The Glamorous World of Big-Time Journalism
It was just after 4 AM in Detroit on the opening night of the 1980 Republican National Convention. My employer at the time, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, still was an evening paper, which meant a 6AMish deadline and all-night hustling to fill the vast spaces in papers then with horizons to match.
When you dispatched all or most of your eight-strong Washington bureau, Statehouse reporters from Missouri and Illinois, a columnist, an editorial writer, and a photographer or two, and set aside most of Page One and two pages inside for jumps and eight or a dozen more convention stories, reporters had work to do.
Me? I didn’t have to worry about whether Ronald Reagan would pick Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, or Donald Duck for a running-mate. I was the Springfield, Illinois guy, tasked with shadowing Lincoln-Landers and gathering scraps for the Washington bureau, where I would land in a few years.
In Detroit, the multitudes of reporters, picture-snappers, broadcast yappers and techies of an earlier vintage committed most of their acts of journalism in Cobo Arena, situated along the Detroit River. Fittingly, the hall was named after a lifelong Republican pol, Albert Cobo, who’d died of a heart attack after losing his race for governor. His namesake edifice, though not even as old as me at the time, already was afflicted with Detroit decay, its green granite walls slimy.
That July morning, in the last hours before sun-up, I was seated at a banquet table in front of my imposing Tele-Ram Portabubble, seeking painfully to legitimize nuggets from GOP partying the night before. The Portabubble was ugly indeed, Rambler gray with a screen the size of a Sunbeam bread slice. I took solace in knowing that it possessed “magnetic bubble memory,” which, I hoped, would help me recall something remotely newsworthy.
I would beat out something on its “alpha-numeric keyboard,” perhaps deploying my optional “plug-in personality module” – which, as I understood it, produced prose that matched the mood. Then I would stuff a telephone in built-in rubber couplers to send paragraphs winging to St. Louis at 300 baud. I could hunt down a beer from the all-night bar and smoke from the free cigarette packs piled in the reporters’ lounge, and the copy would still be heading west when I got back.
I grew confused at first. Something was pressing against my left leg, something large, squirming and fighting for space. Had some reporter succumbed to the brain-numbing pageantry? Given up in despair after trying to pump gas into a piece about Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt’s keynoter? I looked down. In a single movement, I leaped onto my metal folding chair.
Later, I would be chagrined at my behavior. Being cool was the goal of my youth. Cool Hand Luke, Marvin Gaye cool. “Kookie, Kookie lend me your comb” cool. Words always spoken in a moderate, low voice. Never acting like a wet-pants editor.
In Cobo Arena that night, or morning, cool I was not.
“RAT,” I yelled.
“BIG… FUCKING… RAT,” I went on, staring down at a furry mass lodged between the leg of my chair and a box of printer paper, tail aimed skyward.
Given that Detroit was host at the moment to half of the nation’s political establishment, it would be appropriate to deploy a rat metaphor. Truth be told, the politics we see today, the soul-less, kill tactics from venal politicians and their borderline insane strategists, had not yet been invented.
We’d seen backroom shenanigans and pranksters like Dick Tuck, who ordered a train to move out of the station in California with Richard Nixon still speaking from the caboose. But vicious politics wouldn’t come along until later in the decade, advanced toward today’s industrialized level by Terry Dolan, who masterminded the National Conservative Political Action Committee.
It’s hard to ratchet up ill will toward Dolan, who apologized for his transgressions, among them perverting campaign finance law, shortly before he died, of AIDs, at 36. But history will note his hypocrisy (“Our nation’s moral fiber is being weakened by the growing homosexual movement," he once said) and how his virulent attack ads financed via the forerunner of today’s dark money. Perhaps he deserved to lose his 1970s race for National Republican College Chairman – to a young fellow named Karl Rove.
Still atop my chair, on my left, editorial writer Jim Lawrence, who had journeyed up river for the show, jabbed at his own Portabubble keyboard, no doubt scorching Republicans for being Republicans in an editorial for his unabashedly liberal newspaper.
Unlike me, Jim, with his ascot and fine cotton shirts, was really cool. He’d raced sports cars, by God! When he died in the 1990s, he’d written 11,800 editorials, which comes to one every day for 32 years and four months.
Spanking his Portabubble, a cigarette holder between his lips, Jim did not look up despite my screeching description of the creature that looked to be climbing up my leg.
“How big is it?” he asked, with the same voice he’d use sizing up the length of an editorial.
