“We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation.”
Thus spoke my new fave Republican, Liz Cheney, the right honorable Congresswoman from Wyoming. She said this at the end of the most recent public hearing of the U. S. House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack.
Pursuit of truth, and of accurate, actionable intel, has been a primary fetish for me ever since my boyhood. I grew up near the Everglades. Back then, all my news of the world got funneled to me through a slim metal tube hanging beneath our mailbox.
That mailbox stood on a pole, out at the end of a driveway winding through a live oak forest. A rolled copy of the Miami Herald was thrust by some magical power into that tube each morning, and I’d sprint through the woods to grab it and bear it back to our house with the pride of an Olympic runner toting a baton across a finish line.
HEADLINES FOR BREAKFAST
Back then, the Miami Herald was the flagship of the Knight newspaper chain. Florida had barely three million residents statewide, but that paper then boasted a circulation of 176,000 readers, shooting up to 204,000 on Sundays. Today, Florida is crammed with a population of ten times that number of potential readers. Nevertheless, the Herald’s circulation numbers haven’t risen but fallen, to a paltry 73,000 daily and 100,600 on Sunday. And this paper is now owned and run, not by a professional news organization focused on its civic duty, but a hedge fund bent on profit—a phenom which has trended in the media realm.
And thereby does not hang a tale. Or thereby many, many tales do not hang, all of which have gone unresearched, untold, unread and unknown, due to the decline of newspapers, the shrinking of many TV newsrooms, and the stream of local radio stations being gobbled into the maw of conglomerates that prefer to spew homogenized, one-size-fits-all broadcasts. Whereupon, acts of public malfeasance can occur with few reports and zero consequence. Events can unfurl, willy-nilly, with no useful feedback provided to either participants or observers. Lacking such intelligence, how can any appropriate public policy ever find its way?
SAHARA OF OUR NEW NEWS DESERTS
Take what happened in Florida and to its formerly regal Herald and multiply that by 50 other U.S.A. states. Here are some current stats. More than 360 U.S.A. newspapers have shut down between the end of 2019 and the spring of 2022. As of last month, papers were still getting shuttered at the rate of two per week. Due to their plunge in status as a primary venue for views/subscribers/ad-buys, overall newspaper revenues dropped from $50 billion dollars to $20 billion in 2022. Our nation has lost 2,500 papers since 2005, a quarter of the national total; we’re on a pace to lose an entire third of such classic info providers by 2025.
A UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media study in 2020 found that about half of American newsprint journalists had left the profession in the preceding decade, an exit parade approximately matched by the loss of half of regular newspaper readers.
Back in the late 60s, early 70s, I became a college student trying to tighten my grip on the power of poetry at FSU in Tallahassee (word power made cryptic). But to take a break from that and sate my lust for huge masses of intelligence about life on our planet, I’d buy Sunday’s Miami Herald from a rack in Tally-town, which lay 500 miles north of Miami. Then I’d settle down into a chair somewhere and binge-read the whole thing from front to back in one go. No small chore, since Sunday’s roll of newsprint by then had swollen to its peak size, running several hundred pages thick—a bundle fat enough to choke a ‘gator.
READING TO WRITE
Tallahassee’s own paper was a far more modest enterprise. Entertaining, sure, but not captivating. Whereas a Sunday Miami Herald could grab my attention and suck it in like a black hole gulping down an asteroid. It offered abundant state, national and global news, of course, as well as a ton of reviews, opinions, columns, editorials and features of every stripe, including historical analysis and prognostications about our possible futures.
My lifelong habit of consuming papers this way nurtured me well for a subsequent career—yet one I had not foreseen myself ever being able to enjoy.
After college, when I came to California, it grew obvious that any pursuit of a living as a poet was a recipe for deep frustration, if not outright starvation. Next I noticed that in the region where I’d settled—towns around Mendocino—plenty of interesting nature stories were whisking by that lacked any media coverage. So, I chose to apply myself to the chore of covering such things. “Well, I’ve not been trained as a journalist,” I mused, “but what if I sought to report on these topics as IF I had?”
