Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Letters to a Young Journalist

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 27, 2014

“The thing that terrifies you is the thing you must do.”

This pocket hardcover is ostensibly a series of letters to a young, but unnamed, journalist. Sort of an anonymous anti-source. Which makes sense, because Freedman is a very conflicted journalist.

RecommendationSpecial Interests Only
AuthorSamuel G. Freedman
Length186 pages
Book Rating5

He starts his memoirish collection of advice where one should start, the beginning, with plucky young reporters, wise old sages, and the inevitably burned-out hacks.

The reporters whom I got to know over the coming weeks seemed drawn in equal parts from the past and the future. There was an old-timer named Forrest who liked to avoid being assigned obituaries by hiding under his desk. One of his contemporaries, Maggie, sometimes fell asleep at her desk, letting her wig slide off. Phil, one of the editors, chewed cigars.1 I couldn’t dismiss the whole generation, though, because it also included Jack Gill, the streetwise skeptic who covered Plainfield, and Hollis Burke, an idealist who had done a midlife turn in the Peace Corps. They had about them not only experience but wisdom.

The youngsters in the newsroom came from hip backgrounds, including disc jockeys and poets.

Sam Meddis, one of the investigative reporters, had talked his way into the paper with a bunch of poems he’d written as a Rutgers undergrad.

Freedman himself always prefers the path less traveled. If someone else is covering the same story, it’s already passé.

If you give me a choice, I will always prefer to write about someone obscure than someone famous. And, as much as I savor the company of fellow journalists at a party or in a newsroom, I feel like I’ve done something wrong if I bump into any of them reporting the same story as I am.

Ah, but journalism has gone to hell since the days before cable television, when television news was a single voice with three heads and the news media in general spoke in unison.

My own bitter joke is that I remember when the New York Post published nonfiction. By that I mean that I remember it before it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. I’m not generally a believer in the Great Man Theory of History, but in Murdoch’s case, his despotic genius has been to infect contemporary American journalism with some of its most pernicious diseases. He transformed the Post from a spunky and serious paper to a gossip-and-sensationalism rag, created the tawdry genre of tabloid television with the show A Current Affair, and bankrolled Fox News Channel, a political movement masquerading as a news organization. No individual bears more responsibility for degrading the profession I practice and adore, and I would feel no differently if Murdoch had been a demagogue of the Left rather than the Right.

I went to his 2007-2008 feed on the New York Times2 as well as a wider Google search, and I see nothing from him decrying the Times’s disgraceful attack on John McCain two years later, which was the epitome of gossip and sensationalism. There is also nothing in the book about the demonstrably left-wing demagoguery of MSNBC.

He yearns for the fairness doctrine, which basically killed political discussion outside of the newsroom’s single voice. It was the end of the fairness doctrine that let a thousand voices sing. But that, too, is a problem, turned around. He says that there is “no pretense of alternative voices” on conservative radio. But conservative radio is the alternative voice. For years, with stifling policies such as the fairness doctrine that basically worked one way: anything controversial, that is, anything that controverted what the news media said, required balancing by law. This had as its effect to stifle alternatives to the mainstream media, a term Freedman hates.

His is an insular view; he complains, writing this during the Bush administration, that “never before” has he seen government paying for policy coverage; but I remember Clinton doing it for ramping up the drug war, and I expect earlier politicians did it, too.

And, writing this during the Bush administration, it makes sense that he would never expect a complicit media to cover up the failings of a presidency. But I wonder if he feels differently about his fellow journalists eight years after writing this:

No journalist I know would want to return to the complicity between media and government that lulled reporters into avoiding reference of Franklin Roosevelt’s handicap and John F. Kennedy’s proxy invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

But, get this: despite his dislike of complicity between government and news, where he sees “signs of vitality” in journalism is NPR, that is, government-funded radio.

Journalists, he says, must be one part social reformer and one part artist, reporting with a social mission, tacking between the shores of truth and justice. He compares the two competing parts of the journalist’s brain to The Kiss of the Spider-Woman’s political prisoners, Valentin and Molina.

Let me put it in even more accessible terms for you. Valentin is reporting and Molina is writing. Valentin is the part of every journalist that wants to be a social reformer, and Molina is the part that longs to be an artist. They are interdependent, inextricably bound, raveled together. You must master both to excel at our profession.

And journalist is a tight line between the truth on one side and justice on the other, as sailing a boat upwind.

As a reporter, you will be tacking, too, between the shores of truth and justice, trying to hold your direction true north.

But, despite this, there are rays of understanding toward the end of the book as if, having established his bona fides in the first half, he is free to criticize in the second half.

He begins with an admonishment to trust only those journalists who seriously try to verify their sources.

In our field, journalism, I trust only those with scuffed shoes. The nicks in the polish, the ground-down heel, the mud and dust on the instep, all of these attest to the act of reporting. Scuffed shoes are the evidence of enterprise.

He then decries the “treacherous group-think” that permeates the media today.

There is a whole array of publicists, media consultants, political operatives, sports-information directors, personal managers, and sundry other suck-ups who walk the earth with the sole goal of keeping your shoes spotless. And there is a treacherous group-think within newsrooms and among journalists covering the same beat, a process of reinforcing received wisdom and conventional views of events. When conservatives assail a liberal bias in the media, they are partly (and correctly) identifying a media culture of widely shared assumptions about abortion rights, gun ownership, and religion’s role in public life, to name just a few issues.

