Under the Volcano: Why Real Reporting Matters So Much

 

Mort Rosenblum

By Mort Rosenblum

PARIS  -- When a bow-tied, pint-sized Pulitzer laureate from Detroit brought journalism to the University of Arizona, 60 years ago, my sister Elise found her bliss. She hung on Doug Martin’s every word. He taught her about lead paragraphs, interview techniques, and all that. But mostly, without getting grandiose about it, he reflected the nobility of solid, honest reporting. How could Americans live free, secure, and prosperous lives without a clear fix on reality?

Martin taught what his contemporary H. L. Mencken put so succinctly: “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” 

My sister Jane followed four years later. By then, Sherman Miller had taken over, a different sort of dude: grizzled, tie undone, ash dangling from his Parliament cigarette. And she hung on his every word. Some of his favorites were: “There are two kinds of people in the world: newspaper people and the other kind.” An ex-New York Times state editor, he loathed inaccuracy and inaction. Like Martin, he regarded journalism as a sacred trust.

When journalism classes began in a basement near Old Main, I was in third grade at Peter Howell Elementary School. Miss Lot showed us a globe (it was round then; it still is), and I wanted to explore all those colored blotches and blue expanses. Elise told me journalists got to see those places on someone else’s nickel, and I knew there’d be a third Rosenblum in that dank basement corner.

Much has changed since then. But, down deep, much has not.

All three of us worked on the Wildcat, watching our words set into lead on clanking linotypes. That was high-tech, a far cry from our forebears who scribbled on foolscap for printers who plucked letters by hand from big wooden cases. We figured new inventions down the line would speed the process. Still, tools are only tools. Nothing Doug and Sherm had to say about that unspoken nobility – the ethics, the responsibility, the need to get it right in detail and in context – has changed a pica’s width.

Technical advance is not necessarily progress. If Mencken were around to Google his timeless quote today, he would find it fractured in various ways, at times attributed to George Bernard Shaw or Umberto Eco.

The main difference between then and now is the world beyond our line of sight. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, the consequences of error were mostly minimal. A clumsy mistake or a willful distortion seldom lasted unfixed. Lots of real reporters were out there. If some got it wrong, others did not.

“Foreign news” came fast and furious after 1967, which was when The Associated Press sent me to report abroad. An uprising in Prague showed Moscow’s Iron Curtain was partly tin; more than nukes, we needed can openers. Israelis and Arabs shot away hope for Holy Land peace. French ferment revealed an evolving new Old World. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam underscored a lesson we have yet to learn: Ancient cultures reject saviors with a shopping list.

A Washington-focused press missed much of this. But information then moved at the pace of teletypes, with morning papers and evening newscasts. You could correct mistakes and go back to fill in the blanks. Not anymore.

Today, misinformation kills. A few paragraphs purporting to be news can ignite murderous mayhem half a world away. Unbalanced zealots abound in societies we call civilized. Psychologists know that any crackpot’s dark suspicions can be hardened into conviction by a single affirming voice.

Those good old days were hardly perfect. Now we can see crucial images in real time, pin down data, and layer in background. But this is a mixed blessing. We can also get things horribly wrong at the speed of light. 

“News breaks” are chalk marks, quickly overwritten. What matters is depth from reporters who understand the societies they cover. Like volcanoes, human events rumble beneath the surface before they erupt. The best journalism is, essentially, seismology.

A decade ago, for instance, few reporters were in Baghdad to warn there was no defensible reason to kill perhaps a million people and squander trillions of dollars. Non-reporters back home said the opposite. So we Americans let our leaders trash a reasonably good world and make countless new enemies.

The Pentagon learned at least one significant lesson from Vietnam. If generals censor and limit access, news executives cave. Most are happy with only the impression of coverage. If they push too hard, they risk access to pools and – Gold help us – embedding.

All in all, too many Americans were losing the plot.  And so a lifetime after I left Tucson, I was thrilled when Jacqueline Sharkey asked me to come home each year to teach international reporting. Those original values were deeply ingrained under her tenure. Old white guys like me no longer dominate a diverse faculty of varied skills. What lacks is wherewithal. The UA School of Journalism delivers excellence on a shoestring.

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I know the news business. I’ve written and talked about it so often that even loyal friends run screaming when they sniff another impending diatribe. But I don’t understand the broader American society. Nothing is more worth to any nation than accurate information. And yet we poke out our eyes and plug our ears by starving the very schools we need to train real journalists.

