Monday, May 13, 2013

#669: The torture never stops

(No, this is not going to be a post about Frank Zappa, but thanks for playing....)
In these recent newspaper-reminiscences I've posted, I've left out one of the main reasons I don't do that kind of work anymore.
Because it's a high-stress job, & as a reporter it's VERY easy to get people angry at you without even trying.
You usually don't see it coming, but folks can go off about the craziest things.
I had one angry woman call me up after a domestic dispute she was involved in made the front page of the weekly paper I was working at. Her husband got charged with assault with a deadly weapon -- a kitchen knife.
She wasn't mad about the story -- which quoted her kids telling police that Daddy said he was "going to cut Mommy's head off." That didn't bother her.
What she was upset about was the HEADLINE, which covered all the cases that got into court that week -- which included some meth-possession cases -- & which she said made her sound like a meth freak.
"All my neighbors and friends think I'm methed out of my head now," she said.
I explained that the story didn't say that.... That wasn't good enough for her. She hadn't actually READ the story. So I READ THE STORY TO HER OVER THE PHONE, to make it clearer. She was still pissed about the headline. Finally I said I couldn't teach her friends & neighbors how to read....
After a downtown house fire on a Saturday evening destroyed an apartment building & set-off some ammunition somebody had stored there, when I got into work on Monday I called the Fire Chief for more details about what happened. He didn't have 5 minutes to talk to me -- he said he was too busy running water lines for the new Fire Hall. He didn't want any of the other firefighters to talk to me about it either, said I'd have to wait 'til he was available -- then hung up.
I called him back at 10 p.m. that night, & he STILL didn't have time to talk to me.
But we were a daily paper (published Tuesday through Saturday mornings). So I got what details I could from the Sheriff's Office & went ahead & wrote the story without the Fire Chief -- but left in quotes from him about how & why he avoided me.
& naturally, the next day when I got to work, the Fire Chief was in my Publisher's office, yelling at my Editor & my Publisher about what a backstabbing scumbag I was.
"I've lived here for 35 years and I don't have to take this kind of shit from you!" he yelled.
"I just want to know two things," I said. "Did I get any of the details wrong?"
"Did I quote you accurately?"
"Well, yeah, but...."
"I'm outta here," I said, & left my bosses to argue with the Fire Chief -- who wanted to get me fired for not waiting to talk to him.
This kind of stuff happened ALL THE TIME. It was so stressful, the Publisher & I used to have closed-door meetings once a month so we could yell at each other & get all the stress out....
When we printed a photo on the front page of a fisherman's body that was fished out of the river after he'd been missing for a month, people called & yelled at us about that -- even though all you could see was a big gray bag being carried by four guys.
When a prominent local lawyer ran for Mayor -- then got arrested on a meth-possession charge, I wrote the story. & then the Editor & I sat on it for 3 days because we just weren't sure. This was a story that could ruin someone's life. Then our Publisher ordered us to get off the pot & print the story. We ran it on Page 2.
& the next day the Mayoral candidate called up crying. How could I DO this to her, she asked. I'd interviewed her, I'd been IN HER HOUSE! Her husband, also a lawyer, who was listening in on the phonecall, asked if they could've had a little advance warning about the story. I suggested that if they'd had any warning, they probably would've tried to stop the story from being printed.
He laughed & said I was probably right.
I apologized to his wife, who I thought was a good person, & said I was sorry for how things had gone, & that I hoped it would all work out in the end.
She lost the election & never spoke to me again. I'm not sure what happened with the meth charge.
When I was in the Air Force, I got used to defending my writing against people who didn't understand what I did -- but who outranked me, so what they wanted was what went. I got pretty good at it anyway, even convincing some that I was right.
But in the Real World, everybody outranked me. No amount of Good Work I did (& I think I did a LOT) ever made it any easier. No doors opened more easily just because I was good at my job. There was never any big payoff or reward. There were never any "better" jobs offered other than in-the-trenches reporter or small-town editor.
& I can't remember how many times people called at midnight or 4 a.m., spilled their guts to me for two hours, & then said "This is all off-the-record, you can't use any of this, I never called you" ... even AFTER I told them at the start of the phonecall that I'd be taking notes.... But I always tried to be A Good Guy....
When I was in the AF, my old buddy & fellow editor Phil Guerrero had a joke about the kind of long, involved stories I used to write: "Keep typing 'til it makes sense!" For years, that was my motto.
But I got to the point where no amount of explaining made any difference, where everything was just too complicated, & I could no longer even find the main reason I was writing some things. For much of the last four years of my "career," I'd go into work on Monday morning, down a pot of coffee, write the entire front page of the paper, & go home that night not remembering anything I'd written.
Journalism is a career for a young person with lots of time & lots of energy & no social life. It's the kiss of death for marriages & families. You wouldn't believe how many divorced, alcoholic, unhappy reporters I met over the years....
& when I got to the point where I couldn't remember the basics, couldn't keep the facts straight, was making stupid mistakes, couldn't make any sense out of anything I was writing, no matter how much I tried to explain -- I knew it was time to retire.
That was 11 years ago, & I don't miss much of it.

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