I think I’m losing my mind (and yeah, I know; some of you will present evidence that this happened a LONG time ago).
Let me apologize in advance if I wrote this post before. I thought I had, but I can’t seem to find it. So here goes, perhaps again…
About a week after the election, Cindi Scoppe wrote about the terrible won-loss record of the candidates that The State had endorsed in 2016:
Two-thirds of the candidates our editorial board endorsed in last week’s election lost. We have never seen numbers like that since I joined the board in 1997 — and as far as I can tell for decades before that. Normally, it’s more like 25 percent….
Of course, all that means was that two candidates lost, as the paper had only endorsed in three races in the general, instead of the usual 10 or 20 that we’d back in the days when we had the staff to do it.
But taken as a percentage (which is a pretty meaningless thing to do with a sample of three), I’m sure it was a bitter pill. I wondered why Cindi hadn’t offered the running total from over the years to show just how much of an anomaly that was. Apparently, she just didn’t have the numbers at hand. But I did, at least through 2008, my last election at the paper. And it just took a few minutes to update the table with results from 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.
Why did I have those numbers? Because in 2004, I got fed up. We’d hear from bitter candidates who did not get our nod who claimed that they didn’t want it anyway, because our endorsement was “the kiss of death.” Well, I knew this wasn’t true, not by a long shot. (I also knew by their behavior that these very people were usually quite eager to get our endorsement, until they didn’t. Then it was sour-grapes time.) But I didn’t know how wrong they were. I didn’t have numbers.
Then there was the other problem: Democrats regularly claimed that we only endorsed Republicans, and vice versa. I knew that was untrue, too (any casual, unbiased observer knew better than that). But again, I couldn’t quantify it.
I had resisted keeping track of such things in the past, for a couple of reasons. First, endorsements were arguments as to who should win, not predictions of who would win. A lot of people failed to understand that, and would demonstrate their lack of understanding by saying we got it “wrong” when our endorsee lost. No, we didn’t. We weren’t trying to make a prediction. And why would we have kept track of how many Dems or Repubs we backed, when we didn’t care about party?
But as I said, I was fed up, and I wanted to lay all the lies to rest permanently. So I dove into our musty archives for several hours, and came up with every general-election endorsement we had done starting with the 1994 election. Why that date? Because that was my first election as a member of the editorial board, and since then we’d had 100 percent turnover on the board — so it was ridiculous to hold any of us responsible for editorial decisions made before that date.
And I stuck to general elections, to keep it simple. After all, that’s the only time one is choosing between Democrats and Republicans. And digging up the primary endorsements would have taken more than twice as much time. I’ll acknowledge this freely, though: Our won-loss numbers wouldn’t have been as good if I’d tried to include primaries, because we were staunch centrists, and primary voters tend to have more extreme tastes than we did.
What I found in 2004 was that since 1994, about 75 percent of “our” candidates had won, and we’d endorsed almost exactly as many Democrats are Republicans. I updated the numbers after the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Anyway, after Cindi’s column, I updated my spreadsheet with numbers from the years since I’d left the paper, including 2016, and here’s what I found:
The running percentage of “wins” had dropped slightly since 2008, with 72.26277372 percent of endorsees winning since 1994. Even though the paper had a big year in 2014, with eight out of 10 endorsees winning. (When I had first compiled the numbers in 2004, our batting average was .753.)
The partisan split became more nearly even. As of 2008, we were favoring Democrats slightly with 52.6 percent of endorsements going to them. Now, that’s down to 50.37 percent, about as dead-even as you can get: 68 Democrats, 67 Republicans and one independent since 1994. The paper has favored Republicans 13-8 since I left.
Anyway, since I’d gone to the trouble of running the numbers, I had meant to write a post about it. If I did before now, I can’t find it. So here you go…
One of those job-hunting websites I signed up for years ago continues to send me advice. I found this rather mind-blowing:
The Y2K Bug… on your resume
Good Monday morning, Brad,
You may remember this global panic around the turn of the century. The “Y2K bug” was an obscure, but potentially disruptive, computer glitch that we spent $400 billion fixing. Midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999 came and went without the dawn of the apocalypse, however, and Y2K passed into history.
But now the Year 2000 Problem rises again and this time it’s on your resume: those dates and entries that indicate you were already out of college and in the workforce before the new millennium arrived give too much latitude to age discrimination.
At Ladders, we’ve got a simple solution for those of you with two or more decades of experience:
Don’t list any dates on your resume before the Year 2000.
Age discrimination is rampant in American work culture.
It’s unfair, unkind, and uncharitable of the world to treat you that way, but it’s also undeniably true that the bias against ‘the olds’ is creeping its way further and further down into the demographics. It won’t be long before the oldest Millennials are considered washed up by their youngest peers.
Yesterday, I hit the “source” button on my car stereo to switch from Elvis Costello’s “Green Shirt” back to FM, but only hit it once instead of twice, so it first stopped on AM — which I never listen to.
And there was Rush Limbaugh, whose voice I hadn’t heard since Robert Ariail used to play the show in the background while drawing his cartoons. And I decided to pause there, and listen.
This afforded me a glimpse into the alternative reality inhabited by Donald Trump and his supporters.
First, Limbaugh told about the early days of his career when he was first gaining notoriety, and he was so innocent as to think media people were honestly interested in learning about him — before he “wised up” and learned the truth (in the Trumpian sense of “truth”), which was that they all had an agenda and were out to get him.
He spoke of something that commonly happens in interviews — he would say something, then immediately realize that that wasn’t exactly what he meant, and ask to be allowed to rephrase it. At which point, he says, the reporter would say No way: This is what you said, and I’m not going to let you edit the story to suit you.
Yep, that happens. There are reporters who think journalism is some sort of contest conducted under rigid rules that are not subject to personal judgment, and one must never put the source in the driver’s seat, allowing him to control what goes into the paper. That’s collusion.
And they have a point, to some extent. For instance, I would not have allowed Richland County Sheriff Allen Sloan to “take back” what he said to one of The State‘s reporters in that infamous 1989 interview about crime at Columbia Mall. That was a situation of a public figure saying something that was shockingly revealing of his character (even if it was a very bad joke, it was revealing), and not to be papered over.
But in an everyday interview with someone who sincerely edits himself by saying, “That’s not exactly what I meant,” of course I allow him to rephrase it any way he wants. You know why? Because I want to know what he really thinks. It’s not rocket science. And a reporter with half a brain should be able to tell the difference between a source sincerely trying to express himself better and someone trying to manipulate. But you have to use judgment. It’s not black and white.
Anyway, back to Limbaugh. So he had some bad experiences with reporters who probably didn’t trust him any more than he did them — or any more than he does now, since he says he hadn’t wised up yet in those days.
Rush’s point in telling that story was to set up the Wikileaks “revelation” that New York Times Magazine‘s Mark Leibovich emailed a Hillary Clinton staffer to get permission to use some quotes from an interview with the former secretary of state.
The New York Times allowed the Clinton Campaign to pick and choose what parts of an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton would be used in an article titled, “Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton,” the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails have revealed.
The Clinton campaign vetoed nearly the entire interview, but even in the portions they did approve for publication, they had Mark Leibovich edit out a mention of Sarah Palin, apparently at Hillary’s personal request.