There would be many more conventions, 16 at last count, in which I’ve been on the griddle most nights turning out either the main story or an analysis I hoped wouldn’t embarrass me any more than usual.
Strangely, what I recall from many of those nights is the technology of the day, which often proved as challenging as a deadline.
The Portabubble would swiftly be junk, like the 50-pound Xerox Telecopier (Hunter S. Thompson’s mojo wire) before it. I’d drag its dented metal suitcase on train trips between Springfield, Illinois and Chicago, kicking it for fun. It was, in fact, a portable fax machine and, as I recall, it took seven minutes for a single typewritten page (yea, you toted a typewriter, too) to scroll around and around before something in St. Louis spit out my paragraphs.
After the Portabubble came the Radio Shack TRS 80-100, which earned every bit of it’s (choose your epithet) Trash Eighty sobriquet. “Filing time” had meaning back then, unlike now when a candidate’s words, analyzed in the time it took for them to be uttered, take flight into the Twitterverse.
The Trash Eighty was a bold little unit; a notebook pioneer it was, but torturing with its puny, liquid crystal display. In the half-hour or so filing time, not always was the Trash Eighty alone in evil-doing. Often, it was its sidekick, those acoustic rubber couplers, dull black and with the look of props at a drag queens’ convo.
You’d slap those cups on both ends of a pay phone receiver, beg for good fortune, and listen for that faint, piercing hum, like a dog’s whistle, hoping like hell you kept hearing it.
But these were sunny days for me with my Lucky Couplers, which slept by the pillow in hotel beds in their cerulean blue box. Hearing anguished cries and cursing at deadline time, I would rush forward and offer my luckies to fellow travelers betrayed by their sets of couplers. My hallowed gear more than paid for itself later for at hotel bars.
I recall nothing as fondly amid the cavalcade of laptops since; the notebooks, subnotebooks, convertibles and laplets, with ever brainier processors. (There was the balky, plastic relic that got so hot it started melting, sending hormone-disrupting dioxins wafting across the room.)
The Internet and its instruments are changing the newspaper game so swiftly that what gets written here shortly will be passé. A colleague among Washington correspondents remarked recently, “It feels like a month-to-month deal now,” an expression of vulnerability with diminished ad revenues and greed back home.
Early in the days of change, I consulted Tom Abercrombie, a venerable journalist and fellow Chesapeake Bay denizen. Tom, who died in 2006 at 75, had retired not long before as a National Geographic reporter and photographer in the fattest of times.
He was famous for his exploits, one of the first reporters to the South Pole. He and his photographer wife, Lynn, were the first American journalists let loose in Marxist South Yemen, the part of the world that burns hot today with terrorist passions.
Tom survived plane crashes and buz kasha in Afghanistan, demented games of polo chasing a dead goat on biting, kicking horses. He nearly died in Tibet running from the Chinese Army.
Tom’s was an era of fat journalism with spending an afterthought. For an assignment in Wyoming, he rented a 40,000-acre ranch. Told the magazine needed a major piece on Alaska, Tom knew immediately what to do: He bought an airplane, a Cessna 180, with floats. He put it on his expense account.
The problem didn’t arise until well after he finished the assignment, flew all the way home to Maryland and parked the aircraft at his dock on the West River, south of Annapolis. Guess I should sell the plane, he thought. He did so, at a profit, which confounded the bean counters.
“Hell of a nice plane,” he said, eyes twinkling above his white beard.
Tom and I were talking one day about technology, surrounded by history and artifacts that some might regard as odd. There was, for instance, 12th century B.C. Egyptian sarcophagus. And agate-eyed monk’s skull, its top sawed off for drinking blood.
Another thing or two you wouldn’t find in the home of many journalists: A shrunken head and a tusk-like, two-foot-long walrus penis, serving at the moment as a dictionary bookmark. Quite a large dictionary.
The subject got to the topic of newspapers and magazines pulling in their horns. Big papers closing bureaus; smaller papers closing their doors. Reporters taking buyouts and stories getting shorter, or going untold.
Tom Abercrombie offered a tonic to journalists worried about what lay ahead amid the pop-and-fizz of online “content. The click-whoring for survival by once-great papers. Attention spans diminished like that shrunken head.
“It doesn't matter whether you send it out by satellite or with a runner at the end of a forked stick,” he said. “It’s still the same mission. Somebody's got to go find out what the story is, and tell that story.”