And he even finds time to point out that two of journalism’s greatest aphorisms combine to point out its secret purpose:

It sounds admirable to “speak truth to power,” as Professor Martin Kramer of Tel Aviv University has pointed out, unless you think of the phrase’s implication that you are supposed to tell lies, presumably comforting ones, to the powerless.

Despite his description of journalism as tacking between the shores of truth and justice, he strongly dislikes the movement among intellectuals to disparage the existence of truth.

I should warn you that there will be few rewards in this life for hewing to a standard of factuality… University scholars will tell you that you’re naïve to think there is such a thing as a fact. Literary critics will tell you truth can only be achieved through surmise and speculation. Publishing houses will complicitly look the other way while you violate any journalistic or historical norm, if it helps the book sell… Ultimately, though, you will have to set your own ethics and be prepared to be treated like some bluestocking, some prude, some fool3, as a result. I’m telling you, though, you’ll be fighting the right fight.

When he gets into specific advice at the end, it’s not bad. Don’t major in journalism as an undergraduate, nor any of its analogues. Major in something real, to give yourself a grounding. If you must major in journalism, do so as a graduate student after you’ve gotten your Bachelor’s in something else.

All too few journalism programs, especially at the undergraduate level, strive to build your cultural and historical literacy and to imbue you with intellectual curiosity. Yet those are the building blocks of journalistic greatness.

Further, do not get addicted to approval. Don’t be a Communist. And be nostalgic for the provinces.

You might think most of that goes without saying, especially don’t be a Communist. But Freedman came of journalistic age in the seventies, and remembers journalists cheering murderers and terrorists.

In the Madison I entered in the fall of 1973, and especially around the windowless newsroom of the Cardinal4, most of us saw being independent as synonymous with being on the left. We kept a staff riot helmet and marked the Communist conquest of South Vietnam with a front-page banner headline, “VICTORY!!!”… I spent hours enmeshed in earnest and heated debates about whether our editorial page should endorse the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst. In truth, there was little original thought on the Cardinal.

Dwight Armstrong was part of “an outfit of local radicals [that] had planted a bomb in a university building that conducted military research. The blast managed to kill one physicist, who was against the war.”

Dwight Armstrong’s attorneys asked the Cardinal to donate five thousand dollars to his defense fund, and the request went before the board. On the night of our vote, the place was packed, with maybe seventy or eighty staff members in the conference room. Every yes vote got applauded, every no vote booed. Mostly the lines broke by who was a student and who was a professor. As I awaited my turn, I could only think about the way Karl Armstrong’s supporters had never expressed the slightest regret for the killing of that physicist. I cast my vote against the donation, and it turned out to be the deciding vote. The next time I walked into the Cardinal newsroom, the editor called me Shitman Freedman.

Artistically framed, Freedman ends where he starts, at the beginning. Working on smaller papers “in the provinces” was more rewarding, and developed stronger friendships, than at a big operation like the New York Times.

We were in our twenties, most of us, unmarried or wedded but childless. We had nothing compelling in our rented apartments to return to at the workday’s end, and so the days were long and intense, and they bled into dance parties, boozy dinners, ball games, bitching sessions. One of our Suburban Trib colleagues, Bruce Dold, had been a local legend as a college disk jockey at Northwestern, and a lot of nights wound down with us sprawled, exhausted, and addled in his living room as he spun discs and gave commentary in what we came to call “The Dold Show.”

With twenty-five years of hindsight, I can also tell you that there was a real lasting value to the relentlessly parochial focus of a small newspaper. At the time, I dreaded hearing that phrase from my editors—“the local angle.” Now I understand it as a way, however charmless, of telling us young reporters to figure out how to make a story uniquely and entirely our own, not to merely ape what a larger paper with more resources would do better.

This is an interesting book; there’s little in the way of the nuts and bolts of Don Campbell’s book, and the insights are often contradictory. He’s a product of his generation, and he, perhaps subconsciously, subscribes to the view of the anointed that permeates modern journalism. And yet he does see through it enough that the advice given here is worth taking. Hard work and honesty may not win the acclaim that comes to walkers of the easy path, but that is the right path to take. Young journalists could do worse than read Letters to a Young Journalist.

Yet I have never stopped loving the work… Every time I start to write, even if it is just putting my name and a slug on the top of a story, I feel an almost physical sensation of well-being move from my fingertips up through my arms and into my torso, like some writer’s version of the fabled “runner’s high.” It is not that I expect the work to go easily, only that I know I am doing what I was put on earth to do.

If you’re a true believer, if this is meant to be your life’s work, then nothing and nobody can change your mind.

  1. Does smoking make him part of the old or the cool? It seems incongruous among the other two items, unless Phil was literally eating his cigars.

  2. Freedman’s beat on the New York Times appears to currently be religion. He does, however, have an article of February 27 titled “Struggling to Squelch an Internet Rumor” about an unrelated topic.

  3. Some conservative?

  4. His college paper at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the Daily Cardinal.

Letters to a Young Journalist

Samuel G. Freedman

Recommendation: Special Interests Only