Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 10

March 7 - March 13, 2002

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You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.
— Humbert Wolfe: “The Uncelestial City,” 1930

Alas, as a journalist for more than 55 years, I sometimes ponder those lines, which many might say are applicable whether the newsman is British, American or from anywhere else where newspapers are printed.

I speculate whether it’s worse to have a reputation for being susceptible to bribes or for digging up dirt to embarrass those we write about. Yet to be a target of such contemplation goes with the game — always has, always will, whether one reports in the Times of London or this paper.

Reporters are often in a pickle, a big, green, sour, dill pickle.

Report something bad about someone who probably deserves it, and you’re vulnerable to accusations of negative reporting. Write something good about the same person — or even neglect to refer to his or her skullduggery — and you are susceptible to charges of a cover-up.

Journalism’s Lure

Journalism. It’s a unique profession, always challenging, always fascinating and nearly always satisfying, so much so that few who take it up abandon it for good. I know. I gave it up for a short spell 50 years ago, and though I made more than twice my reporting salary in sales, I couldn’t stay away from pad, pencil and typewriter.

I eagerly returned to the profession for not much more than I was bringing home when I left, and certainly much less than I was making selling merchandise wholesale.

Why? Within the heart of any journalist there’s the aura of excitement. There’s a story to be reported, a view to express — and the keyboard is at your fingertips.

Something is always going on everywhere in this world of ours, and one inclined to journalism isn’t satisfied to just read about it. Often, there’s much that doesn’t get to the public; only those covering get to know the inside scoop. Only they get to tell the story.

There are good, bad and capable journalists, as there are lawyers, doctors, plumbers and even politicians. Newspapers and the rest of the media can be profit-oriented or dedicated to public service, reporting the truth as best can be determined.

Hit Close to Home

In recent days, the ramifications of this profession have been in this writer’s thoughts more than usual, prompted by the filmed and cold-blooded murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was doing his job, chasing after a story in Pakistan where he was kidnapped and subsequently beheaded.

Times have changed. In the old days, journalists were looked upon as sacred cows. They could be threatened, intimidated, cursed or possibly beaten up, but the cardinal rule was never kill a reporter. Even the hoodlums of Chicago and New York pretty much played by the “rules.”

There is a unique camaraderie among journalists. Daniel Pearl’s senseless murder hit those of us in this profession real hard. He was one of us, he was on a story, and he paid for it with his life. He was not a random victim as most war correspondents are; he was targeted, held captive for days during which he undoubtedly realized how the scenario would end. The ultimate torture.

Daniel Pearl’s story hit home all the more with this newsman because we plied our trade for the same newspaper, though at different times. We typed our stories in the newsroom of the North Adams Transcript of Massachusetts, he in the ’70s, me 20 or more years earlier, and both of us fledgling journalists at the time.

There’s a feeling of kinship, though our paths never crossed.

He pounded out stories about goings-on of the same small town in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts where I was a police reporter. Both of us were to move on to big cities for bigger paychecks and bigger stories. But, unfortunately, Daniel Pearl’s biggest story was the one he couldn’t write. He was the story, which is a rarity in this profession.

All In a Day’s Work

Allow me to tell you a bit about this job of covering the news. Seldom at the beginning of any work day do reporters know where the day will take them, who they will meet, what stories will unfold, even when they will return home. Never are two days the same. If they were, there would be little worthwhile news to write.

No one knows what’s coming next: a fire, a murder, a death, a scandal, a meeting of the Lions Club or anything else that makes news or tells a human-interest story. It’s the job of the reporter to report it first, sometimes swiftly (always with deadlines to meet), interestingly and, above all, accurately. There’s great satisfaction in meeting all three requirements, but there’s also a flip side.

Not written in this job description are various other obligations and duties that journalists must live by — and not all come easy. We are taught never to look at the clock, and not just when we go to or from our work. If a story breaks, we’re to call those involved no matter where the hands of the clock are. We’re not supposed to feel squeamish about waking someone up in the middle of the night if a story depends on it. But we often do, sometimes even delaying the call at the risk of an incomplete or flawed report or the ire of an editor.

We’re supposed to be hard-nosed, un-biased and far-removed in compassion from the story, but that can be difficult indeed. For days one can be haunted by the experience of calling a mother who does not yet know that her child has been killed. It’s hell to phone or personally interview one who has been accused of corruption or some other vile deed, as it is a person the journalist has written ill of in an ongoing story.

Hard-nosed (some say heartless) as reporters are supposed to be, there are times when emotional involvement cannot be banished. Who can look around and see bodies strewn from an accident or explosion, see and hear people in agony, feel nothing within and say “just the facts, officer.”

Our code dictates that we’re not to be concerned that what we write can cost a person a job, a marriage or standing in the community — even if it’s our best friend. Easier said than done.

We’re not to get involved, just report, that’s what editors scream at us. Easy for them, who sit at desks far removed from the bodies, the bedlam, the victims, the middle-of-the-night phone calls. It’s their job only to see that we do our job, living by the rules of the profession, no exceptions.

There are rewards other than pay or professional standing. Sometimes a story prompts funds for a life-saving operation, sometimes dastardly deeds are righted, another time someone has a heart-warming story to store in an album. Above all except getting it right is the satisfaction of getting the story first.

Like the rest of us, Daniel Pearl endured the lows and enjoyed the highs as he worked his way up in this profession from small to big papers. Unlike the rest of us, his career ended in a most cruel and senseless way. That’s why his story hits so hard. He was doing his job — and doing it well.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly