I have read the paper every day since I started working for one, in August of 1969. It was a way of seeing how your story had been edited and played, and what your colleagues were up to. Somebody once pointed out that if you don’t learn from how you’re edited, you don’t have a job in six months.

It was, in addition, to some degree about the news, which in those days and in that place was pretty interesting. I don’t love politics or the game of reporting. One seminal event I tend to forget is going to the Coke machine in the Nixon White House press room — allegedly built over JFK’s swimming pool, the one in which he seduced Fifi or whatever her name is. I put a quarter in the machine and turned to look at the pictures, like class pictures, of the White House press corps along the walls. The one by the Coca Cola machine was the class of 1943, guys in fedoras sitting on bleachers squinting into the sunshine in front of the Capitol. Their names were written by hand in tiny print underneath. Being a wonk for names and people, I read them carefully.

The only name I recognized, some 30 years after the picture was taken, was that of Merriman Smith. He was a young guy in the picture, and had covered the White House for UPI ever since. He had recently, after being the senior wire service reporter who said, ending every press conference, Thank you, Mr. President, after inventing the phrase “grassy knoll”, and enjoying a career many in the newspaper business would consider at the top of his field, committed suicide.

Merriman Smith

I had never heard of the names of any of the other 50 guys in the picture. Watergate was just beginning, and that, with the Martin Luther King assassination riots of 1968, was the final death knell, as far as I was concerned, for the idea that anything like news was coming out of the White House. The White House was where the news wasn’t. What was at the White House was lies. I remember staring at Dan Rather’s mutton chop sideburns and thinking, this is who this beat is good for — getting on the nightly TV news every night. I still wonder how [Redacted], who replaced me at the Great Metropolitan Daily, can get it up after all these years. How can she possibly care? What’s wrong with her?

Now I read a long story in the NYT today about how the Washington Post is changing from a print medium to the website, with a 24/7 news cycle driven by immediate feedback chronicled on a big fat scoreboard in the news room. Recently Brauchli, who seems, in fact, to be a journo, convened the old bulls of the newspaper — curiously not including Bradlee — to ask them about how to keep the paper viable as the source of fine journalism. I think he’s right to do that; one thing I took away from the long piece is that the website is driven by blogs. I think news blogs are bullshit; it keeps reporters tethered to updating Twitter logs — “news” — instead of covering enterprise stories. One of the great things about not being in the White House press room was wandering around the city looking at stuff. Like how it was a city of black people, not politicians.

Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. riots, April, 1968

While I subscribe to the Macondo Manana [TILDE!!!] as a matter of principle, I do not read it. Which is a shame, because it’s a good paper and does a good job.

I am feeling more and more decathected from what people call news, not least as the result of the news blackout I imposed on myself after I started foaming at the mouth around the invasion of Iraq and the downfall of [Redacted]. [Redacted] who, I may have pointed out in this space, I last heard of like 40 years ago on her hands and knees in front of my old editor’s house, pounding the sidewalk with her fists and saying something like, Why won’t you love me? Dude.

My other great epiphanies about the News — I went into the business to write, not to be a reporter — were the day I spent six hours trying to break the back of the NYT Sunday crossword, and which I did do. And the Sunday I spent two hours reading the Sunday Times and not realizing that it was the previous Sunday’s paper, delivered by mistake, and apparently not recalled in any detail by me.

I observe with a sinking heart what all my contemporaries have come to; at best, a Pulitzer prize for work on a beat tactically invented to garner said prize, in a field full of charlatans and not showing any inclination to stem the tsunami of bullshit. [Redacted.] Colleague #2: honorably teaching the craft to undergraduates [Redacted]. Colleague #3, at worst, editing for the wangers, anti-feminist tirades because — well, [Redacted]. Colleague #4, one book, fantastically well-reported, about people whose media-insider story was a.) of little interest outside the Metroliner chattering classes and b.) over when the contract was signed — [Redacted]. And #5? Writing a book about [Redacted]? He’s been itching to write this very, very bad idea for 15 years, basically because he is the star of the movie.

I can’t even talk about my own productivity. I’ve written five unpublished books since I quit the newspaper business. I have to do something about that.

So what is it all about, all these years of reading and writing for the paper? A sea of facts, rhetorics, narrative arcs that break free from the Aristotelian heroic canon and are not (!) predicated on the values of dead white men, always heavenly to dive into. The hookah cafe on Steinway Street in little Egypt, Astoria, Queens, page A29. The rattle of the paper, the smell of the ink and the coffee, the freedom to throw away the A section and find out what’s really going on in Tahrir Square by reading the reporter’s eyewitness account in paragraph #47 on page C48. My fellow humans. People watching. Still interested.


http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/nyregion/at-the-egyptian-coffee-shop-hookah-smoke-and-mideast-news.html?scp=1&sq=hookah&st=cse

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