SPOTLIGHT ON LOCAL STORIES
My first freelance success was a feature for Bowhunter Magazine about the joys of missing a shot. Yeah, I know, how Zen is that? But even back then, I saw a sales potential in adopting an unusual point-of-view. For my second success, I deployed this strategy in spades. I compared two highly contrasting events. One was a massive struggle by back-to-the-land hippies to clear log jams and other timber industry debris out of the Albion River, so that wild salmon could once again ascend to the headwaters and spawn. The other event concerned a landowner in Redway who had conspired with a licensed forester to falsely declare the virgin redwoods on his property “diseased and dangerous.” Which meant he could chop them down, sell that valuable lumber, then double-dip by selling his cleared lot for home development. He succeeded at both projects while incurring only minor blowback.
This second feature of mine I dubbed, “Two Tales from the Timber Trade,” and I promptly sold it as a cover story for one of the Sunday magazines in The San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner—a combined edition of a pair of local papers that produced a newsprint roll of the same heft the Herald had amid its heyday.
And then I was on my way. For the next seven years, I pursued outdoor sport and adventure yarns, environmental conflict stories, travel and recreation features, up and down the entire state, covering them usually in print but sometimes in video too. I sold my output to outlets as varied as The National Fisherman and New West and California magazines, but most often to one of the Sunday magazines of the Chronicle/Examiner. Freelancing offered only a tough, hand-to-mouth livelihood. One thing that kept me right on a-hustling was a stern vow to live only on dough I could make from writing. This kept my feet on the path, my nose pushed against the grindstone, and my shoulder on the wheel—as any cliché artisan might describe it.
A LEAP UP THE LADDER
Thus, it came to pass that I was eventually hired by The San Francisco Chronicle to be a main feature writer and second-in-command editor for a brand new, stand-alone Outdoors Section. My job description varied, but I held this post (clung avidly to it, actually!) for the next 22 years.
I’d like to offer a belated apology to our newspaper’s union, The Media Guild. By contract, we were only supposed to work a 37.5 hour week, a measure designed to keep the media barons from exploiting us. All well and good for a beat reporter, whose radius of activity rarely extended beyond the Bay Area. But for a guy like me, who had ambitions to go everywhere and write about anything, my eyes were much bigger than those contract terms—so I violated them wholesale. Heck, traveling round-trip to some of the places I wrote about could suck up 37.5 hours, just in windshield time!
I went to the Colorado Rockies and was dropped off by helicopter on the Continental Divide, so I could ski down and try out new snow equipment at a seriously off-piste test site. To Alaska to raft the Tatshenshini River and report on the threat from a gold mine and a plan to thwart it by declaring a new park. To Chile to write about Doug Tompkins and his effort to establish a major nature preserve at the end of the Andes. To Hawaii to hike the Kalalau Trail, to surf, to fish and to parse the recreational options of paradise.
VIEW FROM THE CATBIRD SEAT
I felt I had the best job in the U.S.A., and I aimed to harvest the utmost from this opportunity. Yet lest you think (as many did) that my job consisted entirely of what other folks regarded as vacations, allow me to assure you that all this travel was done at near warp speed, and I spent many trying hours, before and after my trips, below fluorescent lights and in front of computer screens, pounding keyboards, working phones, conducting research and composing stories.
In addition, quite a few of my biggest features were created in the face of initial opposition from my bosses. Whenever that happened to loom as a barrier, I’d expend chunks of vacation time as well as my personal cash chasing a story down on my own. I’d seek to write it up in some totally irresistible fashion, then offer my idea once again, but this time as a fait accompli. The stratagem worked more often than not. Getting my expenses repaid ex post facto, however, was a much tougher nut to crack—though not impossible. However, reimbursement for all my overtime? Fuhgeddaboudit.
In addition, making the most of my journalist job meant not limiting myself to outdoor themes. My goal was to write for all sections of the paper, and over the course of years I did manage to accomplish this. In the Chronicle (and other big papers, like the NY Times and Washington Post) I’ve managed to publish stories on all sorts of topics. My stuff has included reviews, opinion columns and even some front-page investigative series. I’m proud to say these had some effect. My stories helped to pass a few laws and stymie others, helped establish parks, preserves and trails and protect stretches of wild and scenic river. At times, they promoted good-doers and punished miscreants. I got some folks disciplined, some fired, and even sent an embezzler to San Quentin for a long meditation on his felonious filching of public funds.
A SCHOOL OF HARDER KNOCKS
And I owe any of this success to a lifelong habit of educating myself on the how, why, and what of journalism through constant reading of newspapers. My wife and I still subscribe to three print dailies; sometimes we even enjoy an early morning tug-o’-war over a front page section. Not to mention our constant visits to online sources and our stints of listening to NPR. What can I say? We’re a pair of total ink-stained news junkies.
