My dad never called himself a journalist. He was either a reporter, or later, an editor during this career at the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Journalist" was too pretentious-sounding for him.
So when asked, I always told people that my dad, who is now retired, was a reporter (or newspaperman before that became outmoded). But always, in the back of my mind, I thought reporter sounded too much like a clerk or stenographer, as if all the people who work in press did was copy down what others said and throw it in the paper with no interpretation, thought, or truth-seeking at all.
Somewhere along the way, I started using the term journalist. To me it summed it up better. We live, report, consider, write, rewrite, and wind up with a body of work. And here on this blog, I routinely refer to everybody with bylines as the same. Journalists. But after watching a couple of episodes of "Tabloid Wars" -- the reality TV show on Bravo based on the doings of the New York Daily News -- I'm thinking of going back to my dad's choice.
Take the episode where the Daily News staffers are trying to track down a story about James McNaughton, the first police officer killed in Iraq. The poor sops spend the entire day trying to get a quote from the family and wind up, triumphantly, with something about him being a "hero."
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So much work, so much stress, and the newspaper ends up feeding the public a trite, fill-in-the-blanks story that they splash all over the cover. It was almost depressing. And so it goes on almost every story done on the show. Reporters chase down loose facts and send it to the newsroom for it to be turned into easily digestible, nutrition-free news product.
I'm not saying the stuff has no value. People read it and they get information nobody else has (including the arch-nemesis New York Post, which is even worse). But it started giving me flashbacks to my days at Gannett. The star newsgatherers on the show -- Kerry Burke, Jonathon Lemire, Tony Sclafani, et al -- were definitely, without a doubt, reporters rather than journalists.
And most press folk probably are the same. But journalists can be found in the business. Columnists who do their own reporting. Investigative types. Artful beat reporters. The truth is that newspapers generally try to beat the journalist out of most of their staffers. Ego is generally thought of as a dangerous thing in the press game. The problem is that attitude turns a lot of daily newspaper reporters into pussycats who don't have the gumption to find the truth. They write stories poo-poohing "negative" campaigning with a broad stroke, without finding the substance of what's being alleged. They're so balanced as to become meaningless and instantly obsolete. They fill in the pre-ordained slots for their editors and go home to watch shows Tabloid Wars on TV.
Nah, I'll take journalists anyday.