Dear Uncle Harold:
Thought I'd better get this off to you before we head for the beach. I'm about to spend another summer trying to prove that fat floats in salt water. You think I'm kidding, Harold? Another 40 pounds, and I could be a defensive tackle--if the rest of my hulk were muscle, which it very definitely isn't.
Harold, I'd be glad to talk to your niece Marsha about jobs in journalism. Tell her to call me at The Post when she lands at National. Maybe I can do better at directing her downtown on the subway than I did with you. I don't care what you say, I did tell you to get off at McPherson Square. Can I help it if you thought you heard me say Addison Road? Are you still cheating and not wearing your hearing aid, Harold?
Anyway, I have to warn you that I'm not very optimistic about careers in journalism. Marsha sounds like a nice kid, Harold--good family, went to a good school, hungry as the dickens. But getting into this business is tougher than ever.
The reason's still Watergate, Harold. The day Nixon resigned, they had to take the phone off the hook in the admissions office of every journalism school in the country. Kids who might have thought that working for a congressman was the best way to change the world suddenly decided that working for a paper was better. It was easier than law school, more effective and more fun.
But there's no easy street in journalism, Harold. Forget all that stuff about lunches with famous sources at French restaurants. Forget the old bit about how city rooms are full of misunderstood poets who keep the gin industry going. The good reporters today are sober, and they work even harder than you do, which is saying plenty, I know.
What really happens in this business? Quite undramatically, you pick up the phone and you check something. Then you pick up the phone and check something else. If you get into journalism with the idea that you'll be writing lyrical essays that will instantly cure poverty and injustice, then obituaries and school board meetings will seem awfully dull. But covering those kinds of stories is the best way to learn.
Remember my friend Art, Harold? The guy who bragged all the time about how he was going to "bag himself a president like Woodward and Bernstein" before he was 30? Well, Art quit reporting in 1976, when he was 28. A classic newspaper burnout case. He's been teaching English out in California ever since. You don't bag too many presidents teaching "Silas Marner," do you?
But Art blames the newspaper business when he should blame himself. He was always off pursuing some way-out tip when the county council was voting to increase the assessment rate. He didn't understand which of the two stories was most worth his time, which story his readers wanted. Yet now he writes that he's "disappointed in newspapers" because they "aren't interested in following through to see that justice is done. They just want to shock and excite and sell ads."
That's way too cynical for me, Harold, and misguided, too. The press never sought to be the spearhead of social reform in this country. Tom Paine and Horace Greeley never thought they were saviors. They knew the press should prod, and should reflect problems through its reporting. But they also knew that the press had no mandate to solve the problems itself. It's no different today.
Every time I get a phone call from someone who begins, "I just don't know where else to turn," I say, "Hold on a minute. I want to be sure you understand that I'm not Tip O'Neill, and I'm not the Better Business Bureau. I'm just a guy who types on a computer terminal. Maybe I can advise you or write a column about you. But I don't have the force of law, and I don't want it."
What I'm saying, Harold, is that Marsha had better not be blinded by the supposed glamor of newspapering. It's still the only job I'd ever want to do--but it can't right wrongs directly. If that's too tough for Marsha to take, she should run for Congress. She'd feel right at home. People on the Hill are the only ones who complain about their salaries as much as reporters.Your Loving Nephew, Bob