In light of all the talk about “fake news” and how it may have influenced the American presidential election, someone asked me the other day to explain it from the point of view of a former professional journalist.
At the time I didn’t want to, but have since reconsidered. When you do a job for more than 30 years, some things become apparent to you that might not be apparent to people in other walks of life.
What follows are real questions I’ve been asked over the years. It’s in question-and-answer format, or as we called it back in the day, “a q-and-a.”
Q) What do you think of the media?
A) I detest that word. I don’t even know what “the media” is. I have no feeling for “the media.” Of course I know what you mean, but it’s a little like asking somebody if they like vegetables. “Yes, I love green beans, but I hate Brussels sprouts!” I was a newspaper editor, never a media editor. Please be specific in your praise or condemnation!
Q) Is the newspaper you work for a liberal newspaper or a conservative newspaper?
A) Of course the question pertains to the general tenor of the editorial and op-ed pages, but a lot of people don’t understand that inside the newsrooms of most traditional newspapers, there is a hard line between news and opinion. As a news editor, I was never once told to handle liberal news one way and conservative news another. I never attended a news meeting where people opined, “We really need to skewer G.W. Bush over this, because he’s an asshole.” Nope, sorry to disappoint, but it doesn’t happen, and I never met a journalist who went job-hunting based on a newspaper’s editorial position. Real journalists are more likely to think, “I’d really like to get a job at the Chicago Tribune because maybe I’ll make a decent wage, and since Wanda’s mother lives in Chicago, maybe once in awhile we can get a free babysitter!”
Q) What stories did you write for the newspaper?
A) Anybody who has read this blog should know that I’m not a good writer, and I can count on one hand the number of stories I wrote for publication during my career. I was a copy editor and news editor, which means my job was to make other people’s lives a living hell. Just because I didn’t write stories, though, doesn’t mean I didn’t write. I wrote tons of headlines, but also blurbs, bwubs, hoochies, widgets, teases, cutlines, refers and skybars. Every newspaper has its own jargon for these devices, and it all adds up to a million ways to screw up.
Q) Why does the media lie?
A) Again, please don’t say “media,” because not all media is created equally! I can only speak to newspapers, and in all the places I worked, nobody just made up stuff intentionally. Of course in a deadline environment, mistakes happen, and mistakes were taken very seriously indeed. Let me backtrack a bit on something I just said. I did know one person who intentionally lied in a story. Many years ago, I knew a reporter who was caught making up quotes on a feature story he’d written. The reporter was confronted, fired, went home and blew his fucking head off with a muzzle-loading pistol he’d personally built from a kit. So ultimately, I guess you could say he took it pretty seriously, too.
Q) I bet working for a newspaper was exciting!
A) It could be exciting, but there was also a fair amount of drudgery. Newspaper reporters and editors have the reputation of being soulless, and I’ll confess that most of us have a rather unique sense of humor, and we do get keyed up by disasters. The three most exciting events I ever worked were the space shuttle Challenger explosion (Houston Post 1986); O.J. Simpson fleeing police in a white Ford Bronco (Houston Post 1994); and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 (Newark Star-Ledger, 2001, offices at the time just across the Hudson River from Ground Zero). I’m not saying that any of those events was fun, but from a professional standpoint, they were exciting, difficult and memorable, and being inside a newsroom was exactly where I wanted to be.
Q) I bet there was a lot of pressure.
A) Yes, there’s a lot of pressure at a newspaper. It’s special when, as a layout editor, you’re told to expect a 20-inch story, and when it arrives five minutes before deadline, it’s 32 inches and has a 15-inch sidebar nobody told you about. You’ve got to work fast, you’ve got to work smart, and you’ve got to anticipate that you’re probably going to get fucked over. The pressure is too much for some people. I’ve written about it before, in one of my most popular posts ever! I’ve seen people cry. I’ve seen people get the shakes. I’ve seen people hit the bottle. I’ve seen people fold up their tent and go home. And as I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen more than one person take their own life — three I’m certain about, and a fourth that I suspect was a suicide.
Q) But who can we trust? What do you read?
A) Look, the internet is great, but it’s packed with bullshit, and that’s another gripe I have with the umbrella term “media.” A lot of these outfits you see on Facebook and other places are not legitimate news organizations, they’re more like public relations entities, and that’s putting it kindly. They steal the reporting from real news organizations, put their own toxic spin on it, and then pony it up as clickbait for morons who are looking for material that only supports their own worldview. I’m not saying that I’ve never read such material, but I always take it with a grain of salt. I have a subscription to the New York Times, but when a big story happens elsewhere, I’m looking for an online version of a real newspaper in that area. If something happens in Orlando, I go looking for the Orlando Sentinel online. Something in Paducah? I go looking for the Paducah Sun, and so forth. Why? Because even though traditional print journalism isn’t what it used to be, I remain confident that at real newspapers, there remains at least a culture of trying to get it right. I have no such confidence in these shady online-only entities that have sprung up like mushrooms on the corpses of real journalists. The best advice I can give is that if you’re on Facebook and you see a story about something or other, and the sourceline says NEWSGENX or some other damned thing you never heard of, it’s okay to be very skeptical!
Q) Why’s all this shit happening?
A) It’s your fault! No, it really is your fault! With the advent of the internet and digital media in general, people got it into their heads that they no longer needed to pay for services rendered. Newspaper advertising cratered, thousands of experienced and talented people lost their jobs, and those jobs were taken by cheaper, less experienced people who didn’t grow up in a get-it-right culture. I’m one of the lucky ones who took a buyout when I got too expensive, but many weren’t as lucky. One more thing, which will probably ruffle some feathers. I think television news shows like the Daily Show played a role, because all of a sudden a younger generation of people wasn’t looking to be informed, they were looking to be entertained, and when you’re always trying to find something funny about something serious, it becomes a problem. All of a sudden people start thinking, “Why do I need this old newspaper that’s just presenting me with, you know, facts, and I’m not laughing?” Well, plain truth isn’t always funny. Think about it, and feel free to tell me I’m wrong.
Q) What can I do?
A) Buy a subscription to a traditional newspaper, whether hard copy or online. Real journalism takes money, and what else can I say, you get what you pay for.