Wednesday, February 3, 2010

'A fight I'd like to see'

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists this week re-printed the following essay, which is worth sharing.

Pictured at right is newspaperman/novelist/correspondent Ernest Hemingway -- "content provider"?

By Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent

DUMMERSTON, Vt. - The first time I was called a "content provider," I knew things were all downhill from there.

Think about Ernest Hemingway. Martha Gellhorn. Dorothy Thompson.

Then Damon Runyon. Alberto Moravia. Mark Twain. Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens. Graham Greene. Tom Wolfe. Gay Talese. Nellie Bly. H. L. Mencken. Grantland Rice. Hunter S. Thompson. Walter Winchell. Red Smith. Ernie Pyle. Russell Baker. Dave Barry. Carl Hiassen. Edna Buchanan. Ambrose Bierce. Mike Royko. Herb Caen. Janet Flanner. David Remnick. Seymour Hersh. Art Buchwald. George Seldes. I. F. Stone. David Halberstam. Geraldine Brooks. Jane Perlez. Tony Hillerman. Molly Ivins. A.J. Liebling. Murray Kempton. Ellen Goodman. Anna Quindlen.

Think about the sob sisters and advice-givers: Dorothy Dix. Amy Vanderbilt. The Lederer twins, Eppie and Pauline, also known as Dear Abby and Ann Landers. Heloise.

The great photojournalists: Mathew Brady. Margaret Bourke-White. Robert Capa. Weegee. Eddie Adams. Alfred Eisenstadt.

The New York columnists: Jimmy Breslin. Pete Hamill. Jimmy Cannon.

The ones who will forever be linked together: Katharine Graham. Ben Bradlee. Carl Bernstein. Bob Woodward. Or Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The great movies, The Front Page, His Girl Friday, the brutally cynical Ace in the Hole, Absence of Malice, All the President's Men, Sweet Smell of Success - god, Sweet Smell of Success! The Year of Living Dangerously, The Killing Fields, The Quiet American, Good Night and Good Luck. And the greatest one, Citizen Kane."

The arts writers - Gilbert Seldes. Brooks Atkinson. George Jean Nathan.

Donella Meadows. Rachel Carson. Truman Capote. Joan Didion.

Journalists have added immeasurable richness to our culture.

I've loved four great newspapers in my life: The New York Times, The Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe.

These are all shell papers now, ghosts of their former selves. Today we are hearing the death rattle of the Globe as the Times struggles to stay afloat.

Some people say newspapers have outlived their usefulness. These folks have their iPhones and Twitter and podcasts and RSS feeds. Newspapers, they say, are like buggy whips. They served their usefulness and should pass quietly from the scene.

But it's hard to come up with the many cultural contributions of the buggy whip. Or to find instances where people have given their lives for it.

The International News Safety Institute recently estimated that more than 1,300 journalists and other news professionals have died trying to cover the news in 105 countries since 1996. In places like the Congo, Mexico, Darfur, Georgia, Iraq, Colombia, Gaza, Afghanistan. They didn't die to provide "content." Or to raise the price of a media company's stock. They died to bring us the truth.

Some people say that texting, community journalism and social networking will replace newspapers. Yes, it's easy to hear about a plane landing on the Hudson River from people with iPhones who were watching as the thing come down. But will they break the news on Twitter about the next Abu Ghraib, pedophile priests, or a corrupt President?

Newspapers are more than a place to learn what's happening in the world. They're more than a place to find out which congressman is stealing, which sports figure is on steroids, and which actor is secretly having an affair.

They're where you go to get a lead on the good movies and books. They tell you stories about people you've never heard of. They give you the scores and the past performances. They tell you about the latest hip restaurants. They even give you pages of recipes. How many of us have learned to cook our first turkey with the pages of some newspaper taking up too much counter space?

All in one place, mind you. And every day.

Every day in this country, about 1,400 daily newspapers large and small publish how many pages filled with how many words?

And who comes up with the words to fill those pages? Writers.

Mind you, I'm not saying that all newspaper writing is good writing. Far from it. A lot of reporters are terrible writers. They bury the important facts, or cling to the "narrative" opening even when it's a hard news story, or get their facts wrong, or misquote and misinterpret, or push their own agendas, or defend conventional wisdom even when it's clearly not true.

But when you've got that many pages to fill with that many words, you're going to unearth some damn fine writers along the way.

A world without newspapers is a world without a place for writers to be paid to start writing. It's a place where curious people won't be paid to start investigating. I fear a new set of Dark Ages ahead.

We're barely five months into the new year, and the number of laid-off or bought-out reporters is approaching 10,000. The number will rise if the Globe is closed.

Imagine if Hemingway was still alive and someone called him a "content provider." That's a fight I'd like to see.