A rant

It starts with an Important Man

In the interests of full disclosure, I should start by saying the one time I met this particular Important Man, he mistook me for another grey-haired woman he had met that same morning, who had nothing in common with me physically otherwise besides being human and living on earth. He was slightly embarrassed when he realized what he had done. He tried to make up for it by saying we were both “hot.” Before that, he had said “umm” more than once, in literally, and I do mean literally , in every sentence in the talk he had given to our group, which had lasted an hour and a half. He also had used the term “wet dream” in the same talk once for a reason that didn’t justify the imagery.

He had been the editor of a very big newspaper, before it was bought by someone who was more into business than journalism (by that, you should know, not the biggest paper, but one that continues to be influential for all its anachronistic leanings). He had then been hired to run another journalistic enterprise that had been bestowed with a generous starting sum by a private entity, who, apparently, expected nothing in return.

I mention all of this because two things happened today that made me think of him. The first was an obvious link — I saw an announcement that the guy has a new title — was either promoted, kicked upstairs, or given a golden parachute with benefits. Any of those is much more than any of the people who worked for him, as that newspaper cut costs, or any other newspaper during that time has gotten for being kicked to the curb.

The second reason I thought of him today is a talk a group of people who had never worked in journalism had over lunch earlier, in which they wondered with genuine curiosity, why newspapers with all they have going against them right now, do such a shitty job. They were talking about stories they had seen that seemed to duplicate other stories, the prize-quest direction of journalism, and finally, humiliatingly, the bizarre number of errors that established publications allowed on their Web sites in the hours after last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown.

One of the reasons newspaper have so much going against them I said, is that they already were doing a shitty job. Sometime before the great newspaper apocalypse of halfway through the first decade of this century, I met a woman who told me apologetically (in that way you know that someone is apologizing for a total diss) that she just didn’t like to read actual newspapers (the kind you pay for, and the kind that paid me, at the time) because the ink made her hands dirty.

What does that tell you? It told me, since we weren’t talking about rooting through the dumpster, or mucking out the pig sty, that we, collectively, were not turning out something that was enough worth reading to get a little ink on your hands.

The reasons? Yes, you can blame it on the Internet. But you can also blame it on Clinton and all the peace and prosperity he brought for eight years. That’s when the economy boomed so, that good help was hard to find. And newspapers, like other institutions — think Wall Street, think Detroit, could not do enough wrong to learn a lesson, and get better. Good enough to risk getting a little ink on your hands.

The important man, who had run one of the biggest newspapers in the country, who couldn’t tell one grey-haired woman from another, and slightly more symptomatically couldn’t talk without a spasmodic interruptions of “ummm”s and a few oddly placed vulgarisms was but one symptom of how prosperity wreaks havoc on itself by promoting mediocrity.

Humanity inches forward after each defeat, and sometimes gains as much as it catches up. And I hope journalism, when it comes fully too life again, learns something from its past selection of important men.

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