“My apologies for the delay. I finally had to get her in person,” Clinton Campaign Communication Director Jennifer Palmieri replies to Leibovich, implying that she had to wait to talk to Hillary about what parts of the interview they would allow being used. “Fine to use the moose, but appreciate leaving the mention of Sarah Palin out.”…
The email exchange (Wikileaks Podesta Email 4213) between Palmieri and New York Times writer Mark Leibovich was forwarded to John Podesta by Palmieri in July 2015. Leibovich sends a transcript from the portions of his interview with Hillary that he would like to use saying, “I wanted option to use the following (obviously wouldn’t use all, but a portion) *These exchanges were pretty interesting…..would love the option to use….*”…
After dishing out the marching orders, Palmieri finishes by telling Leibovich, “Pleasure doing business.”…
That’s pretty much the way Rush told it, with emphasis on the “Pleasure doing business” part. The alt-right seems to think that was particularly telling.
And in the Trumpkin universe, I’m sure it was. In that world, this was a huge “gotcha.” It was proof positive that the media are in bed with the Democrats!
But in the universe I live in — the universe where people know how these things actually work — I’m thinking, Well, obviously that conversation — or that part of it, anyway — was off the record. And Leibovich, being a good journalist, was pushing to get the source to go on the record with some of it.
And yep, that’s what was going on, according to Politico:
In a midsummer 2015 exchange, Leibovich wrote to campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri, asking that certain pieces of his New Hampshire interview with Clinton be made “on the record,” for use in his July article (“Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton”)….
I hardly need mention this, but during the time I was listening, Limbaugh never said, “off the record.”
Breitbart does make some confusing references to on-and-off-the-record, but not in a way that makes it clear that this completely exonerates the writer from any sort of unethical collusion.
In fact, it shows that he was trying to get even off-the-record material onto the record, which was the point of the emails. But folks, if you’ve allowed a source to go off-the-record on something (which you have to ask for BEFORE saying something, not after), then that’s it. The source is in the driver’s seat on that material. You cannot ethically use it without the source agreeing to put it on the record.
Condemn Leibovich for going off-the-record in the first place if you’re so inclined, but I won’t — along with letting sources rephrase what they’ve said, going off the record is one of the best tools for learning what a source is really thinking. Maybe you can’t use the actual words, but that knowledge can help you to better interpret and prioritize the stuff that is on the record, and more accurately represent what’s going on.
Just as there are reporters who won’t let you rephrase, there are those who are philosophically opposed to letting anyone go off the record, ever. But I’m too curious to be one of them. I don’t just want to know what the person is willing to say for print. I want to know everything that person knows. And while going off the record may not tell me everything — and in the hands of a wily source, it can be as much a device for deception as the carefully crafted public remark — it will tell me more than I otherwise would have known. Even if it’s just what the source wants me to think he or she thinks, that in itself tells me something…
Of course, all of this would be lost on most dittoheads. Even if Limbaugh had explained about it being off the record, he probably would have said the words in a way that dripped with sarcasm, portraying “off-the-record” as another one of the tricks those shifty media types use in trying to pull the wool over the eyes of honest, hard-working, angry white men…
Or not. Since I didn’t hear the whole rant, I could have missed the part where he backed off and decided to be fair to Leibovich. In which case, good for you, Rush…
“What is truth?” asked Pilate, and washed his hands. Sometimes I ask the same question, because it’s not always as simple as people like to think it is. At least, not in politics. (As a Catholic, I accept that the One of whom Pilate asked the question did trade in actual Truth.)
I had the chance to explore that a bit over at WACH-Fox studios this morning. Cynthia Hardy asked me to participate in a discussion of truth, lies and the current presidential election for the weekly TV version of her OnPoint show. Catch the show on WACH Sunday morning at 8:30. (Hey, you can DVR it, can’t you?)
At this point, I don’t recall precisely what was said during the taped segments, because we were talking about all this before and after the taping, and during breaks. But here are some of the points I made at some time or other while I was there:
Someone raised the question of why, with so many of his statements being easily proved to be false, Donald Trump’s followers still accept, and even cheer, them. I mentioned the point, made here so often before, that even though most of us once accepted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” people today believe they are entitled to the “facts” they prefer, and gravitate toward those who offer them such.
Continuing on that point, I said we should think in terms of the Stephen Colbert concept of “truthiness.” Trump regularly says things that are wildly untrue, but his supporters eat it up because his claims strike them as “truthy.” It’s what they want to be true, and they appreciate him for saying it is, and never backing down on the point.
I tend to look askance at all these people who propose to do “fact-checking” in real time. First, even if one can determine incontrovertibly whether a statement is true or not, getting the job done frequently takes a lot of time. Not all facts can be instantly Googled. And sometimes — quite frequently — there is no pat answer. Some things are demonstrably untrue — for instance, we are spending tens of billions updating our nuclear arsenal, in direct contradiction of something Trump said in the debate Monday night. On the other hand, some assertions are more slippery, more matters of opinion. For instance, the NYT tried to “fact-check” Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that the U.S. needs an “intelligence surge” to stop homegrown terrorists before they act. The Times said we already collect and share more intel than ever. Perhaps so, but if something happens because we didn’t know something that might have enabled us to prevent it, how can one say we had enough intel? That said, there is the eternal debate over how much we need to protect people from snooping. Since Snowden, we’ve unfortunately erred in the wrong direction on that, but striking a balance will always be difficult. Bottom line, I can give you a pretty good answer to whether what she said was true if you give me 1,000 words or so to do it. Anything less and I’m shortchanging you. But be forewarned that the answer will contain a lot of my own opinion. Why? Because it’s that kind of question.
Elaborating on that: People who think it’s easy to separate fact from opinion should try editing editorial pages for a couple of months. The challenge is this: You’re publishing a lot of stuff written by nonprofessionals with strong opinions — letters to the editor and their big brothers, guest columns. If you’re me, you’ll have a rule against letting people make assertions of fact that are false in the course of expressing their opinions. Frequently, in the proofreading process, one of the editors — some of the top, most experienced journalists in South Carolina, when I was doing it at The State — would cross out something in a letter or oped because it was false. But then a terrific argument would ensue as we editors disagreed over whether that point was a matter of fact, or of opinion. In the latter case, we’d allow the writer to say it. These matters were never easily settled, because if you’re intellectually honest and doing your best to be fair to people and not dismissive of their views, it’s complicated.
It’s seldom black and white. Even lies have gradations. That’s why The Washington Post‘s respected Fact Checker feature has levels. A “lie” can earn one, two, three or four “Pinocchios,” with four denoting something that is completely false. Then there is the rare “Geppetto Checkmark” for things found to be completely true. And these judgments are subjective. I forget the “fact” in question, but a couple of months ago, they gave Donald Trump four Pinocchios for something that, having read their findings, I thought should only have earned him two or three. (Of course, even if they had amended that would, Trump would still be the all-time record-holder for four-Pinocchio statements.)
I could go on and on, but there’s real work to be done. I’ll check back in and see what y’all think…
Long ago, when my friend and colleague Warren Bolton and I were both still in The State‘s newsroom, before moving to editorial — we’re talking maybe early ’90s — Warren helped lead some newsroom discussions on race.
The idea was help us all do a better, more informed job writing about subjects bearing on that issue, or set of issues, in South Carolina.
