Passing the Torch

Onset of Boredom

April 20, 2009

The news racket is dead, mummified, and ready for a mausoleum. The joy has gone. Reporters once were once a misbegotten tribe of ashen-souled cynics, honest drunks chain-smoking their way to the grave, foul-mouthed, profane, boisterously male, believing in nothing but the certainty of corruption and the squalor that is human nature. In short, they were both philosophers and splendid company. You couldn’t chew the fat with a better crowd. They knew the world as no one else did. I mean the real world, big-city bus stations at three a.m. where things crawled forth that would unnerve the inhabitants of a rotting log, and city governments no better. They knew Linda’s Surprise Bar in Saigon and Lucy’s Tiger Den in Bangkok. Many had been in the military and survived the ritualized absurdity of GI life. Delicates and milquetoasts they weren’t.

They were the world’s true aristocrats. All the Heidelberg philosophers rolled into one grand taco, and exponentiated, would have known less of life than a cub on his second year on the police desk. Less that was worth knowing, anyway.

Maybe the news trade didn’t build character, but it built characters. Marquis, Mauldin, Royko, Charlie Reese, Smith Hempstone, Paul Vogel, names ancient and less so, mostly unknown in the wider world. Over drinks, usually lots of drinks, they told wild stores in the press bars of Taipei and Joburg, stories both impossible and sometimes true.

There was Six-Pack Muldoon, a chopper pilot working in Southeast Asia. Always flew with an open six-pack in the cockpit. Asked why, he said, “In thirty years of flying, I’ve only crashed twice. Both times I was sober. I’m not going to risk it again.”

That world is gone. The news biz has been sanitized, made polite and tedious, like a family pool hall with orange felt and no betting. The morgue has become “the library.” Newsrooms are “non-smoking environments.” As women came in, the boisterousness and dirty stories went out. The gals could do the job perfectly well, but the atmosphere changed. A true news weasel didn’t feel at home. You could no longer say, “So there we were on Bugis Street, and Murphy picks up this hooker with three thumbs, yeah, really….”

The women swarming into newsrooms were probably better people than the oldsters, who had no interest in being good people. They would have been ashamed of the idea in the unlikely event that it occurred to them. With the women came human-interest and the literary lead. These were perhaps not actually evil, but they were certainly different.

A story once might have begun, “At midafternoon Thursday a house burned down at 112 Maples Street. Three children left unaccompanied inside escaped unhurt.” In the sensitive new journalism, the lead became, “Sally Harpooner, a single mother of three, saw a towering plume of smoke rising from her home as she returned from a community-sponsored drug-rehabilitation center. Her heart beat faster….” Before, a reporter would have said forget her heart, beat sally for being such a useless skell. Not longer. Stories began to appear about a kind old man who was giving hydrotherapy to his faithful dog Bowser who had hip displasia. The old crew had nothing against Bowser, but they didn’t think he was news.

The new crowd didn’t remember being blind drunk on ghastly Cambodia gin during the siege of Phnom Penh, running the alleys in rikshas by night and eating deep-fried pregnant crickets. They eggs made them creamy. Kipling would have understood. By day in Phnom Penh the ancient T-28s flown by the Khmer Air Force crashed because they pilots were trying to smuggle more sugar than they could take off with. The ragtag press corps—Cambodia was a sidewhoe--when not eating crickets, lay on rooftop patios with the full moon hanging above and the smell of flower trees making the air sticky-sweet and Chicom 122s whistling into the city from the marshes and taking out whole houses.

It was the last wheeze of the news game as it should be—raw, free, often eccentric. Then came embeds and newspapers run by accountants with green eyeshades. Advertising had always paid for papers, but now it became the paper’s reason for existence. The distance between a newspaper and a PR firm narrowed. Pleasantness became compulsory. The old hands hated pleasantness like poison.

And then…give me strength. The Ivy League took over. The ashtrays went and very nice young people from Princeton showed up. They were smart, sometimes rocket smart, knew about things the old hands had never heard of, learned fast, but they were so…nice. They ate salads. Until then no reporter had ever eaten a salad, only marbled steak and Jim Beam and other things bad for you. The old-timers watched the new arrivals with horror. It was like being invaded by Moonies.

The DC Bob began. Newspapers fell into the gummy clutches of the schoolmarmish censorship that we call political correctness. Reporters talking in restaurants began the furtive reconnaissance—the duck of the head and the shifty glance about—to make sure that no one was within earshot who might be offended. Practically everyone could be offended, indeed seemed to be looking for the chance: Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, women, homosexuals, Jews, what have you.

The National Press Club got overrun by lobbyists and flacks. It too fell into the tarpits of the Higher Priss. The big portrait of a bosomy young lady that had once graced the walls had to go. The place began to feel like a hotel lobby. Heartwarming events began, like tree fungus on a log not quite dead. Old-timers loathed anything heartwarming. You could shoot at them and they didn’t care, station them in Bangladesh and they would hold up under it. Heartwarming events were too much.

I quit the Press Club over Costa Rica Night, I think it was. Or maybe Mexico. I was at the bar talking to Mike Causey, stand-up guy, a classic legman newsy, then with the Washington Post. A very nice young lady came over and tried to sell me tickets to Costa Rica night, if that is what it was. Ooooh, she said, it was going to be fun. We would wear costumes and there would be piñatas and it would be a Latin American Experience, oooh.

I was courteous. In times of trial, I call on deep reserves of character. I didn’t tell her I would prefer to spend the evening removing my lungs with a ball-point pen. Nor did I explain my idea of a Latin American Experience: standing at the Gavilan Bar in Guadalajara, hooking down Jose Cuervo and swapping war stories with my crazy friend Tom the Robot.

But I quit. Character only carries you so far.

And the corporations took over. Everything became tranquil, slant decided at corporate, don’t make waves. The fluorescents hummed narcotically, like paper shredders destroying evidence. Sterility flowered. Libel and character assassination fell into disfavor with publishers.

What a world.