Hot Air: Just Do It

Perhaps my favorite active newspaper columnist is Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times. He’s got a point of view and it’s consistent. Reading him, you’ll learn that he’s concerned with the plight of the poor, that he’s four-square for women’s rights, that he can sniff out racism wherever it hides, and that, while he’s as much in favor of business as the next guy, he doesn’t think much at all about those who place profits and corporate interests above all other considerations.

Yeah, I agree with him on pretty much everything he writes. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to find his writing style compelling. But I do like his style. He can turn a phrase with the best.

Steinberg

Is he as good as Mike Royko? No. Nobody ever was or will be. Like Jimmy Breslin or, going way back in the mists of time, Ben Hecht, Royko was a sine qua non. It’s like saying Kris Bryant is no Babe Ruth, a pointless analogy. Steinberg, though, is as good a wordsmith as the independent Joe Queenan, say, or Charles M. Blow and Frank Bruni of the New York Times, or Ta-Nehisi Coates of the The Atlantic.

Two weeks ago, Steinberg wrote about Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism losing some sort of accreditation or another. He used the situation as a jumping off point to rail about the essential silliness of thinking that journalists need an entire four-year college curriculum in order to know how to report on things when they hit the real world. Here are a few gems from that column. He quotes Hunter S. Thompson:

“Journalism is not a profession or a trade.”

.. and launches into his own screed:

Dentistry is a profession. Plumbing is a trade. Journalism is performance art, like doing magic tricks in the street — conjuring up wonders out of the ordinary for the benefit of the uninterested, and doing it with consistency.

… and…

For the past decade it has called itself “Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.” Besides being in desperate need of an ampersand, that name is like your granddad showing up at a frat kegger with rouged cheeks and a polyester toupee. Fooling no one but himself. No graduate in the world ever said he had a degree in “media.”

… and…

Why does a journalism school — excuse me, a journalism, integrated marketing, storytelling and whatever else they fancy themselves this week school — need official sanction? A merit badge, a Good Housekeeping seal, a kiss on the forehead from some pooh bah?

Search me.

Yet colleges and universities all around this holy land today are folding their journalism schools, as NU has, into other schools that specialize in sneaky psychology, trickery, image-making, and overall fuckery. Indiana University, for instance, recently squished its journalism school into what it now calls The Media School. The school’s website lumps reporters in with filmmakers and game designers, although I find it difficult to see the connection between Woodward & Bernstein and Walt Disney. Nor is there any commonality shared by the editors of the Indianapolis Star and the makers of Stellaris: Utopia other than, I suppose, they all want to pay their bills and save up enough money for a comfortable retirement.

Woodward (R) & Bernstein

All the online and brochure pleadings of these various institutions of higher learning promise that the aspiring journalist will guarantee her or himself a fabulous living should s/he enroll today. Although, when it comes to newspapering, that seems a promise more on the order of those proffered by the three-card monte players who pass through big city el trains.

Kids go into what used to be referred to, quaintly, as J-schools because they dream of becoming Erin Burnett or Sean Hannity. They want to look good on camera. If that’s true, wouldn’t it be better for them to enroll in what used to be referred to, quaintly, as charm schools?

You don’t need four years of college to become a reporter. You need to be born with an insatiable curiosity and an overwhelming desire to be the first kid on the block to tell everybody all the latest gossip and news. Take me. In 1964 — February, to be exact — Sister Caelin, one Monday morning after the most talked-about Ed Sullivan Show ever the night before, asked the class what all this talk about something called “beetles” meant. I nearly leapt out of my seat, waving my hands, and panting, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!”

“Yes, Michael,” Sister Caelin said, the look on her face betraying her true feeling that the last thing in the world she wanted was to let me explain this new aspect of the world to her.

“Aw, man…,” I began.

“Mr. Glab,” she responded, “I am not a man.”

“Sorry, S’ter. But, m…, I mean, S’ter, the Beatles are these cool guys with long hair and they play guitars and they sing these great songs and the girls are all screaming and it’s the greatest thing ever and…, and..,”

“That’s quite enough, Mr. Glab,” Sister Caelin said. And then she launched into a scold about how we should avoid any shows featuring these beetles in the future and merely seeing them and all the screaming girls around them was as unholy as, well, disobeying one’s parents or taking the lord thy god’s name in vain.