One thing I remember in particular was a meeting in which Warren and another African-American colleague urged us to avoid the habit of referring carelessly to “the black community,” as though it were some monolithic, coherent entity that thought and acted in unison, like a colonial animal.
I took that to heart because it made a lot of sense to me, and ever since I’ve hesitated to use that construction, as well as similar ones such as “LGBT community,” “Hispanic community,” and what have you. After all, we don’t write of, say, women as “the female community,” because most of us recognize women as a set of individuals containing too much diversity for such a generalization. We should follow suit with other broadly defined groups.
(Of course, it in part appealed to me because we in the white heterosexual male community are well known to prefer to deal with people as individuals rather than in terms of aggregations, something which sometimes causes members of other “communities” to counsel us to “check our privilege” and stop trying to destroy other groups’ sense of solidarity so that we may oppress them individually. Which we, both communally and individually, tend to find maddening. Smiley face.)
I am reminded of all this because of this piece in The Washington Post urging the great unwashed out there to stop referring to “the media” as though they were a single, coherent thing with one mind, acting in unison. An excerpt:
Please stop calling us “the media.”
Yes, in some sense, we are the media. But not in the blunt way you use the phrase. It’s so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning. It’s — how would you put this? — lazy and unfair.
As I understand your use of this term, “the media” is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, “the media” is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life.
But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at CrankyCrackpot.com might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.
Fact is, there really is no such thing as “the media.” It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions….
This piece, by the way, was not written by “the media,” or even by The Washington Post. It was written by this guy named Paul Farhi who is one of many individuals who works at the Post. If you want to be properly pedantic about it (and who wouldn’t want to be that?), you would only say that “The Washington Post said” something if it was said in an editorial — an editorial being an unsigned piece by the Post‘s editorial board, not something written by an op-ed columnist or someone else whose byline appears on the piece.
Yeah, I know — confusing. But to keep it simple, you’ll sound a lot smarter if you don’t refer sweepingly to “the media” as doing or saying or thinking this or that.
And we in the media community (which includes the vast army of us who no longer have actual media jobs, and a more cantankerous crowd you are unlikely to find) will appreciate it….
I DIDN’T KNOW Ron Cobb back when he was buying up a tenth of our Legislature for the FBI.
Didn’t even recognize his picture when FBI agents subpoenaed campaign disclosure reports for all 170 legislators, and legislators and fellow lobbyists started whispering that Mr. Cobb was somehow involved in what would come to be known as Operation Lost Trust.
In fact, while I would learn and write a lot about the cigar-chomping lobbyist who hummed his signature “It’s a bidness doing pleasure with you” while the hidden video camera recorded him counting out crisp $100 bills for legislators who promised to support his horse-gambling bill, I didn’t actually meet him until five years later…
He certainly had a big impact on Cindi and me. We did some of our best work ever chasing the Lost Trust story. Before it was over, Cindi herself had gone to jail, and I had spent a year explaining everything that was wrong with government in South Carolina. Our coverage of the scandal, and my “Power Failure” series, played a big role in my becoming editorial page editor later.
All because of Ron Cobb buying votes and wheeling and dealing from his room in the former Townhouse, just yards from where I now sit. That hotel is undergoing a huge renovation, much as our political life did as a result of Cobb’s actions:
Our news department launched a yearlong examination of how the Legislative State produced not only corruption but a hapless government that answered to no one, and pushed along by that “Power Failure” series, Lost Trust and Gov. Carroll Campbell, the Legislature voted two years later to hand a third of the government over to the governor.
Lawmakers unleashed the powerful State Grand Jury to investigate political corruption cases. They passed a reporter shield law after a judge ordered me and three other reporters held in federal custody for two days for refusing to testify in one of the trials. And voters elected a target of an earlier vote-buying scandal to fill an open Senate seat in the middle of all this, lawmakers amended the constitution to bar felons from holding office until 15 years after they completed their sentences.
There are still a lot of problems with the way our government operates — the Legislature still holds far too much power over state and local agencies, too many agencies still effectively answer to no one, the ethics law even after this year’s improvements remains far short of what it should be.
But those reforms did a lot of good. And Ron Cobb paved the way for every one of them.
Oh, and speaking of Warthenesque writing… I also appreciated this column because its style was more like my own than Cindi’s. Finally, it seems, I’ve rubbed off on her.
Cindi has always been very task-oriented. When she goes into an interview, she’s all business. When she writes a column or editorial, she intends to accomplish this and this and this, and she lays out her arguments in a perfectly disciplined form.
My own way of approaching interviews or writing has always been like the method Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ Holistic Detective, employed whenever he got lost: “My own strategy is to find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it’s going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be.”
It was June 26, 1995, and I was working on a “where are they now” package of news articles for the upcoming five-year anniversary of Lost Trust becoming public. We met near the interstate, and I followed him to his townhouse overlooking the 10th hole of one of Greenville’s premier golf courses.
Longtime girlfriend-turned-wife Shelley was there to greet us, and they showed off their rooftop garden, where Ron was growing tomatoes and cucumbers, and the Stairmaster he said he used for 10 to 15 minutes every day after work, and he talked about how his values had changed since his career as a lobbyist ended. Of course we also talked about Lost Trust and the Legislature and what he thought had and hadn’t changed, and Shelley talked as much as Ron did.
I don’t remember all those details; I got them from reviewing my notes from our lengthy visit. The only clear memories I have of that rarefied encounter are the rooftop and Bella — the cat who kept running toward the wall and hurling herself into it. Ron and Shelley laughed each time, and assured me the cat was fine, that she just did that for attention….
The Wall Street Journalhad a fun piece today about the fad of re-enacting the printer-smashing scene from “Office Space.” Above, you see the spoof produced by the Ted Cruz campaign a few months back. Here’s the original.
But the story was accompanied by a short (only five questions) quiz about “Office Space,” and unfortunately, I missed one. When I guessed the minimum number of pieces of flair, I guessed too high.
The sardonic Managing Editor Bill Sorrels presides at his desk in the middle of the newsroom (he had an office somewhere, too). He’s apparently reading one of the proofs I fetched. You see Dave Hampton striding in a blur across the room in the background. Note the go-to-hell decor — the unmatched linoleum, the rivers of proofs tumbling from spikes on the Metro Desk behind the M.E….
After I dug out those pictures from 1978 to go with this post, I started poring through some old negatives, thinking yet again about digitizing them (and again overwhelmed at the enormity of the task), when I ran across something I had forgotten existed.
Apparently, I took my camera to the paper one night during those several months I worked at my first newspaper job, back in 1974. I was a “copy clerk” at The Commercial Appeal in the spring and summer of that year, while a student at Memphis State University. That means I was a “copy boy,” with the title adjusted for the political correctness that was coming into fashion at the time (but which for the most part did not touch this newsroom). And indeed, we did briefly have one girl join us boys standing at the rail, ready to jump when someone called “copy.”
Copy Clerk David Hampton, later longtime editorial page editor of The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, in the wire room.
We were among the last copy boys in the country, since new technology was doing away with the need for someone to run around doing the stuff we did. Which meant reporters no longer had anyone to lord it over.
I just found these three exposures, found on one short strip of 35 mm film in a glassine envelope. I don’t know whether I took more, or where the rest of the roll is.