How would a young person starting out today find anything like the robust resources that nurtured me? Back in the day, we had major outlets that were carefully managed by highly experienced gatekeepers, people who established guidelines and enforced the rules and traditions of classic journalism: objectivity, reliable sourcing, and balanced writing. The media products that ensued could therefore be assessed as relatively trustworthy.
A bunch of that info-infrastructure now lies as a smoking heap in our culture’s rearview mirror.
Nothing ever happens for simply one reason; there are multiple causes for this decline. The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of ersatz information outlets is certainly one huge factor, the loss of the FCC Fairness Doctrine (look it up) is another cause. The migration and diffusion of ad revenue away from traditional outlets is a third. However, the most pernicious development in my view is a shockingly rapid rise of con artists who drape themselves in the mantle of journalism and then proceed to merrily violate every single one of its canons.
THE POSEURS WHO PUNDIT
And yeah, Faux “News,” I’m looking at you. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who spawned that obnoxious outlet, became a U.S. citizen to meet a legal requirement for television network ownership. We gave him citizenship; in return he awarded us an unremitting stream of swill masquerading as reportage. Of course, we’re not the only nation so blessed; Britain and Australia won their unfair share, too.
I remember looking at Bill O’Reilly’s smug and snide contempt for anyone and anything that lay to his political left after he joined Fox in 1996, and thinking, “Wow, this is the bottom of the barrel!” Certainly, compared to Murrow, Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite and Rather, I found this barking head an egregious poisoner of public discourse.
Then I inflicted further research on myself by spending some low-quality media time wrapping an ear around Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Whereupon I realized, “Hey, their barrel doesn’t even have a bottom!” This loose-knit team’s swelling tirades of distortion and derision culminated, almost predictably, in the election of a U.S. president for whom truth was not even a nodding acquaintance.
And so now, here we are.
PERFECTION IS NOT A THING
Don’t get me wrong, traditional newsrooms were never the repository of all virtue. (For that matter, neither was the Vatican.) We’re all humans in this place, and ideals are something we must strive to fulfill. Virtue is not a “gimme” in any setting. In my journalism murder mystery, “Deadlines,” I present a character, Colm MacCay, who says, “Everything you can find outside of a newsroom, you can find inside of it.” In my experience, this can and does include graft, racism, corruption, bullying, nepotism, incompetence, favoritism, harassment, sexism, sloth, greed, envy and probably a few other deadly sins as well as many minor vices. Yet, hopefully, there you shall also find idealists relentlessly slogging along, come what may, to attain journalism’s shining goals as best they can.
And the rigors of trying to do a quality job never seem to ebb. In “Deadlines,” I also scribbled this: “Being a journalist is like being married to a nymphomaniac. Just when you think you ought to be done, you have to start all over again.”
There are still people out there striving to their utmost to adhere to journalism’s sacred mission of providing a clear-eyed view of what is actually going on, and there are still newcomers arriving who embrace that mission. They not only struggle to hold up the ceiling in such traditional newsrooms as remain, they are reinventing news gathering via well-sourced blogs and podcasts, as local online news outlets, and as non-profit media entities—many aiming at an investigative and/or explanatory goal. In one bright spot, the Institute for Nonprofit News reported last year that traffic to such sites grew by 43%, and more than 3,000 other outlets published or cited some of their work.
FORGING A FUTURE
Well, that briefly summarizes the scene here in the U.S.A. In other countries, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Saudi Arabia—where good, brave journalists are rapidly becoming a literal endangered species—people must surmount ever higher obstacles to accomplish a job of informing their fellow citizens about truths they need to know. Not necessarily to prosper, but simply to survive.
And I’ll now finish my diatribe from the reporters’ tribe with a plea: Please, please, help these people out. Seek the truth and be willing to pay for it. Pay with your dollars, certainly. Subscribe to reliable outlets, more than one of them. Donate to the non-profit outfits and/or make a bequest, become an active member. But also contribute your time—mostly read, listen and view those venues that demonstrate the cherished values in a modern digital fashion. Also assist by providing your social support. If you find a good story, a good outlet, a useful dialog, share it or its link on your social networks, talk it up with friends and relatives. (Even strangers, though that’s a tad riskier nowadays!) In this manner, perhaps a new future of honest and comprehensive media can be seeded, nurtured and rebuilt.
Because Liz Cheney was dead right about this. If you wish to live in a land of the free, you’ve got to start off by dwelling in a dorm of the informed.