Monday, January 23, 2006

The Last Temptation of Journalism

There's a scene in The Paper I find particularly poignant in its depiction of the current mood of the journalism profession.

Glenn Close, portraying hard-boiled, bottom-line obsessed managing editor Alicia Clark, approaches editor-in-chief Bernie White, expertly played by Robert Duvall. In the scene, Clark barges into White's office pining for another raise after several recent raises. She wants to renegotiate her contract again.

White is not unsympathetic to Clark's plight, but he is forced to maneuver Clark's attention to the reality of the journalism world. He tells a meandering story about living it up in a pub with other journalists while over seas to cover the Olympics. When the tab comes in it's over $900, and the writers begin arguing with each other over who ordered what and when.

White explains the group was getting ready to make anxious phone calls home for money when a little man signs a napkin and generously pays their bill. The man was Pablo Picasso.

"We walk in their world but we don't live in it," White says, finally getting to his point.

Clark storms out with a promise to take up the issue with the publisher, but she is doomed for failure because journalists simply are never going to live like the people they publish.

What's true about this scene isn't the mere envy that comes from observing the rich and famous on a regular basis. It's the realization that the rich and famous are rarely more talented or gifted or plucky than the average schmo. If you get close enough to a famous person, whatever magical shine they might have in the glossy pages of print publication is immediately stripped away. They often struggle for the right words and hire publicists to hide their inability to speak coherently.

Walk in that world long enough and it becomes difficult to understand why you also don't belong there.

If you've suspected your local journalist treats the world of the famous with a heavy dose of cynicism, this is the likely cause. The average person is rarely confronted with the reality of mediocrity of people living so far above everyone else they don't know what it's like to do their own grocery shopping. Some of them never even look at their checking account balances or have ever stressed about paying the mortgage. The money's just there, and, upon close and regular examination, it was given to them for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

Sure, you could point to a computer industry icon or financial wizard and find some semblance of reason for their lofty financial status. But even there we see salaries far beyond rational explanation -- CEOs who gather hundreds of millions of dollars while their companies crumble beneath the weight over their own selfish decisions.

Journalists are forced to capture the stories of these newsmakers without tainting the truth, but it's often difficult to do when your eyes are opened. For example, most people know their politicians only in public appearances in front of the camera, when the charm is in overdrive. Journalists get to watch politicians disassemble the persona when the camera is turned off, and its that kind of disingenuous attitude that will quickly demolish optimism. The cult of personality is rendered ineffective to the journalist.

I'm not apologizing for cynical journalists, I'm only stating the challenge. Most simply learn to stop looking at the world with emotional attachment. They rely on blind filters they learned in college, the black and white editorial process where there is nothing protected and everything and everyone is forced to play by the same ethical rules. A few try to adapt to the ethics of each story, and that kind of bending usually creates great copy with a lot of factual errors.

Then there are the Alicia Clarks of the world who stop practicing journalism altogether. Newspapers are a business. We don't need the whole truth today, just what's true right now, because that's most economically feasible model. If it's proven wrong tomorrow, we'll get to it tomorrow and everyone will forget about it and be happy. And its the Alicia Clarks of the world, the ones who just want a taste of the life they witness in person every day, who are running the newsrooms in America today.

Its the Alicia Clarks that scare me.

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