If we understood the world, we would not need to deploy a muscle-bound military that makes foes of friends. We would see foreign aid as self-interest, not charity, which increases food supply and expands our markets. We would thwart privateers who deny scientific evidence and imperil our survival.

With more reliable sources, we would know that drone missiles and mercenaries carrying our flag make sense only in a self-focused fantasyland. Out in the real world, people see them as mocking the principles we preach. 

It’s not that we’re broke. Scrawny as I am, I like basketball as much as the next guy. But should the UA coach earn 40 times more than some journalism professors? Beating UCLA matters, but it is more important to outflank Iran and counter China. We need to know how. People argue that athletics are funded by alumni gifts, not the university’s budget. Do sports fans live in a separate world?

Arizona is Arizona. Wealthy newcomers and an old-line conservative core run the state from Phoenix. They have gutted higher education budgets to reduce the need for corporate taxes. So universities depend on private largesse. In one form or another, this is a broad pattern across the United States.

Journalism is among the first casualties, losing out to “communications,” which puts theory and process above reflecting hard reality. News is about yesterday and tomorrow as much as today. Reporters should know how to deliver news. But more, they should know how to gather it.

And so, back to Doug Martin’s and Sherm Miller’s size 12 shoes. What do we tell our students now?

In my class, I focus on risk. I’d prefer to talk about starting stories with the main stuff at the top. But we’re past that now, and it’s dangerous out there. If I hear “inverted pyramid” I think somebody exploded a monster bomb at Giza.

I also talk about hardship. In those earlier days, most of us left school for an actual job, with salary, benefits, and a ladder to climb. Today’s graduates need to hustle a grubstake, get themselves abroad, and then often work for peanuts under clueless editors who micromanage them. Young reporters need seasoned colleagues to teach them tradecraft and to share contacts, yet these are vanishing fast. And so they face risks and hardship on their own.  

With all of this, people back home spend billions on pumping air into their cappuccinos and dressing up their pets and, but they demand the “news” for free.

Is this insane, or what?

It is time to adjust priorities.  It does not cost much to teach ethics and essentials. Some schools spend millions on stuff like marquees that stream headlines on fancy buildings. What counts is what students learn. The UA’s record is stunning. Its graduates win Pulitzers, anchor network broadcasts, and dig out vital stories for national dailies. That costs at least something. 

A new portrait has joined the gallery of UA journalism chiefs. David Cuillier, nationally respected, has promising fresh ideas. Students are enthusiastic. But Arizona and other good J-schools need more than shoestrings.

To get a grip on world reality, we need to send skilled, courageous young professionals out there to relay that reality to us. Talking about news is not reporting it. Analyzing news from a distance all but ensures getting it wrong.

Here are some things we do:

  • Elect people to state legislatures and to Congress who realize that education – including journalism education – underpins any sensible society. Raise hell if they get off track. Demand realistic budgets and quality teaching.
  • If you can, endow a chair. Fund a scholarship. A floor-level UA basketball season ticket costs $2,000, counting a mandatory donation. Surely, a mid-court seat on the real world is worth something close. If hard-pressed, just kick in to help pay the Xerox bill. It all helps. My $150 Alex Parker scholarship took me a long way in 1962. Parker was a grand old copy editor at the Arizona Daily Star. His endowment is still helping students.
  • Support schools that teach actual journalism. Public relations and advertising sell a message, shaping words and images to produce a result. Reporting is the polar opposite. It tries to tell the truth, convenient or not. 
  • Take an interest. Attend J-School events in Tucson or wherever you happen to be. Talk to students and professors about how journalists can serve society better. That matters.  

      “Serve” may be overblown here; reporters are hardly missionaries. Travails aside, many lead pretty rewarding lives. Yet no good journalist I know does it for the money. One way or another, a Doug Martin, a Sherm Miller, has inspired each to seek something more. Or a Jacqueline Sharkey. 

      I make much of an old quote that calls correspondents “a little bunch of madmen.” But the maddest in that bunch are now often women. Today, solid reporting transcends gender, nationality, and everything else. It is all about giving a damn and getting it right.

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      (Please post your thoughts at Reporting Unlimited on Facebook. If you’d like, drop a note to mort.rosenblum@gmail.com to join my victims’ list.)

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