by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
January 17, 2003
'CORPORATE CREEP' IS CATCHING UP TO NEWSPAPERS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I've long read newspapers back to front, starting with the sports section. Lately, it's the only part of the newspaper I can stand to read. That's because the front of the newspaper is full of lies and B.S. The sports section is not.
News reporters are forced to write about the daily absurdities coming out of the White House with a straight face. They think they are part of the political process even though most are merely concubines to the powerful.
Sports reporters are naturally adversarial because they know they are observers and not participants in the outcome of a game. They interpret what happened, put it into context and tell what it means with a minimum of spin and B.S.
I agree with Charlie Pierce, who covered the Massachusetts Statehouse before becoming a sports reporter and columnist, who once said that "it's plainly obvious always that sportswriters serve their constituencies better than most political reporters." If we replaced the drones in the White House press room (with the exception of the sainted Helen Thomas) with sports reporters, I doubt Ari Fleischer would get away with even a hundredth of the lies that he utters every day.
This came to mind upon hearing of the death of Will McDonough, the longtime football writer and columnist for The Boston Globe. After more than four decades with the Globe, he died at home on Jan. 9 at age 67 of a heart attack.
McDonough was old school all the way. Today, when a reporter or editor can get fired for writing a nasty email to a reader, it's hard to imagine that any sports reporter will be able to get away with punching out a football player in a locker room, as McDonough did in 1979. He feared nothing.
Today, the professional ethicists are quick to discipline journalists for the slightest offense. They would be horrified by the way McDonough operated. He had close relationships with and earned the confidence of and access to most of the people in the top level of the sporting world. He would score as many scoops from the brass calling him as he would from working the phones and talking to the right people at the right time. He was loyal to a fault to his friends, and when McDonough said something was off the record, it was.
Today, newspaper people are almost encouraged to be bland and unoffensive, lest they offend readers. McDonough didn't care who he got upset when he wrote his columns. His cockiness was backed up with his incomparable reporting, and that sold a ton of papers every week.
Today, those in the elite rank of journalism are inclined to coast. Long after McDonough made his money and fame both as one of the Globe's stars and as one of the first newspapermen to have a substantial role in network sports coverage, he still outworked his peers.
Today, style gets more emphasis than substance in journalism. McDonough wasn't a great writer. His work was meat and potatoes newspaper writing, heavy on information and very light on flash. But that was the formula that made The Boston Globe's sports section one of the best in the country.
In short, McDonough embodied all of the qualities that used to be paramount in journalism, but now are in painfully short supply.
Yes, I know that today's newspaper people are better educated and more sophisticated than those of years past. But that hasn't meant that newspapers have gotten better.
I entered newspapering in the mid-1980s, in the final gasp of the old days when people still smoked in the newsroom or hung out in the barroom downstairs, when there still were a few reporters that didn't have college diplomas, when newspapering still had a place for colorful characters, eccentrics and misfits.
That world is gone. Los Angeles Times press critic David Shaw nailed it in a piece a few weeks ago when he blamed the "corporatization of our culture - the rise of respectability and the decline of raffishness" for the blandness of today's newspapers.
"Newspapers are increasingly part of large conglomerates run by men with MBAs on their walls, rather than printers ink in their veins," wrote Shaw. "In a time of increasing competition for the reader's time and the advertiser's dollar, newspapers and their parent corporations don't think they can afford characters, risk-takers, people who might embarrass them and damage the price of their stock."
The quest for respectability may have made newspapers profitable, but it hasn't made them more interesting.
"Words for a newspaper come from nervous energy and not propriety," wrote Jimmy Breslin in his 1996 book "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me."
"The bars are gone, the drinkers gone," wrote Breslin. "There remains the smartest, healthiest news people in the history of the business. And they are so boring that they kill the business right in front of you. A central reason why newspaper circulation is dropping so alarmingly, is that reporters have all the excitement of a Formica table."
Newspapers are dying because they're afraid to be controversial. They're dying because they're afraid to hire people who deviate from the middle of the road, both in thought and in style. Newsrooms today are like insurance offices and the nervous energy that Breslin believes is so important to good journalism is gone.
What paper would allow a Will McDonough to exist today? They would be aghast at the idea of a reporter drinking or playing golf with the people they write about. They wouldn't tolerate the all-purpose putdown he'd give to readers who called to give him an earful: "You know what the difference between me and you, pal? You think and I know." They wouldn't give him the power that he had at the Globe as the unofficial consigliere who got consulted whenever questions arose about local news stories and who freely offered his advice when he believed the top editors were messing up.
Newspapers want people who keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They don't want people who might stray from the corporate line. And they wonder why people aren't reading the paper like they used to.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).