McAdams On: Truth to Power
2/8/2011 2:02:13 PM
I never wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t have
Woodward and Bernstein dreams. I was a beaten-down, messed-up kid about as far
away from civilization as one could get. I just dreamed of escape, and not much
more. Others seemed to think I had a way with words, but most couldn’t
comprehend the wreckage underneath. By the time I got to my first college
orientation on my 25th birthday, I was making my living with a shovel and a
I blustered my way through graduate-level courses with juvenile hand-written
essays that drove one kindly professor to suggest I visit the J-school. I
walked into the office of an old
Herald reporter-turned-prof and said I wanted to be a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist. He looked at my tool belt and steel-toed Wolverines
and affected a gesture like spitting out a cigar. I think he mumbled something
personal to the savior. He clearly liked me.
This is what happens in journalism school to people deluded into believing they
can write well. They are stood corrected by a cadre of perpetually irritated news
veterans who seem to have something unpleasant under their noses. They are
disabused of all sense of creativity and ingrained with sentence structure.
Their egos are gleefully deconstructed with vats of red ink and head-clapping
histrionics about the sheer torture of having to read their dreck. You leave
with a Strunk and White’s, a degree that will net you $12 an hour to start and
a stricture against taking so much as a sandwich from a source. And in my case,
a pile of school loans and a rusty Ford F-150.
Rolling into an unformed future at 35 with all of one’s worldly belongings in a
beat-up pickup truck sounds romantic until you’re burning oil in the Kiamichi
Mountains on negative cash flow in a great big world that doesn’t give two
hoots about your way with words. Even well-planned escapes have their pitfalls,
most generally comprising what comes after. In this instance, a job. Not a
career, a path, a destiny or a calling, but a job.
And I got one. For a small newspaper in California’s Sierra Nevada range. And I
sucked. Despite the heroic efforts of my professors, I was a half-formed
writerling. Reporting meant prying. Asking people how much money they made. You
could get shot doing that where I came from. I was given 30 days probation to
step up or go sling hash. Funny what you’ll do when your back’s against the
I would follow a trajectory that would lead me to a steady paycheck and medical
benefits. To quotas and deadlines and nothing too compelling. Certainly nothing
like the journalism taught in J-school, for which, it turns out, I held a
secret longing after all.
A lot of what passes for journalism these days is sheer flapdoodle. The
profession now encompasses everything from screeching buffoonery to the
wholesale publication of classified government documents. These activities
should be defined separately from the real thing, which unequivocally was on
display this week in Egypt.
Reporters from around the world were threatened, detained and beaten for practicing
journalism. For relating to the best of their abilities the instability rocking
a 30-year dictatorship. Their very abuse illustrates the necessity of their
presence for any hope of honest conduct. There is no such thing as democracy in
the absence of a free press.
I never wanted to be a journalist. I hope there’s still time.
Deborah D. McAdams