Adventures of a Pencil-Wielding Pariah | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Adventures of a Pencil-Wielding Pariah 

Or, Why People Hate Journalists

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Excerpted from The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances, by Neil Steinberg, to be published in December by Doubleday.

By Neil Steinberg

Maya Angelou is filled with joie de vivre. She strides onto the podium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and begins to sing. "I shall not be moved. I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the water, I shall not be moved."

Her voice is deep and strong. She then begins to talk, telling stories, reciting her poetry. You are powerful, she tells her audience. You are beautiful.

The crowd eats it up. They roar, these 2,000 women attending a national women's conference. They applaud. Sitting in the back, hunched in a dark corner of the huge ballroom, I scribble a few of Angelou's more succinct comments onto a narrow pad. I didn't want to come here--had felt that sinking sensation I get when given an assignment I consider to be a dog. But now that she's up there, singing, reading, speaking, laughing, the whole process is so skilled, so entertaining, and, yes, so uplifting that I am having a good time.

Maya Angelou is finished. She is escorted from the stage. The 2,000 women finish clapping and make for the exits. I have one more task. Journalism has conventions as strict as Kabuki, and a story of this sort, the "famous poet speaks here" story, must end with a blurt of audience reaction: "It was great," said Jane Doe, dabbing a tear from her eye. "I greatly enjoyed the greatness of the great Maya Angelou."

I pick a woman at random--somebody pausing, a straggler from the herd. "Hi, I'm Neil Steinberg," I say. "I'm a reporter from the Sun-Times. I'm writing a story about Maya Angelou's speech and I wonder what you thought of it?"

She flees without a word, just turns and rushes away, as if I'm a panhandler. So does the second woman I ask. This leaves me frustrated and a little angry. There is an inverse law in reporting--the more benign the information you are seeking, the more difficult it will be to get. When I stopped hookers on Cicero Avenue, every single one, without exception, told me anything I wanted to know--about their neglected kids, their raging drug habits, how much money they charge for sex.

But these professional women at the Hyatt don't want to talk. I have no idea why. Overeducation? They know what happened to outspoken people during McCarthyism. Prudence? They see the villains who unwisely consent to be grilled like burgers by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes every Sunday, indicting themselves, babbling, ruined. Professionalism? They are trained not to speak to the media--call public affairs; they'll answer your questions.

Or maybe they're just struck dumb by Maya Angelou's eloquence. The third woman I approach doesn't run away, but she doesn't answer either. She just stares at me, with the startled expression a frog must give a swooping raptor. So much for Angelou's brave words about romance and beauty and power.

There is a pause, the woman and I looking at each other. Then I do something I haven't done before or since in my entire professional career. I raise my hand into the gap between us and snap my fingers three times in front of her face.

"Hel-lo!" I say, and she unfreezes, utters a syllable or two, then runs away.

That's it, I figure. I'll do without the quote, or use the woman's monosyllable. I tried, which is the important thing in journalism.

Outside, a lovely autumn day. I stroll west on Wacker Drive, toward the newspaper. On a corner I encounter a knot of three women talking to one another, still holding programs from the conference. OK, I decide, the full Boy Scout try. I whip out my notebook, uncap a pen, present myself to the group, and utter my burning question. There is a pause.

"Do you have any identification?" one of the women asks.

Everybody hates journalists. Why wouldn't they? The very things that people dread most--accidents, calamities, disasters, riots--are the bread and butter of reporters. We love them. We might pretend that we don't, particularly the TV people, who like to get in front of the cameras, all grim-faced, and pronounce the horror and tragedy of wherever they are. But it's a lie. As soon as the cameras shut off, they let out a whoop, high-five one another, and go scuttling after fresh tragedies.

Not that journalists wish tragedy on people. Not that they sit around saying, gee, I wish a tornado would wipe out a school someplace so we wouldn't have to run this boring story on the water reclamation district. But under the skin, subconsciously, that's what goes on. The size of tomorrow's newspaper, the length of this evening's news, remember, is not dictated by how much worthwhile information there is to report. It is dictated by ad sales, or programming. You can't publish a big empty white square with the caption: "Slow news day--use your crayons to color this page." You have to come up with something or, better yet, hope that something exciting presents itself.

A breaking story is pure adrenalin. Why else would Dan Rather, happily playing cowboy on a dude ranch the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, immediately get on the phone and start screaming at his producers, begging them to cut short his vacation and rush him to the scene. Because his heart is so big? No, because he loves the process. We all do. Getting on the plane in a hurry. Hustling to the scene with the photographer or cameraman. Surveying some ruin, getting good quotes, then hightailing it to the local Hilton for dictation and cocktails. Great fun, and a feast for one's sense of self-importance.