Anyway, I appeared to be documenting what I did at the paper by taking pictures of my friend and fellow copy clerk David Hampton doing the same tasks I did every night.
You can see Dave hurrying across the newsroom on an errand in the background of the photo at top, which shows one corner of the newsroom from the perspective of the managing editor’s desk. This part of the room is mostly deserted, with a reporter casually conversing with an assistant editor over on the Metro desk. This is 7:15 p.m., shortly after most of the day side people have left. The place would have been bustling about an hour earlier. Dave and I would be running for the next six or seven hours. (I wish I’d gotten a shot of the whole newsroom when it was full of people — but I probably would have been yelled at. That would not have been a novel experience, but I preferred to avoid it.)
In the foreground of the photo is the late Bill Sorrels, the managing editor, with a characteristic smirk on his face. I had him for a reporting class at Memphis State. His “teaching” technique consisted of telling stories from his reporting days, and stopping in mid-story to go around the room asking everyone, “So what did I do next?” and smirking when they got it wrong.
Bill would look over the galley proofs I brought him with that same expression, and then call out embarrassing critical remarks to reporters and editors about the mistakes they had made. (This was the kind of old-school place where grown men were chewed out and ground into the floor in front of everybody by their bosses.) The only actual work I ever remember seeing him do was on Aug. 9, 1974. He called me over and gave me a piece of paper on which he had scrawled, “Nixon Resigns.” He told me to take it to composing (on the next floor) and have it typeset in our biggest headline type (probably about 96 points), then have them shoot a picture of that and blow it up until it went all the way across the front page — then bring it to him to approve before they set it in metal and put it on the page. Probably the most “historic” thing I did in that job.
Above and at right, you see Dave in the wire room checking one of the 10 or 12 machines there that chugged out news from across the world non-stop — back in the days when ordinary people didn’t have access to such via Twitter, etc. We were the nursemaids to those machines, making sure the paper and ribbons never ran out, that they didn’t jam, and that the stories were ripped off the machines and taken to the editors who needed to see them.
Below, Dave is in the “morgue,” in later more polite times known as the “library,” where he’s been sent to fetch something, probably a photo, that someone needs to go with a story they’re working on. Given the size of the envelopes, these are probably mug shots, or maybe metal “cuts” that were already made to run in the paper previously. We saved those, when they were of repeat newsmakers, to save time and metal. They were uniformly 6 ems (picas) in width.
Another world. I never again worked in such an old-school environment. This was the old Commercial Appeal building, torn down decades ago. The long-defunct Memphis Press Scimitar was up on the fifth floor, if I recall correctly. Most news copy was still written, edited and processed in the old way — typed on manual typewriters, the pages strung together with rubber cement, edited with pencil, and set in metal type by noisy linotype machines up in the composing room. Once the type was set for each story, individual proofs would be pulled of each story, before they were placed on the “turtle” that held the full page — which we would run down to the newsroom. There was a lot of running back and forth.
This place was already an anachronism; it would have been completely recognizable to Ben Hecht’s characters in “The Front Page” It was what the makers of “Teacher’s Pet,” which I saw on Netflix the other night, were going for in the newsroom scenes. (Nick Adams played the copy boy in that film, itching for his shot at becoming a reporter. He was excited to get to write some obits one night. For us, the transitional job was to be the copy clerk who did the “agate” — rounding up police blotter, marriages and divorces, property transfers and other routine list-type copy and typing it up to go into the paper. I got to do that once, when another guy was out, and felt I had taken a huge step up.)
But new technology was creeping in. The non-news departments wrote on IBM Selectrics, and their copy was scanned and set in cold type, and pasted up on paper pages. And maybe some of the news copy as well — I see a Selectric behind Sorrels on the Metro desk. And a couple more on the rim of the copy desk at right.
It was also a crude, rough place that was about as non-PC as anyplace you could find in the ’70s. It’s ironic that they called us “copy clerks” instead of “boys,” because there were few other concessions to modern sensibilities. Culturally, every other newsroom I ever worked in was as removed from this one as though a couple of generations had passed. Although it was 1974, this newsroom would have been more at home in the first half of the century. It was… Runyonesque.
In the following decades, I didn’t miss this place, and was happy to work in a more civil environment. But I’m glad to have had this throwback experience; it gives me something to feel nostalgic about when I watch those old movies made before I was born. Yes, I say, it was just like that — those few months at the Commercial Appeal, anyway….
I had trouble finding time to watch this, and if we wait until I have time to comment on it, I’ll never get around to posting it. I have actual work to do.
So… I urge y’all to watch it, and comment, and I’ll jump in and join you later.
I’ll just say that the piece is well-done, and accurate. The truest thing Oliver says is when he indicates that no one has figured out a good way to pay for the journalism our society needs going forward (now that print advertising, which used to be like a license to print money, has essentially gone away). In other words, he says a lot of things I’ve said before, in a less entertaining matter. (My Brookings piece, for instance, wasn’t crafted for laughs.)
That’s the truth, and the tragedy. One can make fun of all the media executives who are trying various stupid strategies to keep going, but the indisputable fact is that no one has come up with the right approach yet…
From Dallas Police Chief David Brown at a July 11 press conference:
We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We just ask of us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental-health funding. Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug-addiction funding. Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas, we got a loose-dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems, and I just ask for other parts of our democracy, along with the free press, to help us. . . .
Serve your communities. Don’t be a part of the problem. We’re hiring. We’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. And we’ll put you in your neighborhood, and we will help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.
By the time I started working at newspapers in the ’70s, The Associated Press had become so dominant that about all most people saw of UPI was the unmistakable visage of Helen Thomas at White House press briefings.
In all the subsequent years, I only worked at one paper that subscribed to UPI — The Wichita Eagle-Beacon (now just “Wichita Eagle”).
I appreciated that for one reason — the photos. Time and time again, the photos that came crawling out of our UPI machine were better than the ones AP sent us from the same events.
I knew this because it was part of my job to make such critical comparisons. I was the news editor, which meant I was in charge of the paper from 6 p.m. until the last page went to bed after 1 in the morning. I was also the guy who made most final decisions on what made it into the news pages of the paper and how it was played. That included choosing all the photos, from what our staff photographers offered to the wire services.
And what I learned was that the AP laserphotos got the job done, but their UPI counterparts tended to have a certain je ne sais quoi that made them special. This was due, as I recall it, to the fact that Reuters was included in the package. Those Reuters photogs really had an eye.
For that reason, one night when the UPI photo machine broke down, I spent an hour or two on the phone with a technician in Oklahoma City as he talked me through the steps to fix it (AP would have had someone in town, but UPI’s nearest office was in the next state).
This must have been a rare night when I was fully staffed, and therefore didn’t have to lay out the front page and oversee production of the A section myself. So I learned a new skill. This was an error that I committed over and over in my career — learning how to do something that no one else in the newsroom knew how to do. So whenever that machine broke down again — which it did frequently — I had to fix it if I wanted those excellent Reuters photos.
Anyway, I got to thinking about all that when I saw the above photo from the protests in Baton Rouge the other day.
