“Things reveal themselves passing away. “ — William Butler Yeats
Reading analysis of the disaster that was the monologue at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the thought occurs: Can an entire generation in a given profession fail to reach maturity?
The old newsroom guard had warned precisely of that. They said modern journalists lacked the judgment any readership expected, that they would be the ruin of the craft.
But then, in my memory at least, journalists have always been child-like. It is an attribute of the good reporter, that is, a sincere curiosity about the world, a reflexive questioning of authority, the recklessness to demand explanation from the adults in charge.
What seems to be missing, rather, are the adults in charge.
To make this case you need to become familiar with an antique desktop accessory, a 3-inch mounted spindle or nail that could be found on any senior editor’s desk right up until the mid 1970s.
These copy spikes often dated from the newspaper’s founding and had beautifully decorated brass bases. They were one of the first workplace hazards discovered by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration. This was so even though nobody in the newsroom had ever witnessed anyone being injured by one or had ever known anyone who had ever heard of anyone being injured by one.
Anyway, it was on these spikes where editors “filed” rejected articles. This was done unceremoniously and without explanation, as in: “What happened to the story you were working on?” “They spiked it.”
On the metro desk in which I came of age, any story submitted to the front page that hinted at what was disdainfully referred to as “human interest” was spiked. Readers were too busy, it was thought, for folderol.
To a young journalist, this may have seemed arbitrary and purposelessly demoralizing. Stories were spiked for no better reason than they didn’t jibe with an editor’s personal experience or, perversely, didn’t strike him as sufficiently novel. The end product, though, could be safely read aloud to all ages at a breakfast table.
So how did we get from there to where the elect of the national press corps, assembled in self-congratulation over cocktails, laughs at jokes about vaginas and aborted babies?
I have an explanation, a systemic one — maybe right, maybe wrong, but plausible.
About 40 years ago, around the time OSHA was confiscating our copy spikes, the proprietors of local newspapers began selling out to widely held national corporations. Wall Street thought the dailies were a good investment because of their reputation as being inflation-proof (want ads increased during bad times, display ads increased during good times).
Out went the irascible ideologue of a publisher with his country club friends and garden club wife. In came the ambitious manager on a five-year assignment and the narcissistic editors and advocacy specialists riding his coattails.
Morale improved markedly, as it does when the adult leaves the room. It was spitball time. No longer was there a political cliff, absolute prohibitions or other newsroom bummers. Anything went as long as it reflected a sentiment first heard at a dormitory bull session or it tore down a tradition, a social more, a taboo or someone’s good name.
Gone were longtime journalistic standards, including the rule that no opinion would appear on the editorial page unless it could be imagined being held by an honest citizen in possession of the facts. Crackpots and scoundrels thereby abounded, always professing the best intentions and often holding the highest of offices.
Incidentally, the latest edition of “The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems” lists a new ailment. It is the Immature Personality Disorder, a condition akin to other “impulse control” disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder and Disruptive Impulse-Control Disorder.
Going forward, that will answer any questions you may have.
— Craig Ladwig