“Aw, yer fulla shit,” I thought. No matter. I knew at that moment I’d been born to be a reporter.

All that I needed was some good guidance in the very basic rules of journalism: ask questions, write the story with the five W’s, lead with the most important idea, etc. Here, in fact, are some simple rules for reporters as put forth by the Columbia Journalism Review:

  • A journalist is only as good as her or his sources
  • Verification before dissemination
  • People forget who got it first but they remember who got it wrong
  • If it seems to be too good to be true it probably is
  • It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup

and, finally, that great old saw posted in huge letters on the wall in the reception area of the old City News Bureau in Chi.: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

Simple. If you follow these dicta, you’ll make a fine journalist — but only, as I say, if you were born with that obsessive nosiness and the need to tell the world the one thing you and only you know.

You know, none of Royko, Breslin, or Hecht ever went to school to become a journalist. In fact, they didn’t find journalism — journalism found them. Royko attended junior college for a spell and then, not knowing what to do with his life, joined the Air Force. Hoping to dodge being assigned as a cook, he weaseled his way into working for the base newspaper. The night before he started his new job, he grabbed a journalism textbook and crammed. That was the extent of his schooling in the art of reporting. A best-selling profile of Mayor Richard J. Daley, six best-selling compilations of his columns, a Pulitzer Prize, a Heywood Broun Award, the HL Mencken Award, a Headliner Award, and syndication in some 600 newspapers would ensue after he left the Air Force.

Royko

Breslin dropped out of college and took a job as a copy boy for the Long Island Press. Hecht ran away from home after graduating from high school, landing in Chicago and scoring a gig as a gopher at one of the city’s dailies.

Each of them would move up a notch when, through dumb luck, some beat reporter wouldn’t show up for work and the editor, panicky, would say, Here, kid, go cover this big fire — and don’t screw up!

But they would screw up. And each of their editors would correct them and explain how they went wrong and how they would avoid doing so in the future. They kept at it and became good…, no, great.

It takes repetition and years of practice to become a good violinist, power hitter, computer game designer, or reporter. The best way to learn how to do something is to do it.

That’s why the empty chairs in the WFHB newsroom puzzle me. There are four reporting stations in the cramped newsroom in the old firehouse. Each is set up for a reporter to sit down, make a phone call, record it, edit the interview, and write a story. News director Joe Crawford gives each newbie a copy of the station’s rules for reporting as well as some handouts containing helpful journalism hints. I’ve seen dozens of kids come in, looking petrified as they sat before their computer screens, their headphones and mics in place, trying to muster the courage to make that first call to a source.

I well remember the days when I was a punk kid trying to break into the business. Why, I’d wonder, would the alderman or someone from the city clerk’s office or the fire battalion chief give me a half second of her or his valuable time? Would they yell at me? Would they tell me to take a hike, son? Hell, would they call the cops and get a restraining order to insure I’d never harass them again?

Who knew?

I didn’t, nor would I for long weeks and months. The first time I was ever ushered into Richie Daley’s office (the old man’s son, then Cook County State’s Attorney, who’d go on to become the mayor himself), I’d been reporting and writing stories for a half year already yet I still feared someone might pop up, grab me by the elbow and tell me to get out, that I had no business passing myself off as a reporter. It wasn’t until three years later, one day when Mayor Harold Washington pulled me aside to whisper some tip in my ear that he’d hoped I’d run with, that I even began to feel as if I belonged.

And the truth is, I still don’t really feel as if I belong. I’m no insider. I don’t necessarily want to be overly chummy with the mayor or the Congressperson. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell married Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve. The likes of Barbara Walters and Ben Bradlee made it their business to hobnob with the very people they should have been watching with a skeptical, distanced eye.

The reporter has to hold her or himself apart from the people s/he covers.

That takes practice. It takes Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to get good at the job.

Anybody with an ounce of drive can knock off at least a few of those 10,000 hours in the WFHB newsroom. Anybody hoping to become a reporter can easily sit down and do a story about Mayor Hamilton’s scuttled annexation plan, South Central Indiana’s opioid scourge, or Bloomington’s runaway rent rate.

I’d have figured IU journalism professors would be shipping their students by the bushelful to WFHB just so they can gain practical experience.

Yet, as far as I can tell, none of them makes that recommendation.

Why the hell not?

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