell their past, our present.
A lot of people wanted to do it but not many could, and those of us who mastered the trade viewed ourselves as magnificent heirs to the only constitutionally-guaranteed industry in the country.
(You have to remember that this was the 1980s and journalism was an honorable profession. An important profession. The only place to find out what was really going on in the world. Maybe there was cocaine, too. That might have inflated our self-important stance.)
And we had the wires — The Associated Press, United Press International, Agence France-Presse — those belonged in the hands of the few, not the many. Stories would pour into the newsroom and it was up to journalists to figure out what was important to the listener, the viewer, the reader. "The Daily Miracle," one of my editors dubbed it, tongue firmly in cheek. "Every single day, just enough news happens to fill the newspaper." She, like me, respected the duty to discern and discard. Not everything that happens is news, not every news story is worth publishing, and ignoring that truth would be akin to abdicating our throne and handing it over to the proles, who didn't have the strong hands and minds needed to keep order.
That's why journalists existed. We saved people from the madness of information overload. We knew there was great danger in knowing too much — the adrenaline rush is enough to kill small children and weak adults. Jesus, we lived that life every day, but we were addicts. News junkies.
We decided what was news, and most of the time we got it right.
Sure, there were lapses. We loved sensationalism and strife. Forget liberal or conservative bias; our bias was rooted in controversy, and sometimes it showed in what we didn't cover. Science and business? Boring, unless it involved something freaky, like cloning, or Donald Trump.
Most times, however, we were Spike Lee — doing the right thing, even when public opinion pointed another direction. Being popular wasn't important. Being respected was.
And then the most wondrous invention of the 20th Century killed us.
I HATE THE FUCKING INTERNET. When I die I want to be cremated so there will be no tombstone marking my days, but if there was one my epitaph would be the profane all-caps screed that started this paragraph.
But it's like Walmart. Hate it all you want but somehow your feet wind up shuffling the aisles, your eyeballs looking over shit you don't really want (and certainly don't need). The 'net is the biggest fucking Walmart in the universe, full of excesses that make the 48-roll pack of toilet paper look picayune. And even though I hate it, I wallow in it, rolling in the muck that killed my career.
It's full of wires — The Wires, the places where most of the world's news is created. When the internet went mainstream the media decided to toss all its secret ceremonies online. Suddenly anyone with a dial-up connection and a browser could read all the news — or only the news they wanted. Customized news feeds on Yahoo. Headlines on demand. Your daily horoscope, delivered via email.
(Previously undisclosed media secret: Old-school horoscopes would come in from an entertainment service, a week at a time, and editors would hack them to fit the available space. Every day I would wield the editing blade and cut 18 lines from the 12 horoscopes. Sample sentence: "Morning will be gloomy, but good news will come in the afternoon" might be edited down to "morning will be gloomy." Or perhaps I'd excise the gloom and focus only only the afternoon's good news. It all depended on my mood that day.)
With its mass the internet dulled the blade and made it as useful as a butter knife in a street fight. No one needed an editor; in fact, the more people marveled at the huge amount of information online, the more they grew to despise the strong hands that used to prepare and dole out the news in manageable, responsible fashion. The news business became an all-you-can-eat buffet. Quantity trumped quality on the internet.
And then: People stopped subscribing to the paper 'cause they could get it for free online.
And then: Newspapers sold online ads but didn't make as much money as good old print ads, so revenues tumbled.
And then: Layoffs. Buyouts. Furloughs. Smaller staffs, smaller papers, smaller readership, all to stay profitable.
Bombast also flourished on the internet. Where once there were people who sifted through letters to the editor or calls to a newsroom and weeded out the blowhards and fools, now there was this great unfiltered brew polluted with the nastiest poisons — argumentum ad hominem from the anonymous and the asinine, invectives hurled without any nod to truth. Anyone could put anything on the 'net and millions did, and corrosion quickly ensued — ha ha, all for the lulz, quit being such a pussy, whatev.
Nothing shocks anymore. There are fetishes out there that I never knew existed, and maybe they don't really exist — maybe it's the married man pretending to be a lesbian blogger in Syria, only with porny scat and blood. Everything is fair game. Fact checks? Fuck. Run with it and let's see how it shakes out.
If the internet existed in 1972-74, Nixon's plumbers would have filled the blogosphere with snide nasties about Bernstein's womanizing and Woodward's piss-poor writing skills. They would have painted the Washington Post as a communist outpost. They would have rallied the proles into knee-jerk denial about any facts that made the president look bad, even a third-rate burglary at the Watergate.
What journalist can compete with that?
SO WHAT DID THE BRAINS TRUST do with the internet? We made it our new playmate. We succumbed to personal blogs by reporters, public comments on web stories, crowdsourcing by social media. Let's see what people think would make a good story!
The chef at Touch doesn't crowdsource his menu. He makes it. You eat it. If he asked the proles for cooking advice he'd be flinging bacon all night — bacon, and something sweet.
Candy journalism, a mentor once told me, would be the death of our industry. Give the people what they want and it's candy, candy, candy.
"Sometimes you've got to give them spinach," he said. "They may fucking hate it, but it's good for them. They need it."
Spinach journalism. Being a watchdog for taxpayer money. Asking tough questions of the powerful on behalf of the powerless. Reading thousands of pages of government documents and creating a concentrate so people can understand what's happening in their name, on their dime.
There's no money in spinach, though. And most people don't like the taste. And they bitch about it when it's on their plate.
And there's no lulz.
Journalism is dead. It killed itself. The few journalists left are the thylacine of this century, doomed to cages where gawkers can poke them with sharp sticks.
We deserve that fate. We thought we were vital because we'd always been vital. We thought we were necessary. But instead of holding fast to our ideals — instead of remembering the morality of why we mattered — we acted like whores. First we gave away our secrets and work product — for free — and then we really spread our legs and invited everyone in for a bang.
Being a whore is horrible. Thank God there's no shame left.