Friday, April 17, 2009

The End of Journalism

I was working in the newsroom of the Washington Post during Watergate and if Watergate is not a familiar term, please stop reading now; you'll only get confused. I did nothing to contribute to the adventure save, once or twice, field three a.m. phone calls from Martha Mitchell, the deranged wife of the equally deranged Attorney General, John Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell believed her husband was trying to poison her because she knew too much about Nixon's misbehaviors in the White House. The newsroom operators had no patience for Martha and would switch her call to the lowest person on the totem poll, me. I would listen, take notes, and thank her for the information. Then I would type a memo on my IBM Selectric and pass it on to the night editor of the national desk, who would glance at it and put it in the circular file, also known as the wastebasket.

Watergate was the beginning of an interesting era in American reporting. Investigative journalism soon became the preferred field of study for hundreds of would-be Bernsteins and Woodwards and blanketyblank-gate stories proliferated. Some were important, others not. The Pentagon papers, Contra-gate, Iran-gate, NAFTA-gate, all were events of significant historical import. Others were minor, but all served a purpose.

Now, we seem to have abandoned investigative reporting. It is overly expensive, makes enemies among advertisers at a time when papers are barely surviving, and it lacks a public following. Dedicating a team of reporters, editors, checkers and support staff to the pursuit of a single story is hopelessly dated. The media's main job nowadays is to rewrite press releases and entertain, rather than inform. Readers, by an large, are not really interested in news. A none-too-subtle indicator that investigative journalism is dead is hammering us today. Not one single mainstream newspaper--not the Times, Globe, Post, WSJ or Chronicle unearthed Bernard Madoff's pyramid schemes. No one questioned his profits, investigated his background. No one in the media blew the whistle until it was far too late. Rather, financial--and other--reporters were writing puff pieces about the future of China's finances, the future of GM, and the economy's rosy outlook for the coming decade.

“News," said England's Lord Norfthcliffe in 1896, "is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, was a powerful British newspaper and publishing magnate. During his lifetime, he exercised vast influence over British popular opinion, buying stolid, unprofitable newspapers and transforming them to make them lively and entertaining for the mass market. His interest in news was marginal, except when it entertained the reader. He would feel right at home today.

Here's installment 80 of Wasted Miracles.

Shortly before noon Catherine came back to the ARC to pick Colin up but he told her he was going to be staying around until after Josie ate lunch with the rest of the patients, he’d catch a bus home, it wasn’t that far. Catherine gave him a long questioning look which he chose to disregard. She thought he was strangely cheery and that surprised her, but she had dictated the rules of the day and chose to abide by them. She drove home, took a long bath, made a sandwich out of ham, Camembert and sourdough bread.
She wondered whether anything would come of that evil night, whether this time her daughter would be able to shake off the chains and not merely rattle them. It didn’t look good, not really, and all her experience, strength and hope were feeling pretty puny. She recited program mantras to herself but couldn’t shake the thought of Josie maybe not making it and it frightened her, left a dreadful empty feeling in her stomach.
She shoveled the sandwich into the garbage can beneath the kitchen sink, looked at her watch. Almost one-thirty. She walked to mirror, inspected herself, peered at her own face. Still attractive, she thought, still capable of attracting people, men. A face capable of starting over again. She decided that with Josie back and safe, she would make an appointment with a lawyer next week. She didn’t know exactly who to call but there were plenty of women friends who’d gone through divorces and come out better for it. She wondered if Lars would be shocked, incredulous. Probably not. Surely he too must have come to realize that his lack of concern, even of sympathy, proved beyond a doubt there was nothing left in their union worth salvaging. Who knows, she thought, he might even be grateful. The bastard.
The counselor was peeved. His name tag read Lester Shakey and he was a generally nice man, the only professional staff at the ARC who was not in recovery. This shortcoming had long ago ceased to irk him--he had been dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts for years and come to the conclusion that it was not necessary for the inmates to run the asylum--but today he was in a bad mood not made better by the man seated before him.
Lester Shakey’s office was uncluttered and sunny, his desk nicely proportioned and arranged to be in the exact center of the small room. He wore pressed blue jeans, a messageless sweatshirt and white boat shoes with no socks. His face was round with very light blue eyes that now focused on Colin’s mouth.
“It’s important that you understand, Mr. Marsh, how very crucial a time this is in Josie’s treatment.” He smiled, showing evenly gapped teeth. “Crucial. Josie has to get familiar with her new environment. This is all very different for her, it’s--”
“Her fourth rehab.”
Shakey frowned, annoyed at the interruption. “Fourth? I thought it was the third.” He shuffled papers, found a blue folder, opened it, read something slowly, lips moving. The fingertip of his right index traced a line. “Right you are. Fourth. Says so right here in her records.” He smiled again, paused as if to make a point, continued. “Josie is very confused, she--”
Colin cut in again. “She knows exactly where she is and why. This is not a new dance, Mr. Shakey. Josie has been through this before. She probably knows some aspects of this treatment better than you do. And I think there are some things she should know, things I can tell her that I truly believe will be helpful. All I need is another fifteen minutes or so with her. After that, she’s yours.”
Shakey shook his head, lips pursed. This was highly irregular and he didn’t like it. “I wish you had consulted me before talking to her, Mr. Marsh. You know the rules, no contacts with outsiders unless it’s supervised. It’s for their own good, you know.”
Colin wore his friendliest face. “I apologize. I should have checked in with you. Fifteen minutes. Please.”
Shakey decided this had gone far enough. He rose from behind his desk, motioned for the door. His visitor, however, did not rise, which forced Les Shakey to pretend he was actually going to do something else and resume his seat. He sighed, glanced at the full inbox on his left. He said, “Now I really must get back to work, Mr. Marsh.” And tried to rising trick again. Marsh didn’t move. Shakey sighed a second time, more loudly.
“Fifteen minutes, Mr. Marsh. I’ll be looking at the clock.”

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