I had to smile at that, and respond, “The more open-ended the better, even though that really got on @CindiScoppe‘s nerves…”
By which I meant that the task-oriented Cindi went into a meeting with a source with goals in mind. The more experience-oriented Yours Truly went into them to see where they would go — the more unexpected the direction, the better. I liked learning things I hadn’t expected to learn.
Given that I was so free-form, Mike was a particularly valuable member of the editorial board. He enjoyed the experience of finding out where, for instance, Joe Biden would go next as much as I did (I think). But he was also organizing what he heard into a structure that enabled him to help guide our discussions later so that they were more efficient, more fruitful. (I wrote about this in a column when he left the paper, “Mike Fitts helped us make up our minds.”)
So, when Mike tells me that a piece is worth reading because it takes the best you get out of a wide-ranging interview and goes it one better, I pay attention.
The piece is very good, and very insightful, and it’s hard to explain why in fewer words than the entire piece. The author, Ezra Klein, admits that the explanation of why people who personally know Hillary Clinton think a lot more of her than those only know her through media is… inadequate. At least at first. The thing is, she listens.
Yeah, I thought the same thing. So did Klein:
The first few times I heard someone praise Clinton’s listening, I discounted it. After hearing it five, six, seven times, I got annoyed by it. What a gendered compliment: “She listens.” It sounds like a caricature of what we would say about a female politician.
But after hearing it 11, 12, 15 times, I began to take it seriously, ask more questions about it. And as I did, the Gap began to make more sense.
Modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking. So imagine what a campaign feels like if you’re not entirely natural in front of big crowds. Imagine that you are constantly compared to your husband, one of the greatest campaign orators of all time; that you’ve been burned again and again after saying the wrong thing in public; that you’ve been told, for decades, that you come across as calculated and inauthentic on the stump. What would you do?…
It’s right about there that I started to get it…
You know how impatient I get with people who are all excited that Hillary Clinton would be the first woman to be president? That’s because their explanations for why that matters are ridiculously inadequate, and it comes off as identity purely for the sake of identity (“a president who looks like me!”), and y’all know how much I dislike that.
The problem with feminism is that it makes like it matters to have women in office while simultaneously insisting that you believe that there’s no important differences between men and women — which of course means that it shouldn’t matter.
But a feminist friend once said, meaning to be kind, that I was a “difference feminist.” And perhaps I am. And Klein does a good job of explaining why Mrs. Clinton’s gender makes her a different sort of candidate, and why I should care about that:
Let’s stop and state the obvious: There are gender dynamics at play here.
We ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them. You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.
Talking over listening, perhaps.
“Listening is something women value almost above everything else in relationships,” says Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist who studies differences in how men and women communicate. “The biggest complaint women make in relationships is, ‘He doesn’t listen to me.’”
Tannen’s research suggests a reason for the difference: Women, she’s found, emphasize the “rapport dimension” of communication — did a particular conversation bring us closer together or further apart? Men, by contrast, emphasize the “status dimension” — did a conversation raise my status compared to yours?
Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies. And winning allies is how Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination.
Given where both candidates began, there is no doubt that Bernie Sanders proved the more effective talker. His speeches attracted larger audiences, his debate performances led to big gains in the polls, his sound bites went more viral on Facebook.
Yet Clinton proved the more effective listener — and, particularly, the more effective coalition builder. On the eve of the California primary, 208 members of Congress had endorsed Clinton, and only eight had endorsed Sanders. “This was a lot of relationships,” says Verveer. “She’s been in public life for 30 years. Over those 30 years, she has met a lot of those people, stayed in touch with them, treated them decently, campaigned for them. You can’t do this overnight.”
One way of reading the Democratic primary is that it pitted an unusually pure male leadership style against an unusually pure female leadership style. Sanders is a great talker and a poor relationship builder. Clinton is a great relationship builder and a poor talker. In this case — the first time at the presidential level — the female leadership style won….
Sorry about the quality of the photo. The light wasn’t ideal…
Yesterday, as I mentioned, was my day for awards ceremonies. The best, for me, was the one at The State at which Associate Editor Cindi Scoppe received the paper’s Gonzales Award (named for the paper’s first editor, who was shot and killed on Main Street by the lieutenant governor in 1903).
It was the second time she had received the award, having gotten it in 1999 as well.
Bud Ferillo, Bob McAlister and I had written letters supporting her nomination, which is why we were there.
The work for which Cindi was honored took place during her first months alone, as the last remaining member of the editorial department. (There were once nine of us.) I addressed the significance of that in my letter supporting her:
When it comes to cold, dispassionate, hard-eyed assessment of South Carolina government and politics, no one touches Cindi Scoppe. Not in 2014, and not in 2015, either.
But in 2015, she did something else as well. She grew. She still did everything she had always done, the stuff no one else could do, but she added a couple of new ingredients: Heart and Soul.
There was a time when she didn’t have to do that sort of writing, and that comforted her. She liked being, in her own assessment, the board’s “Designated Mean Bitch.” When empathy and violins were called for, she was more than happy to let other associate editors “resonate” with the proper emotion for the moment – and some of them were really good at it. She would stick to the hard stuff.
But by mid-2015, there were no other associate editors. Warren Bolton – an ordained minister who could speak to the heart as well as anyone who had ever served on the board – left in the spring, and by June, Cindi was alone….
That sort of sets up what Cindi had to say in her acceptance speech. Here it is, shorn of some personal acknowledgments at the beginning:
The day after Dylann Roof slaughtered those nine innocents, Bertram Rantin stopped by my office to chat. I probably said I knew I needed to write something about the massacre but I had no idea what to say. Because what our community needed, what our state needed was not policy prescriptions but emotion and understanding. What was needed was RESONATING. And I don’t do resonating.
And Bertram said, you know, we used to have two people who could speak to this sort of situation. And isn’t it ironic that this would happen just weeks after we lost both Warren Bolton and Carolyn Click.
We talked some more about other things, and he left, but his words stayed in my head. And at some point, I realized that I had to step up to the task. I realized, as Brad wrote in his letter supporting my nomination, that I had to grow. I had to become a writer I had not been willing to.
Three thousand years ago, when God wondered aloud who he could send to speak to his people, the prophet Isaiah answered saying “Here am I, send me.” I think that’s one of the coolest passages in the Bible. Christians and Jews see that as a great act of faith. But it could also be seen as an act of dedication, of commitment to a cause, to a calling.
And don’t we all have a calling? Isn’t that what journalism is?
Shouldn’t we all be willing to ask, in the secularized iteration of Isaiah’s response: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
Isn’t that the commitment that all of us need to give to our craft, to our community?
Now, except for Paul, there’s no one on the second floor who should be doing what I do routinely – advocating for policy positions. It’s probably not often that you should be writing about your personal experiences. Certainly not about how your faith informs your life decisions, or how it relates to public policy.
But what I had to do last year – after the massacre and a few months later, after the flood – is something every one of us can and should be willing to do every day: Look for where we can make a difference, fill roles we might not be comfortable filling, grow, if necessary, into the bigger demands of our jobs.
In his supporting letter, Bob McAlister said this about our jobs:
“I have spent my professional life in South Carolina’s political/media axis and have seen the media, especially newspapers, evolve. Of this I am certain: Our citizens have never needed good journalism more to help them wade through the complexities of life and the chaos of the Internet.”
As newspaper staffs grow smaller and the cacophony of self-interested voices grows louder and objective truth becomes increasingly optional, what each one of us does becomes exponentially more critical.
