(This column is written in honor of Gary Webb formerly of the San Jose Mercury News who exposed the CIA connection in smuggling drugs into LA’s African American community. For some reporting errors he was hung out to dry by his publisher and most of the Establishment media like the LATimes, Washington Post and NY Times. He committed suicide.)
After cowboys, my heroes have always been reporters, in real life and in the movies. Good, accurate reporters are the Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spades of our time – detectives tracking a crime in all but name. A century ago Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens were insulted with the compliment of “muckraker” for exposing the crimes and cruelty of the Gilded Age. Today’s muckraking by “detectives” like Matt Taibbi, Patrick Cockburn, Sy Hersh and James Risen is almost always a product of dull print not glamorous broadcast. Bob Simon’s over 200 reports on CBS’s 60 Minutes, from places like Gaza, Vietnam and Bosnia, are shining exceptions for their straightforward, sympathetic writing and letting a story speak for itself not the journalist.
The dirty little secret of most network TV is that its finest stories – that is, those exposes that make the Establishment’s skin crawl –often start as “boring” research-based slogging by unglam reporters, for local newspapers like the Hartford Courant, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and San Jose Mercury News, armed only with a computer, telephone and public records index.
I was lucky to be born in Chicago a fabulous newspaper town, full of crime, dirty cops and dirtier judges, covered by my favorite tabloids including the Chicago Times where I served an apprenticeship as a copy boy. Scandal and muckraking were the meat and drink for us Chicago readers in a one-party Democratic-dictatorship town.
Heaven knows there was enough muck to rake. It was, and today often is, a rare judge or alderman who doesn’t end up in the clink. Of the 100 or so people to serve as a Chicago alderman in the last four decades, 31 of them have been convicted of corruption. And let’s not even speak of the past governor Blagojevich who became the fourth of the past seven Illinois governors to be convicted of a felony.
Thus, I grew up in a headline hunting, scandalmongering, “irresponsible” tabloidish journalistic culture.
I first became a working journalist in London’s Fleet Street which in many ways resembled Old Timey Chicago’s graft, alcoholism and pursuit of trivial sleaze.
Given this history, I’m hardly one to sit in judgment on journalistic “ethical lapses”. But there really is a world of difference between a sleek superstar like Brian Williams and a stone-cold reporter like Bob Simon.
On TV’s 60 Minutes Simon reported without performing. (His last story, on Ebola, will appear this Sunday.) Brian Williams is cut from a different cloth. (See actor William Hurt in Broadcast News.) Williams adored, and got addicted to, the ego-Botox of celebrity. NBC pushed him absurdly hard as their Peacock Network brand, and paid him $10 million a year to shine on viewers with whatever is the opposite of real news. With his jut jaw, easy delivery and delight in telling fish stories to David Letterman on late nite TV shows, he is almost as much a victim of an anti-news system as its exploiter.
As an “embedded” war reporter in Iraq he broke an honest reporter’s first moral rule to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. He praised the invasion as “the cleanest war in all of military history” in tune with elite journalism’s prevailing lies at the time.
Celebrity journalism usually stinks on TV. You can be 99 percent certain that when ABC’s David Muir, CBS’s Scott Pelley and whoever NBC digs up as its next Rock Center star announces a “scoop” the crucial drudge work begins with a woman or man with a pencil and a sharp nose for news beavering away probably in some distant “regional” paper.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.