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Confessions of a Dead Tribune
Posted on Aug 19, 2011
By Mark Heisler
Notable in the Times’ second-quarter revenue shortfall that precipitated the last round of layoffs was the minimal ad buy for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” the eighth movie in the series with Daniel Radcliffe, originally cast in the role at 11, trying to stay twerpy-looking at 22.
So, if I wanted to look at it that way, I was done in by an aging twerp.
Nevertheless, I don’t interpret my agreement as signing away my right to talk about my life. This stuff isn’t conjecture, interpretation or based on third-person accounts. It’s real, as I lived it. Anything that reflects badly on anyone is, nonetheless, what happened. In this business, the truth isn’t one alternative, it’s the reason there is a business and the reason the people in it love it, despite everything that has happened or will happen.
If newspaper people often talk in heroic terms, which their papers don’t always live up to, there really is something cool about a business in which your job is to seek truth. Not a version of the truth that the audience is sure to like, or the one the rest of the biz is running with, or one that doesn’t harm the company, or a socko headline that garners attention. Only one thing matters—Is it true?—and you’re one of the people sent out to see, like a Knight of the Round Table seeking the Holy Grail.
Unfortunately, with recent developments—by recent, I mean the last 100 years—it’s also like working in a haunted house.
Jim Murray, our living legend during my first 19 years at the Times, would often say he expected to wind up on the copy desk, putting paragraph marks in other people’s stories. Of course, he beat the rap, writing in his inimitable style until his death in 1998, but the gloom predated him by decades.
In Ben Hecht’s 1928 Broadway play, “The Front Page,” his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, snaps out at being ribbed by the guys in the police press room for selling out and going into advertising.
“I don’t need anybody to tell me about newspapers,” says Hildy. “I’ve been a newspaperman 15 years. And if you want to know something, you’ll all wind up on the copy desk—hump-backed slobs, dodging garnishees when you’re 90.”
By Billy Wilder’s 1974 movie remake, Hildy’s speech had been updated to:
“So what’s the newspaper business ever done for me? See, I don’t want to end up like you guys will, on the copy desk, gray-haired, hump-backed, half blind, bumming cigarettes from office boys.”
In screenings in 1974, real-life press people were observed laughing it up as their cigar-chomping movie counterparts (veteran character actors Alan Garfield, Charles Durning, et al.) wisecracked while playing poker before a hanging (“I haven’t won a pot since Leopold and Loeb”), listened in on anyone who dictated (“Officials are prepared for a general uprising of radicals at the hour of execution but the Sheriff still refuses to be intimidated by the Red Menace”) and sent in versions that went one better (“Sheriff Hartman has just put 200 more relatives on the payroll to protect the city from the Red Army, which is leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes.”)
However, when Jack Lemmon, as Hildy, delivered his dire eulogy for his pals, the real-life press people grew silent. In 1974, with fewer and fewer cities that had competing newspapers, it hit even closer to home.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that bad things happen when an industry has been under the gun year after year, decade after decade, century after century.
At 67, one NBA season from retirement (I thought), the rising tide of BS was enough to prompt me (and, I’m sure, half of the building, including bosses) to muse about throwing the job in their faces.
Whose face I would throw it into wasn’t clear. It certainly wasn’t anyone in my department, where my bosses, Bill Dwyre, Rick Jaffe, Dave Morgan, Randy Harvey, Mike James and John Cherwa, treated me like a prince.
“You don’t understand,” I told Cherwa last spring, when he asked me to work a day I figured I had off. “I’m 67. I’m drawing Social Security. I don’t need this job.”
“Well, I’m 57 and I need this job,” replied Cherwa, who knew better than to take me seriously, since I always did what they wanted (or, at least, that’s my story).
“In the good news for you,” I told him, “you’re going to live 10 years longer than I will. In the bad news, you’re going to have to work 10 more years than I will.”
Last winter, the word came down they wanted me to stop writing for Truthdig, which I had no intention of doing. We had been told to avoid displaying any political affiliation, even bumper stickers on our cars, but as a sports writer with no conceivable conflict of interest with anything I covered, I was beyond the point of conceding the paper’s right to whittle the Bill of Rights at its whim.
(I can now reveal my outlaw participation: My wife and I not only put Obama stickers on our cars, we worked for him before the California primary.)
The word came back, Truthdig was OK. Things went back to normal ... until June when they wouldn’t run a column I wrote, a first for me.
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