I would urge all of us to focus on the critical nature of what we would do: Not duplicating what others are doing, but providing our readers with important information they can’t get anywhere else. I urge you all to be truth-tellers, not just stenographers.
Today people in public life just make stuff up..
I can remember a time when it simply didn’t occur to journalists that we needed to verify basic facts from someone in a position of authority. Oh, we needed to watch for spin. We needed to make sure they weren’t manipulating numbers or not quite telling the whole story. But if a governor said half the job applicants at the Savannah River Site failed drug tests, it was safe to assume that was true. Not anymore.
Unfortunately, there’s no way we can fact-check every single thing that public figures say. We can’t even fact-check every single thing a governor says.
But at the very least, we can do this: When people say things we know are not accurate, and we report what they say, we can point out the facts. We can say this is what the law actually says. This is what was actually spent. Or this is what the audit actually recommended.
This isn’t being an editorial writer. This is being an authoritative voice. This is being a journalist. This is something I did as a reporter. It’s something y’all do sometimes as reporters. It’s something we all need to do more of. We need to help our readers understand what is true and what is not. We need to give our readers the facts and the context they need to make informed decisions. It doesn’t matter whether we agree with those choices or not; it matters that they are informed.
Of course, as Jeff will remind us, we need to write things that people will read. And this is the hardest part. It’s never been easy to get people to read the stuff they need to know, and now we have metrics that show, at least in the online world, how little they read it. So it’s very tempting to just give up and give people what they want. That’s the easy way to drive up our unique visitor numbers.
It is not the right way.
The right way is keep trying to figure out how to turn what people need into what they want.
It is a daily battle. It is a battle that I often lose.
But it is a battle that I absolutely must keep fighting.
It’s a battle that you absolutely must keep fighting.
We have big and difficult jobs, and they are getting bigger and more difficult every day. And we have to stretch and grow to fill those jobs.
We have a calling. We work for our community.
Not to entertain our community. To inform our community. To give our readers the tools they need to be active citizens.
It is not an overstatement to say that our system of self-governance depends on our willingness to fulfill our calling.
The 67-year-old owner and publisher of the Free Times alternative weekly newspaper in Columbia was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in an Augusta, Ga., hotel Wednesday afternoon.
Charles Nutt, of Elgin, was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen confirmed. Nutt was found in the bathroom of a hotel room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Augusta.
Richmond County sheriff’s deputies went to the hotel after the department received a call from Columbia police saying that Nutt had taken a gun from his residence and had suicidal thoughts, according to an incident report.
Nutt’s Resort Media company purchased Free Times, an alternative weekly, from Portico Media of Charlottesville, Va., in 2012…..
I just can’t believe it. You see that picture above? There’s something missing. Charlie usually had a modest, friendly smile when saw him.
I had coffee with Charlie Nutt at Drip on Main exactly two weeks ago.
He. Was. Fine.
I mean, as well as one man can tell about another.
I don’t claim to be an expert on Charlie Nutt. He was a fellow member of the Capital City Club, and we had breakfast there together once or twice. I’d see him around town, and I’d always ask him how his business was going.
The answer, always, was that it was going great. The paper was healthy, and developing a fine journalistic reputation extending beyond its traditional base of covering entertainment and nightlife. He had people coming up to him all the time and saying, “Now I get my news from Free Times,” rather than, you know, certain other papers.
He mentioned that when we met on March 3, and I told him I heard similar things. His folks were doing a good job.
And he was comparing himself to the competition. Every time we met, he’d share with me just how low The State‘s circulation figures had fallen — something I don’t really keep up with. He said it with a certain satisfaction, like a guy keeping score, but without any malice. Of course, his own paper is distributed free so it’s like apples to oranges, but it was being widely picked up and the return rate was gratifying.
He also had a growing number of specialty pubs adding to his bottom line — the kinds of things that might be distributed in hotels, about local places to eat and such.
Things were going well. As he expected.
Charlie was a thoroughgoing newspaper man. He started his career a little before me, but we were both part of that last generation before the crash — inspired by Woodward and Bernstein (their book came out when I was a copy boy at The Commercial Appeal), and enjoying the very last decades when owning a printing press was like a license to spend money.
He was editor at several papers, and then publisher of some others. He managed to sock away enough money to achieve his dream of buying his own paper. He didn’t leap into it carelessly. From his New Jersey base, he did his research, and he decided that Free Times would be just right.
So he bought it, and never looked back. He just really seemed like a guy who had it together and whose plan was working out.
As compared, you know, to me — a guy who had the job he’d always wanted until the day the job ceased to exist, and did not have the funds to go out and buy his own paper.
Charlie knew exactly what he was doing, and it was working out so well.
When a friend from The State called to tell me — he had run into Charlie and me having coffee at Drip, and thought I might like to know — my first reaction was to say they needed to do a deeper investigation. Charlie wouldn’t shoot himself.
My next reaction was to remember Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s musical adaptation. You never know, even with the guy you admire and respect, the guy who has all that you don’t, who you think has it all together.
All I can do now is ask God for mercy upon him, and upon his family and friends.
And then, I saw that all six apparently ran the same editorial. And I thought, “Huh. How does that happen?”
And then, I saw that all six papers are owned by Gannett. And I got a sort of creepy feeling down my spine.
Once, six separate editorial boards all deciding to call for their governor to resign would have been a very remarkable thing. Traditionally, getting one editorial board to a consensus on such a thing would have taken some heavy lifting by a very determined editorial page editor. But I have to wonder, to what extent were six separate decisions made? To what extent do these papers even have editorial boards as I think of them? To what extent are they, editorially speaking, even separate newspapers in 2016?
For instance, I go to the contacts page of the Asbury Park Press, and see that the opinion staff consists of one person called the “community content editor” — which sounds like someone who shovels input from readers into the paper, rather than expressing opinions himself — and a “news assistant” to handle letters.
I’m curious about the mechanics: Who was involved in the decision to run this in six papers? Who wrote it? Who signed off on it? If one of the papers said, “No, we can’t run that,” would its editors have been heeded? When an editorial says “we” at those papers, to whom does the pronoun refer?
It’s just… weird. And more than a little creepy…
All through my career in editorial, I had to deal with people who thought editorial decisions were made by corporate. They refused to believe me when I said they were not. I couldn’t even imagine by what sort of mechanism such a thing would be brought about — because such mechanisms did not exist.
The closest I ever came to experiencing something dictated by corporate was when corporate president Tony Ridder, speaking at a conference of EPEs, urged us all to stop endorsing in presidential elections. (To him, it did no good. It royally ticked off about half of readers and was a distraction from our true calling, which was local opinion.) I don’t think anyone took his advice, although I didn’t bother to check. I certainly didn’t.
But now, I see this, which flies in the face of everything I ever experienced as an editor….
Which is OK, but not as pointed, not as helpful, as what Kristof posted. Dang. And in retrospect, it was too soft on Cruz. What Rubio said a moment later, that not only had Cruz not helped the Navy; he was part of the problem, was way better. As were Kristof’s Tweets.
But even if they were better, he WAS using up a blog post to call attention to his Tweets — something I’ve been criticized for doing.
