NEW PRESTON, CONN.—I wrote about markets this week—the appalling crack-up in global exchanges, wholly irrational—and I wrote about journalism. I’m invested in both. What pennies I have are in some kind of mutual fund, but never mind that. I have much, much more down on the table by way of the craft I’ve given too many decades to. There, too, a crackup. And this one’s far more consequential as a portent of this nation’s prospects for survival out in the medium distance.
Long, long ago, while I was wrapping my fingers around the rough ropes for the first time, an old-timer named Eddie Coyle took me aside. I’ll digress briefly.
Eddie was among the last of that long-gone breed who lived itinerantly on a hack’s meager pay. He’d wandered from town to town for years, down to Florida and then across the Gulf to points westward, picking up any old job any old where that suited him for a spell. Hacks could do this back then: There was always something going. Eddie had a bad bottle problem during these youthful years, and the demon followed him relentlessly until he finally kicked it.
It was long after this that I met him. He was then the assistant sports editor at the Daily News in New York—dry, crusty from all the rough years, settled, single and late-middle aged, closeted gay and Irish-American—the last two not so easily managed in combination at the time I write of. I’ve always appreciated having known Eddie Coyle. He was kind to a young nitwit in whom, maybe, he saw a little of himself. He taught me a lot about the craft, and a few things about living, about frailty and strength and getting from one to the other.
These were the final years of hot type, mid-1970s, everything edited on paper and sent to the composing room by way of belts that ran downstairs one flight from the newsroom. Eddie was teaching me how to edit—not only the sensibility needed to edit well, but the symbols by which one disciplined copy. These are hieroglyphics to editors now, of course. I still remember them, pleased to say, and use them when I’m marking up my own copy.
One evening, the early edition done, we were sitting alone on the rim in the Sports Department going over copy. For no reason I can recall, Eddie let drop one of one of his more memorable asides. “Always remember I told you this, kid. It’s what you need to know about newspapering: Get in, get wise, and get out.” Then Eddie smiled his mischievous Irish smile.
Eddie hadn’t made it to Step 3, plainly. I’m stuck, arguably, between Steps 1 and 2. I’ve attempted 3 a couple of times, but, maybe because I’ve never quite completed 2, haven’t quite made it out of the game.
Good enough. I’m writing other things now. My last several books are not the work of a journalist, which pleases me. Maybe one day one or another of the things I’m attempting now—writing from below the neck, as I explain to friends—will see the light of a bookshop window. But the columns, well, these are journalism, for sure. I think it’s the only kind I could tolerate now—comment on events, the trenchcoat far back in the closet.
Up in New Hampshire recently, a very old friend from Asia days read a few of the columns I’ve done lately. He’s not of my stripe, particularly, and I wondered how they’d sit with him.
When he finished he looked up from his Adirondack and said, “What utter bliss it must be to have a view you hold strongly to and to write exactly what you mean.”
Thanks, Andy. You’ve got it in one, as you English say. It’s precisely the source of the joy I still find in the game.
I SET OUT TO MAKE a point, so here goes.
The piece I published in Salon Tuesday evening, now posted here, made for a weird week. It looks at three recent cases of decay as it spreads, not to say rips through, in the media I was trained to assume were the media we had available to us, readers and practitioners both. Over and over I’m astonished at the accumulation of evidence that this is no longer so. It seems to me the mainstream media, as we’re calling them, continue to fashion their own doom.
Who’da thunk it even a few years ago? I finish a column like this and remind myself all over again that we’re in a very dramatic, not to say historic moment. History—and it’s great to be aware of it, which is not easy—is unrolling in front of us. We, indeed, are its instruments. The old, unshakable MSM are tumbling from their pedestals. I longer have to say even, “This will happen in my lifetime,” for it is happening, as in now.
Weird week, but pleasantly so.
I had a pile of mail to get through, and in it was the latest edition of CounterPunch, Alex Cockburn’s magazine, now edited by Cockburn’s co-founder, Jeff St. Clair. It’s Volume 22, Number 6, 2015. And it is just what I needed to read as I got ready to do the aforementioned column.
I started with St. Clair’s column, “Roaming Charges,” in part because he always has something interesting to say and says it well, in part because it’s the first thing you come to in CP after the letters (which I inspect more than read). A beautifully stitched essay ranging all through the history of the Southwest, written atop the mesa once occupied by “the people once known as the Anasazi,” as Jeff put it, and weaving through this a contemplation on climate change. Very artful. One could teach this piece in a writing class.
Next page, JoAnn Wypijewski’s column, “Diamonds and Rust.” Same thing: She takes you through this very unorthodox museum in Alexander, N.D., dedicated to the horrific slaughter that was so intimately part of the white man’s “conquest” of the American West. Chris Floyd’s column on Pope Francis’s tour of Latin America, across the gutter from Wipijewski: excellent, vastly more and more thoughtful than anything I’d read in the Times or any other MSM.
Another column, this written from Vancouver, on the wildfires (surgical masks on Main Street in Vancouver now, believe it or not). An essay on the financial markets, then the features: Unreported nuclear spills all over the country, the rise of “Big Generic,” meaning the gouging practices of generic drug manufacturers. (Conscienceless shits.)
I’m not writing an advertisement for CounterPunch, although I can think of worse things to do. I mean to suggest only the look of our moment as a revolution in media unfolds around us. This issue of CP was exceptional, at least as it landed in my household. But it spoke to me, as a practitioner, of ever-accumulating capabilities—a high-end competence achieved the only way there is, by doing it and doing it again. It caused me to think that those outside the MSM—either all their professional lives or as refugees—are capable of the kind of work that builds authority, credibility, trust—and from these reach and influence.
Not so bad a time to be in the craft, stuck between getting in and getting wise, nowhere near—alas!—getting out.