McAdams On: Truth to Power

LOS ANGELES: 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 tool belt.

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 Miami 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 wall.

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, but maybe there’s still time.

-- Deborah D. McAdams