Of course, he wasn’t doing it instead of his thoughtful, well-crafted columns. It was in addition to. And yeah, I sometimes post Tweets as a substitute for extended commentary, when I don’t have time to write a real post. Under the theory that something is better than nothing.
But in my defense, I’ll say this: Kristof still gets paid to write those thoughtful columns. I do not. He doesn’t have to find time around his job to write them; they are his job.
And though I’m envious of that, I do appreciate his commentary on all levels, from Tweet to blog post to column.
Of course, there are people who won’t pay attention to what he says because he’s a liberal, and they think they are conservatives, and they’re thick enough to think that means they should not be exposed to his views. Such as the Trump supporter and member of Congress who wrote, “We could have written them for you before you started, my friend. The bias is simply that intense and unchangeable.” (At least he said “my friend.”)
Yep, Kristof is a pretty consistent liberal, which means I disagree with him frequently. But he’s the kind of liberal who posts such things as this:
The GOP has some first-rate international security experts, like Bob Gates and Brent Scowcroft, but GOP candidates never cite them.
… which means he is not only a talented observer, but an intellectually honest man who doesn’t reflexively dismiss what those on the “other side” have to contribute. And we should all listen to such people more.
Last night, Bryan Caskey brought the above cartoon to my attention. Apparently, it was presented in a context that indicated that the monkeys represented Ted Cruz’ young daughters.
My only reaction was this:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Ann Telnaes cartoon that I liked. Don’t like her style, and I can’t recall when she’s ever had a good idea. I never used her in the paper…
In other words, I think the cartoon stinks. But then, that’s my standard reaction to her work. With actually good cartoonists losing their jobs to cost-cutting in recent years, it rather surprises me that she has kept hers.
Today, it seems, that cartoon is a huge deal in social media. And Telnaes’ editor has withdrawn it from the Post‘s website, with this explanation:
Editor’s note from Fred Hiatt: It’s generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it. I failed to look at this cartoon before it was published. I understand why Ann thought an exception to the policy was warranted in this case, but I do not agree.
So, it seems that even an editor who does normally run her cartoons won’t run this one.
Cruz has used this as a way of damning all journalists, because, you know, we’re all responsible. Just one, big, colonial animal. It plays well with his base.
But hey, a guy gets to rant a bit when defending his kids…
One thing they definitely got right: The grubby disaster area that is the typical reporter’s workspace…
I’ve had an extremely busy day and haven’t been able to keep up with the news. In any case, I was tired because I didn’t get home from the theater until about 10:30 last night, and then couldn’t resist popping my DVD of “All the President’s Men” into the player. I didn’t watch all of it, mind you, but… I was tired this morning.
I doubt that many of you have seen “Spotlight” yet, but you should. And against the day when you do see it, I thought I’d go ahead and share some of the things that struck me about it, most of which I shared with the audience last night during our panel discussion after the show.
First, a plug: That was my first time attending a show in the new Nickelodeon, and it was great. You should give it your custom if you don’t already. Andy Smith and the gang are doing a good job.
Now, my impressions…
I had said I was eager to see whether it really was the best newspaper film since the aforementioned Redford-Hoffman vehicle, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, given that the cinematic art has improved over the last four decades (or is it me?), it was better in a number of ways, although there were one or two things ATPM did that this did not (I loved the awkward, naturalistic, disconnected conversations Woodstein had with their sources — very much like real interviews). I was particularly impressed by how thoughtful and nuanced “Spotlight” was. If you watched the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking it would be a cartoonish, black-and-white depiction of courageous, hard-driving journos relentlessly bringing down wicked Cardinal Law and his army of perverts. It was way more intelligent than that.
The few, the intensely interested: About a third of the audience stayed for the panel discussion.
For instance, while the film did show how a newspaper with the right resources and good leadership can peel away the layers hiding a dark secret eating away at its community, it did the opposite very well. By that I mean, it showed how a newspaper can fail to get that story, year after year. In a different context during our panel discussion, Charles Bierbauer mentioned the old saw that journalists live by, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That very skepticism caused this team and the newsroom in general to fail to grasp the enormity of what they were facing. Yeah, they had a story about a pedophile priest on their hands, similar to a case they’d thoroughly covered years ago. But as indications emerged that maybe there were as many as 12 or 13 such priests in the archdiocese, then maybe as many as 90 (which would represent 6 percent, which a researcher told them they should expect — after all, that’s roughly the proportion of pedophiles in the adult male population), they just could not believe it. It was too outlandish; it didn’t fit their expectations in any way. John Slattery (of “Mad Men” fame) as Ben Bradlee Jr. spoke for all when he cried “b___s___!” to what the team had found at one point.
The members of the Spotlight team — three reporters and “player coach” Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton — were time and again dismayed to learn how they had missed the story over the years. After Robinson and a reporter ambush and harass a lawyer who has been dodging them, demanding that he provide the names of priests his clients had made claims against (leading to settlements that were sealed by the court), the lawyer finally explodes at them and says he had given the paper the names of 20 such priests several years ago, and the paper had essentially done nothing with it. Look at your own damn’ clips, he told them as he walked away. They look, and find a story buried inside. (This isn’t made clear, but I’m assuming they didn’t actually publish the names of the priests in that story — it would have been amazing if they had, without the kind of exhaustive investigation they were finally conducting at the time when the film is set, 2001-2002. You don’t run something like that on one lawyer’s say-so.)
The paper had also in the past brushed off a victim turned victims’ advocate, Phil Saviano, and an experienced editor can easily see why. When Saviano meets with the team and presents them with what he has, he starts out patient and then keeps slipping back into deep resentment that he had been ignored by others at the paper in the past, which causes him to lash out angrily. As he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, the reporters exchange a look behind his back. Yeahhh… one of those. We all have experience with sources like that. Full of passion, and full of stuff you can’t prove, and they come across as a bit unbalanced. Maybe he was abused, and it sent him over the edge. Or maybe the thing that sends him there is his frustration that no one believes the truth. At this point, the team is determined to find out if he’s right.
That the paper had missed opportunities in the past doesn’t mean the Globe is a bad paper; it’s far from that. This was just a particularly difficult story to a) believe, and b) nail down. Why, you wonder? Couldn’t they just go look at the court cases? No, they couldn’t. Lawyers for the victims who made claims — a small minority of the number of actual victims — generally didn’t file lawsuits in court. They went straight to the archdiocese, settlements were mediated, and the records were sealed. There would be a case over here that came to light, then one over there — and the paper covered those extensively, and everyone felt like they were on top of it. That there were so many priests, so many victims, that Cardinal Law was aware of the scope of it, that guilty priests would be shunted from one parish to another after useless “treatment,” all came as a shock as the resources of the Spotlight investigative team were devoted to the case.
And how did that happen? How was the decision made to have Spotlight drop what it was working on and bring to bear the kind of resources necessary to get the story at long last? That was interesting. It was the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, from The Miami Herald. He was an outsider in a newsroom full of people with deep Boston roots. He was Jewish in a Catholic town (all the members of the Spotlight team were raised Catholic, although apparently none were attending Mass any more). He wasn’t even interested in the Red Sox. He comes in feeling pressure to cut expenses, and focuses on Robinson’s team — four extremely talented, experienced reporters who only turn out a story about once a year (not because they were lazy, but because they put that much into their stories — making the team a very expensive luxury). And then he raises the question, if we’re going to have this team, why not have it look further into these sex abuse cases? He suggests they drop what they’re working on (some sort of police story) and turn to this. They do.
