I worked in daily journalism for 25 years, but I never thought of myself as having a career in journalism, because with one exception, I quit every job I had after only three years. If I had wanted a career, as I have established in earlier Chronicles, I would have stayed put until I rose into one of the top jobs --- possibly into THE top job, as so many of my contemporaries did.
That was never of any interest to me, not in any of the eight newspapers that employed me in four different countries. In fact, on one newspaper my boss upbraided me one day with having “always refused to take a position of responsibility in the paper,” because I had refused so many offers to become editor of this or that section. To which my immediate response was, “I’m a reporter. What job is more responsible in a newspaper than being a reporter?” At that point he jumped up from his desk, went over and closed the door, and apologized, because, he said, he had been under a lot of pressure from a recent illness of his wife. (I am not making this up!)
The fact is, I learned in my teens that one couldn’t trust a newspaper, or the journalistic bosses they hired, for anything much. From the time I was seven, in 1935, for the next 14 years, we had a democratic socialist government. I used to go as a high school teenager to the local library to read the newspapers, and I never saw a single favorable comment on that government by any newspaper, although, in retrospect, as governments go, it was an excellent one. Thus I accustomed myself to thinking that every newspaper was representing only the interest of its owners, and they were never socialists. It was only one step further for me to realize that there were other things more important in life than the business interests of my bosses. Since I enjoyed the job, and could do it fairly easily, I tended to use the work, so far as it was possible for me to do so, to pursue other interests, such as, for example, helping the disadvantaged, or propagating a more equal society, or opposing class privilege.
To say that this set me apart somewhat from my colleagues, especially those true believers in the sacred responsibility, the objectivity, the competitive urge, of their profession, would be no exaggeration. Years after I had left journalism, at a cocktail party I came upon one of these true believers whom I had known quite well, but had not seen in years. “Hello, Boyce,” he said, “still trying to save the world?” If I’d been a bit quicker on the draw I would have replied, “And you? Still the same supercilious patronizing asshole as ever?”
I have been brought to this subject by reading an article in the Hollywood Reporter, by Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury, the celebrated expose of the Trump White House. (I am indebted to my son Thom for bringing this to my attention.)
The article is subtitled What the Media still gets Wrong about Trump, but Mr. Wolff uses it to reflect on the role, purpose and behaviour of the press in a way that rang a bell with me, and that certainly accords with my experience as a reporter employed by what Wolff calls the “institutional media.” He contrasts this with what he calls the freelance media made up of “independent writers portraying events in a different style, tone and sensibility from that of the official news media.” He says magazines willing to publish this kind of independent thinking have been dying off, “so that the only careers left in news are institutional ones, with a need to confirm to house rules and assumptions.”
I should note here that when I grew up in one of the world’s smaller nations, there was no such thing as this freelance media, it just didn’t exist, and this probably accounts for the firmness of the opinion I formed against the honesty and reliability of newspapers as the purveyors of information to the public (an opinion I have since seen no need to change.) In my Chronicle 34, published on Feb 7, I described the sclerotic workings of the news management of The Montreal Star in the late 1950s, a perfect example of what Wolff describes as “institutional media”. His description is of United States practice. But I had found the same thing in all the small papers I had worked for in the southern hemisphere, as well as in Canada.
Wolff says that if you are to make a journalism career in the United States, the centre of gravity inevitably draws you to a handful of prominent outfits “with a clubbable admonishment not to wander too far afield of their sensitivities even before you get there (right-wing media has its own standards and practices).” And the assumption is that “more and more, we assume that the bureaucratic news style — a committee product of managers, producers, digital teams and lawyers as well as reporters — is the way it is done, and must be done.”
One aspect of how I tried to handle this problem in my own experience was my disinclination to sink into accepting these rules: I always felt myself a member of the opposition, which is why I so often quit after three years, because institutional managers demand total control of their workers. When I went on a foreign assignment, for example, I would try to avoid for as long as possible telling my home office my address, so that I could get on with my work without being bothered by irrelevant instructions. I have often told the story of how a Toronto Star correspondent in London once told me she got nervous if she didn’t get at least four telegrams a day from her immediate bosses: in contrast I had two telegrams in my eight years in London, and one of them was simply to apologize for an underpayment that month in my expense account. To my way of thinking, the four-telegrams-a-day would have little if anything to do with journalism, but rather more to do with the egos and insecurities of the guys who had been appointed into these middle management jobs. (It was a lucky accident that I worked for a newspaper that didn’t worry as much about what I wrote, as that I got it there in plenty of time for them to handle it into the day’s layout. It was a different story when I was writing in the home office, about local subjects, when all the customary “institutional rules and assumptions” were enforced.)
Wolff’s article rang a bell with me on one other level. He remarks that most people in this “journalism bureaucracy” are not good writers. Good writing was once considered to be valuable, but that was a different era. Nowadays, they might rather be “researchers, investigators…policy wonks…ambitious news executives, would-be politicians themselves and media superstars, but they are not writers ---language dies in their hands.”
This could almost serve as my criticism of journalism schools, which seem to have presided over this decline in the standards of journalism. I have often been asked why, if I disliked newspapers so much, I kept working for them for so many years. The answer is that I enjoyed writing, and respected the English language. I don’t wish to give myself airs and graces but I always tried to write as clearly as possible, and if the institutional pressures began to bear on me, I could always quit. Which is what I always did.