It just doesn’t seem right to feel nostalgic for an era long gone by the time I came along but that’s what I feel about the great times of the ink-stained wretches who practised journalism.
By the time I found my way into a newsroom, jobs were already dwindling and budgets were being slashed. The internet was just about to change the game entirely.
The veterans would talk about the good ol’ days of wearing out shoe leather on the street, and racing to beat the competition on a great story for early edition. There were limitless travel and expense allowances and reporters clacked away on typewriters under a haze of smoke with a coffee cup full of booze at their side.
Editors yelled abuse, sure, and the hours were lousy but newspapers ruled and everybody knew it. Most tantalizing, there were no polished, sanitized public relations hacks handling reporters’ calls. Real people actually talked.
It all sounded so glorious. And, yes, I’m romanticizing. Newsrooms were notoriously sexist places, for one thing.
But reporters were characters. They were tough and gritty and hard-nosed. They were beholden to no one. They learned their craft through hard work, not journalism schools that are more obsessed with the technology of reporting than its heart and soul.
Jimmy Breslin was one of those characters. He died this week at 87 after a career writing about the underbelly and underdogs of New York. His obit in The Associated Press described him as “a rumpled bed of a reporter.”
God, how I love that.
Breslin exposed corruption, celebrated the street life of New York and wrote an incomparible story about the funeral of John F. Kennedy that began at the breakfast table of the man who would get paid $3.01 an hour to dig the president’s grave.
He wrote of Jackie Kennedy on the day of her husband’s funeral: “Everybody watched her while she walked. She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly.
“Even though they had killed her husband and his blood ran to her lap while he died, she could walk through the streets and to his grave and help us all while she walked.”
One of my favourite journalists is Edna Buchanan, a tough broad who covered more than 5,000 violent deaths during an 18-year career at the Miami Herald. She gathered extraordinary details of crimes from victims, witnesses and beat cops and brass.
She knew the murder weapon the widow Elkin used on her last unlucky husband (a frying pan) and what he was watching on TV when he died (The Family Feud.)
In her day, she called up desk sergeants or talked to cops on the scene.
These days, police and most every other civic institution are governed by “corporate communicators” and “media protocols.”
The primary concerns are lawsuits and privacy acts. Decisions and actions are communicated through press releases and requests for interviews are greeted with suspicion and “can you send over your questions?”
I’m pretty sure I know what Buchanan and Breslin would say to that.
Nostalgic? Yep, you bet.
– Meredith MacLeod