Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Another favorite cartoon from a favorite cartoonist, Wiley Miller. This one ran back in 1993, coincidentally about a month after I left the newsroom, though I didn't see it until considerably later when I gave my daughter-in-law a Non Sequitur collection for Christmas and, of course, read it before wrapping it.
I miss being an instant expert, but you have to understand, I was uniquely qualified for the position. I majored in being an instant expert. There were several times when I bought the books for a course the day before a term paper was due. Of course, I graduated in the top 85 percent of my class, but I like to think I probably placed much higher among the subset of students who hadn't read the material.
As a business reporter, I specialized in Sunday section covers and I worked for a tiny paper, about 22,000 circ, which meant I didn't have the luxury of sitting back and taking a month or three to research and write each of these things. I'd start at 9 am Monday with an idea and would file by 5 o'clock Friday, and in the interim would have to continue to cover daily events in business and the occasional fire as well.
In other words, it was a lot like college. It was rougher because I had a term paper due three Fridays out of every four, but that was more than balanced by the fact that my professors in college had known when I was bullshitting and my editors didn't. They'd change "that" to "which" in my copy or break up a long sentence, but they wouldn't come back to me and say, "That's not how avoided costs are calculated in compensating non-utility generators."
Which brings us to Wiley's point -- Reporters who cover subjects they don't understand.
I loved the variety in reporting, especially in a small newsroom. You'd come into work thinking you were going to write a piece about health insurance for small businesses but then the scanner would go off and you'd find yourself up to your ankles in mud watching somebody's barn burn to the ground.
But this ability to absorb, interpret and regurgitate on the fly is not for everyone, and we've all had, I think, the experience of reading a news story on a topic we do understand and realizing that the writer is completely lost. It's one thing to say, "Well, I might have added ... " or "Too bad he didn't consider ... " It's another to say, "What the hell is he thinking? That's not how it works!"
There are C students who do poorly because they can't understand the material, but there are also those who learn, painfully sometimes, the skill of absorbing and reflecting. Senior year, we had a standing joke in seminar that it was unfair to ask questions about material in the last third of the book under consideration, but the fact was, we had a lot to read. We covered "War and Peace" in three 90-minute sessions and Aristotle's Metaphysics in two.
The trick to being a good C-student was knowing how to build on the insights of someone who had actually read the material, and that's the trick to being a good reporter, too. And it's really all the source, or the reader, wants: You are supposed to get into the head of the expert and translate it for the benefit of the readers.
That's why you attribute quotes -- You're not there to say what economic policy is best going to curb inflation. You're there to report on what economic policy the Treasury Secretary thinks is best going to curb inflation. And, just as a good C-student learns which fellow-students around the seminar table to listen to and absorb from and which ones to ignore, a good reporter figures out which sources to go to for backgrounders and balance and which ones are going to try to spin him and make him look foolish.
There are way too many former A-students working in newsrooms today. They don't make good reporters because they think they know stuff. You can't possibly know enough of the random stuff that comes up in the course of writing a news story. Only someone who is experienced in covering up his own ignorance has the skills necessary to be a good reporter.
Hemingway said that a reporter needs to have a good bullshit detector. He was absolutely right.
And it takes one to know one.