But it’s easy, if you’re not a journalist, to focus on the superficialities in the situation. A member of the audience asked me about that aspect of the story — the Jewish outsider being the only one who could make this bunch of hometown mackerel snappers take on the church in the most Catholic city in the country. I pointed out that he was missing the most salient aspect of Baron’s outsider perspective. It wasn’t that he was Jewish, or that he didn’t care about baseball. It was that he was from Florida — born in Tampa, coming up through the Herald‘s newsroom.
I could identify with his perspective. When I arrived at The State after having spent most of my career to that point in Tennessee, I was shocked to find out how much of public life in South Carolina could remain hidden — closed records, closed meetings. In Tennessee, we had had a Sunshine Law based on Florida’s groundbreaking open-government law. We’d had it when my career started. It spoiled me. I would hear stories of the bad old days before the law, when government bodies could go into something called “executive session” and shut out the press and the public, and I would shudder at the idea of such a thing. Then I came to South Carolina, where government bodies regularly go into executive session. It was like I’d been transported to the Dark Ages. Shortly after I arrived here, Jay Bender came to brief editors on improvements to FOI law that he and the Press Association had managed to push through the recent legislative session. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I kept saying things like, “That’s an improvement? You’re kidding me! You couldn’t do better than that?” I don’t think I made a good first impression on Jay.
(As governmental affairs editor, I was determined to break through the culture of closed doors. This led to an embarrassing situation one day. I left the newsroom to go check on my reporters and see what was happening at the State House. There was an important meeting going on somewhere that I was concerned we were missing. I spied a closed door, to one of the rooms off of the lobby near the exterior doors that open to the sweeping outdoor steps, and I strode over and put my hand on it. One of the loungers in the lobby called out that I shouldn’t barge in; there was a meeting going on. Aha! I thought. I self-righteously (I mean, I really made an ass of myself) replied, in a dramatic tone, “I know. That’s why I’m going in!” and pushed the door open with a flourish. It wasn’t my meeting. It was a couple of guys having a private chat, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I muttered something, backed out sheepishly, closed the door and endured the laughter of the lobby as I resumed my search.)
So, when Baron expressed surprise that it was so hard to get access to records in the sex-abuse cases, I felt his pain. And it made all the sense in the world that he would decide to overcome the barriers whatever it took, and suggested Spotlight drop what it was doing and get all over it. Which, as I said, they did. And they got the job done, against the odds.
I spoke of nuances. I loved a couple of the touches that undermined popular prejudices about the church, even as the film told in detail of the exposure of the church’s darkest secret. Sure, Law was the villain of the piece, but he was no Snidely Whiplash curling the ends of his mustache. Early on, when he meets Baron — one of those meetings that a new editor routinely has with key people in a community — he speaks of when he, too, had been an outsider, standing up for civil rights in Mississippi.
As for the old saw about a celibate priesthood being the culprit — hey, you don’t let ’em get married, so they take it out on the kids — there was a very interesting touch in the film. Stanley Tucci, wearing an impressive hairpiece, appears as attorney Mitchell Garabedian — as an Armenian, another outsider — who has decided he will try to make the abuse problem more public by actually suing on behalf of his victim clients in open court. He’s an irascible guy, and it takes some time for reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to build a relationship of trust with him. At one point as they’re getting to know each other, Garabedian asks Rezendes whether he’s married. Rezendes says he is (although apparently, it’s complicated). Garabedian asks whether his demanding job causes problems in the marriage. Rezendes admits it does. Garebedian says yeah, that’s why he never married: His work is too important, and he just doesn’t have the time. Which, you know, is the rationale behind priests being celibate — that they’re supposed to devote themselves entirely to being shepherds.
All in all, a rich feast of a film, that never falls back on easy answers. You should see it.
Look! Journalists walking through a newsroom — and it’s not deserted!
I was interested in seeing “Spotlight” because I’d heard it was the best newspaper movie since “All the President’s Men.”
That’s a high bar. I recently watched it again and was surprised how well it held up. I went to see it at the time because it was topical, and because Woodward and Bernstein were heroes to my generation of journalists. I was really startled at how good it was, independent of all that, going on 40 years later.
And I’ve seen Michael Keaton in a good newspaper movie before. I really identified with his character in “The Paper.” Of course, that was largely played for laughs, making it nothing like this film, which I’m anticipating being rather grim.
So, wanting to see it anyway, I was pleased to get an invitation to come watch it at the Nickelodeon tonight, and then participate in a panel discussion with Charles Bierbauer and Sammy Fretwell.
Y’all should come. The movie starts at 6:30 p.m., and the discussion follows.
The folks at the Nick asked me how I wanted to be billed on the website. I said, “Given the subject, I guess you could call me a 35-year veteran newspaper editor who is also a Catholic.” Which they did.
I say “to me” because it was inside humor; it could not possibly have been as funny to someone who has not sat through thousands of news meetings just like the one portrayed, and suffered just the way Phil Hartman’s character suffers in the skit. (I’d love to know who wrote it. It had to be a fellow sufferer, because only someone who has been there and listened to such nonsense could possibly have come up with some of the touches in the dialogue.)
And I say “at least on paper” because, to my disappointment in going back and watching it again, I see that the actors were a bit off. There were stumbles by Rob Schneider, and even Phil Hartman, who otherwise is brilliant as the one sane man in the room. I wish in retrospect that they’d shot it as a short film in advance, as SNL sometimes does, to iron out those little problems with timing. I find myself wondering whether the actors just lacked energy because, having never been newspaper editors, they just did not understand how hilarious this was.
Unfortunately, the live audience hardly laughed at all, which probably persuaded Lorne Michaels that insider newspaper humor doesn’t sell.
Anyway, I’m sharing this because of a Twitter exchange I had Saturday night:
Perhaps so. I forget what the show did right after 9/11. But that reminded me that, ironically, one of the funniest things SNL ever did was about Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, the skit ran 50 years to the day after the attacks, and that amount of time having passed gave the show license to make fun.
And it was just so, so real. How many times have I been in such meetings, trying to sell something important as the lede story, while my fellow editors oohed and aahed over minor crime news, or the fact that “the lady bulldogs have a chance of going to the state finals this year.” And as one who has always had little patience with other editors’ overreaction to the weather (my general guiding principle on that is that if I want to know what the weather is, I’ll step outside) this is a battle cry that resonates in my heart:
“I’ll tell you what’s happenin’ in the weather: IT’S RAININ’ BOMBS IN HAWAII; that’s what’s happening…”
There’s just one brilliant line after another, such as “Do we have one Japanese person in Turrell?” and “Now Bill, that is something that affects our readers — they’re going to have to pay for those typewriters!” Someone had to have been taking notes during real newsroom budget meetings to come up with dialogue such as that.
But the very best touch of all is when you see the paper roll off the press, and the Pearl Harbor story is played at the bottom of page 7, under the news that Phil Hartman’s character has, understandably, shot himself. It appears under this savagely brilliant, one-column headline:
… because, you know, you can’t be too careful. Do we KNOW that they were Japanese? And we’d better put “base” in quotes rather than step out on a limb…