First, an epigraph:
“As long as we’re knocking down myths, let’s take a swing at the myth of the reporter who, if his mother says she loves him, checks it out by 1) getting an affidavit from the old lady attesting to the fact; 2) finding an independent source to verify the alleged love bond; and 3) unearthing material evidence of her devotion for her offspring. The reality is that too many reporters just want to go home and will phone anybody who will give them a good quotation to tie up all those loose ends.”
–Jack Schafer, in a Slate article that’s mostly about bad crystal meth reporting
And now, as response and comment, I quote myself, from my unfinished memoir of journalism school, which I was calling “J.” I want to distance myself from it a bit. It’s been a long time since I wrote this, and I’m not sure that I agree with everything I say in it. So from here on out, it’s all quote:
I was talking with a friend of mine one night at the wonderfully named Nussbaum & Wu bakery. We were killing an hour or so between our magazine workshop and a required lecture series for magazine concentrators. It was getting within a month or so of our graduation from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s master’s program, and we were talking jobs. Jobs being an important subject to people about to make the sudden and drastic social change from “student” to “unemployed.”
I was talking, as I had been quite often around that time, about how I was perfectly willing to sell out. To find a job that would make me equally as miserable as journalism, and yet would pay me. Anything. I had, in fact, received an email not an hour before this talk with this friend, in which I had been offered an interview at a magazine. The job paid $20,000. This is what a master’s degree at the best journalism school in the country was worth? My education had cost more than twice that much, and that only lasted for nine months or so.
Honestly, I could make more at McDonald’s.
So this friend and I were talking about these jobs, and I mentioned that I had been so disillusioned by journalism that I never wanted to make another reporting phone call again as long as I lived. I wanted to be a critic, an essayist. I wanted to write. Journalism school didn’t kill my love for the written word and for arguing out ideas. For the music of language and every sort of form of expression.
Journalism is not an art.
And in a way, that’s what my friend was saying. When I told him that I didn’t want to call people anymore, he told me something that I had actually heard around the journalism school quite a bit. He didn’t either.
Now, sometimes it’s hard to tell just how much truth there is in anything he says, but what my friend said to me is this:
“It seems like I’m writing stories, and I’ll get to the point where I just have an empty space, and I know what I want to fill it. So I just call people until I can get someone to say what it is that I need them to say.”
I don’t want this to be a condemnation of him, since among the people I’ve met at the J-school, as it’s called, he’s certainly among the most respectable. Maybe I say that only because what he said — whether an honest reflection of his feelings or not — summed up so much of what I feel after eight whole months of indoctrination into the world of “journalism.” Whatever that is. And I’m still not sure, but I have a few ideas. And I think I know — like any self-assured and somewhat pompous critic of anything should — what it should be. Daily journalism is a trade, and a fine one. Some nonfiction is art. Journalism at its finest is a profession. Some journalism, however, aspires to the status of art, and that’s where there’s a problem.
That’s where what I want to do for a living and what Columbia wants me to do for a living don’t ever quite match up. They want us to churn out formula stories — not boring formula stories, mind you — but emotional, balanced, well-reported formula stories just the same. There’s a certain skill to it, and I admire it and read it without qualms. Hell, the Monday before the day I had been talking to this friend (that was a Thursday), I had even sold a story to the New York Times. It was my finest piece of hackwork. It’s a moving story and I’m proud of it.
But boy, journalism’s not for everyone. It’s not even for most. I’m pretty sure it’s not for me.