Not that, as a reporter for a provincial publication like the Sun-Times, I ever get much chance to go anywhere south of Kankakee, north of Kenosha, east of Gary, or west of Wheaton. Sometimes, on rare, cherished occasions, when whatever six or seven reporters currently basking in the editors' favor are busy someplace else, I might get the nod. As spring melts into summer, I find myself idly wondering, "Wouldn't it be nice if the Mississippi floods again this year?" A terrible thought, yes, but sincere. After the Great Mississippi Flood of 1993, the newspaper sent me to the river four times looking for flood stories. It was great. Volunteers filling sandbags. National guard helicopters clattering overhead. Entire towns turned out, fighting madly to save their levees. Fists of water boiling through fissures in the street. And me, roaring around in a rented car, trying to get from point A to point B, dodging roadblocks and washed-out bridges. Knowing that the evening would bring a free meal, a fresh hotel bed, and drinks.

Heck, none of the places were my town. To me it was just a gripping scene. It was interesting. In Grafton, Illinois, where the river flooded most of the town, a bar called Stenger's stayed open, even though the river came up to the front doorstep and put about an inch of water on the floor. I approached the bar in a motorboat, docked, then went inside and had a beer. After I passed the entrance exam of good-natured ribbing, the guy on the stool next to mine said he'd pay for my beer and took his wallet out--the wallet was in a Baggie. You couldn't make up a detail like that in a million years. The beer was really cold too--they had to ice it, since there was no electricity. When I went back the next year to see how the town had recovered, the beer wasn't quite so cold. The second time around, it never is.

Most people's towns never flood, however. They never meet a murderer or look at a corpse. But the media do, and bring the terrible details to their homes every day, like a not-too-bright cat dragging something horrible up from under the house and leaving it on your pillow as a gift. Day in and day out. After a while, the process gets bothersome, and people start to resent it.

"Why don't the newspapers ever write about anything good," they complain, as if they would read it. As if they would plop down 35 cents for a paper headlined "City Swell!" or stay tuned to a news report about a bunch of handicapped children visiting the zoo.

So if the public resents us, we resent them right back. Hate them, really, at times. At least I do. The popular term is "cynicism," but I see it as something closer to "revulsion." The worst part of my job, bar none, is trying to get the populi to pry open their yaps and let a little vox out.

On rare, isolated occasions a reporter will encounter a friendly, intelligent person who has an interesting point of view and expresses it. But that is a signal exception. In general, the public is divided into two groups: the first consists of fearful, tremulous people who have never appeared in a newspaper and aren't sure how they work. The women at the Maya Angelou reading fall into this category. I am certain that the three women I approached on the sidewalk thought that I was coming on to them. I know this because I asked, while digging out my press card, if their organization had perhaps experienced some sort of difficulty with reporters. They said they thought I was trying to pick them up--they feared I was some creep with a notebook routine who would romance them for three weeks, then empty their checking accounts. I'm lucky I didn't get a face full of Mace.

These are the sort of people encountered at large public events who say things like, "I am enjoying myself today at the jazz festival," and then goggle their eyes in terror and uncertainty when asked for their names, as if they've made bold political pronouncements that will later be thrown back in their faces. "Simpkins, get in here! I notice that you told the newspapers that you not only frequent the public library, but that you on occasion will check out books, which you then read. You are relieved of your position; here is your final paycheck . . . " I've had people at demonstrations, standing on the sidewalk and holding signs, refuse to be quoted. "I don't want to get involved," they say.

Or, if they do say something, they bleat a few words, struggling to dredge a thought out of the muck of their consciousness and present it, naked and wriggling on a platter. This is bad enough from laymen, but it often comes from professionals, who should know better.

God bless phone mail. I don't know how many hours I have added to my life by being able to dump story pitches that clueless flacks have left on my machine. "Hello, Neil, this is Ellen Kerschmatzgin from Kerschmatzgin Communications. I have your name on a list of people interested in foundation work, and I am calling to follow up on the fax I sent to you about the awards dinner for the community outreach program of the Neighborhood Alliance of Network . . . "

This second group is even worse. These are the people who lunge to get themselves in the media, from the kids hopping up and down between TV reporters, smiling and waving and grinning as the reporter reads the death toll, to their spiritual equivalents, the savvy businessmen offering neckties and skybox seats and their slick PR handlers.

I've noticed that plastic surgeons have a certain genius for this. I once did a story on Dr. Marc Karlan (his registered trademark: "The Facial Architect") simply because I could no longer stand his PR agent--striding into the office, looking to press some gewgaw on me and pitch his client. "How would you like to crew on my yacht?" Karlan asked upon meeting me. Another plastic surgeon opened with the greeting, "You know, I can suck that fat out of your cheeks if you'd like, gratis."

At least both these groups are sane. Newspapers also attract lunatics. It seems every day I walk in the paper there is a new eccentric--a man with plaster casts of aliens, a gaucho in a four-foot-wide sombrero, a stern delegation from some imaginary nation--negotiating to see one reporter or another.

