Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making sausage at the newsweekly

This is the time of year we old trench-coat-wearing reporters used to call "the silly season"; those weeks in August when anyone even vaguely important was away, nothing happened, and the pages had to be filled with stories about dogs that bark the opening bars to "Nessun Dorma" and freakishly shaped vegetables that appeared in someone's garden bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary.

Actually there's been a lot going on this August, not least the rally in Washington, D.C., this weekend at which ex-DJ/ex-drug-addict/current gold-coin-scam-promoter Glenn Beck will unveil, courtesy of divine providence, his "100 year plan for America."

Still, out of nostalgic respect for the venerable traditions of print journalism, I did not want August to pass by without making space for at least one totally-off-the-news column, and what better topic for such a column than the old traditions of print journalism itself. There's much about the old traditions of print journalism that no sane person would ever feel nostalgic for, but one aspect of the old days that I think deserves more respect than it gets from the brash denizens of today's Internet instant-rumor-forwarding mill was the almost superstitious dread we all used to have of getting something wrong. It was a haunting fear that could make even the most grizzled, cigar-chomping, martini-imbibing desk editor wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.  

U.S. News & World Report was a totally crazy place for the twelve years I worked there, and we (and I) certainly made our share of mistakes, but no one could deny the pains we took to get things right. It was virtually obsessive. We had teams of fact checkers, copy editors, editors, proofreaders; everybody checked everything literally 5 or 6 or more times; when I first arrived there the magazine still had a superb library staffed with reference experts and an "economics unit" filled with smart people who could lay their hands on every statistic known to man and who took it extremely personally if anyone tried to employ a number out of its proper context.

The supposed monopoly that the "mainstream media" had on information back then was almost always, on balance, a force for good as far as I'm concerned — precisely because of this almost bred-in-the-bone reverence for accuracy. I remember interviewing Hal Bruno, ABC News's political director and an old pro who was clearly heartbroken over the shoddy standards for reporting rumor, gossip, and innuendo that were taking over his profession in the late 1990s with the advent of Drudge et al. He told me (I'm relying on memory but it was very close to this), "Back in the fifties for god's sake I worked at the Hearst paper, in Chicago for god's sake, and we were in cutthroat competition with the other paper in town. But there was only one thing worse than being beaten on a story — and that was getting something wrong in our own story."

He related the old newsroom joke: 

   Reporter A: [makes some innocuous observation about life]
   Reporter B: Where did you hear that? 
   Reporter A: My mother told me. 
   Reporter B: Did you check it out?

He also made what's to me still the crucial point: the real reason for "checking it out" was because we'd be damned if we were going to let ourselves be used or spun by people with an ax to grind — of whom there was never a shortage. Of course U.S. News went the way of almost all print journalism; by the time I left, the once-magnificent library was down to a corner of the newsroom with a few shelves, the economics unit was long gone, the staff was dwindling weekly . . . but that's another story.

I'm off for several days; back next week. Thanks for reading.