Most are benign. A few aren't. The Sun-Times installed security doors after one visitor walked up to the receptionist and, without saying a word, punched her squarely in the face. Then there was the psychotic who slipped back into the features department and cornered food writer Sharon Sanders. Displaying a gun, he started dictating an editorial about politics and God. Sanders, in what I've always felt to be one of the great moments of grace under pressure, told him he had the wrong department. "This is features," she said. "You want cityside."

These are the crackpots who write certified letters crammed with single-spaced, no-margin texts and photocopied evidence. In later letters, they send photocopies of the certified mail stubs, to show they have written to me before. I always write back, commiserating, apologizing for not being able to help them battle their enemies, as I am occupied full-time fighting my own, grappling with the entrenched conspiracy and intricate web of lies arrayed against my own ambitions. They always understand this, and sometimes send me replies of fellowship and encouragement, though these invariably contain photocopies of my earlier letter, as more evidence.

To close the circle of annoyance, not only does the public hate the media, and the media hate the public, but members of the media also hate one another, out of envy, or malice, or just for the fun of it. In this sense, being a journalist is even worse than being a cop. Cops are loathed by a wide swath of the population and certainly the feeling is mutual, but at least they have that wall of blue fraternity thing going--as long as you're not black, gay, or a woman. The more cops on the scene, the easier it is for them to do their jobs. With reporters it is exactly the opposite: the more of you, the more trouble you'll have. The grieving widow who gratefully talks to the first two reporters will sic her dogs on the next ten.

Second, we're all envious of one another. The TV people disdain the print media because they aren't on television, their lone yardstick of reality. But TV people still recognize that newspaper reporters often have the advantage of having lived in the city for a while and thus perhaps know what's going on.

So the TV guys gingerly mince up and try to be pals and get the information that they don't have since they just got to town from Minneapolis and don't know anything and haven't made any effort to find out, other than read a Mike Royko collection on the plane on their way in. The TV gals arrive at the scene, their cameramen and producers in tow, glance around, puff their bangs into the air, then flounce up to the first person they see and start to dig.

Sometimes they start interviewing me, with my reporter's pad hanging out of my pocket and my look of practiced indifference slapped across my mug. I've not only given interviews to television reporters whom I've met at a half dozen previous stories, but those interviews have run on television. (I once watched Rich Roeper being interviewed by an oblivious TV crew at a story we both were covering. Asked his name, he replied, "Hunter S. Thompson." The TV reporter looked puzzled, then asked: "Could you spell that?")

The blow-dried condescension that television reporters show newspaper reporters is only matched by the unalloyed contempt that flows back the other way. God knows it burns in my veins. I've never met a TV reporter who could tell you his name if it weren't monogrammed on his shirt cuff. And the ego, neatly displayed in a diamond setting of ignorance. Walter Jacobson once showed up at one of my book-signing parties, invited by a mutual friend. I was standing in the doorway, and he blew by me, oblivious, grandly announcing, "Where am I? What am I doing here?"

A creed for television reporters if ever there was one, and doubly ironic, given the low quality of what television does.

The cold comfort we print journalists grasp is that no matter what depths newspapers may sink to, television journalism is worse. Immediacy and quality are almost always opposing values. Ever since the gulf war, such a high premium has been set on instantly covering breaking news stories both live and extensively that the medium risks becoming a sort of national security camera, displaying static images of a scene--the Baghdad skyline, O.J.'s Bronco, the shell of the Murrah building--for hours on end, while the anchors tap-dance and time fill and tell us what they just told us 60 seconds ago. They do it because they have learned that people will watch it.

No banality is beneath television news, from the soft porn of sweeps week (one Chicago station squeezed a fetching lady reporter into a bathing suit and sent her to Florida to caper with dolphins. The expose ran not one, but two nights) to the fawning reports tied in with network sitcoms to the unbearable shots of sobbing mothers and unfiltered horror. I think the worst thing I ever saw on TV news was a scene shown on the local Cleveland news maybe ten years ago. Some star-crossed lover had killed his girlfriend and her parents, and the bodies were being brought out the front of their drab suburban dwelling. Police were milling around, and suddenly the youngest daughter of the slain family, unaware of the crime, pulled up on her banana-seat bike and fixed a look of boggled horror at the camera, a second of dumb shock before being packed off by police. I'm sure there's some glib rationalization for it--"We're just showing the human effect of crime" blah-blah-blah--but the truth is it's just invasive sensationalism. Why not position a camera at the morgue too? Catch the autopsies. I suppose we can look forward to that.

TV is part of the decline of journalism. It is the primary source of news for most people, the thin straw through which they chose to breathe the air of their knowledge, and it has stunted their brains. Many times, when I am interviewing somebody, they will ask, "When am I going to be on TV?" I raise my pen and pad to eye level and display them, carefully, then look over my shoulder, slowly, searching for the camera that isn't there. "Never," I explain, with mock patience. "This is the Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago Sun-Times is a newspaper."

This information invariably disappoints them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Werner.

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