Why Journalists Don’t Know Anything

In fact, all some of us know is what we read in the papers.

On a recent Sunday morning I got a call at my home from a nationally known television sports personality who deals in inside information. Over the years we have developed a relationship that teeters between professional and personal.

Probably I should go ahead and tell you who it was, but Greeks are moody about having their names dropped, and Jimmy is even funnier than most about that.

He explained that he was going on the air in a couple of hours and was trying to fill in the considerable gaps in the reports that had reached New York about the arrest of Tony Dorsett. The Cowboy football star had been charged with what amounted to temporary boorishness in a wee-hours incident in which police had stopped a car for some traffic violation. A young woman in the car, an airline employee, was arrested for investigation of possessing a controlled substance. Dor-sett also was hauled in for a few hours for not possessing a controlled mouth during heated dialogue with the arresting officers.

My caller wanted to know whether I could amplify, elucidate, or otherwise fill in any of the missing skinny on this episode for the millions of TV viewers who would have nothing to titillate them on a Sunday in March except the hubcap-stacking contest between the bullpens of the San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue-jays in the Bad Teams Trashsport competition.

I recited what I knew about it, which was what I had read in the paper. That Dorsett wasn’t driving, another man was. That the woman was young and an airline employee. That Dorsett had been detained for backtalk to the constabulary.

But what about the inside stuff, I was asked.

It was embarrassing to admit that I didn’t know any inside stuff. I had spent the previous evening having drinks with a tableful of my fellow journalists.

In the matter of the episode in question, it is entirely possible that there was no inside stuff, but if there had been, I wasn’t apt to learn it during a session of shopprattle with my colleagues. And on a weekend, to boot. There was no way of reaching anyone really plugged in to the early-warning intelligence conduits – people like car dealers, cocktail waitresses, bankers, maitre d’s and washroom attendants.

This is not to imply journalists are uninformed, as a class. There are some awfully good, even crack, journalists here who can get rumpsprung with the best CPA’s in poring over musty records, titles and receipts. Or hiding on rooftops.

But many tend to think of journalists as instinctive ferrets, when actually most of us are more like Labrador Retrievers. Show us some news, previously shot or leaked, and we will paddle across the iciest pond to bring it back.

By definition and inclination, we do stay informed. We also are often misinformed, disinformed, malinformed, near-informed. It is in pursuing such hints, rumors, likelihoods and other mutant nuggets that we sometimes become rightly informed, occasionally in time for a deadline.

One of the situations in which journalists can become most least-informed is when we meet each other after work, hang out with each other. We hear a lot of terrific jokes, dangle outrageous theories, dazzle each other with remembrances of stories already printed, predictions, predications, scenarios; everything but usable information.

A news tip travels at the speed of mouth. Call it the Woodward and Einstein Theory of Relativity; journalists eventually hear most of what’s happening, but we hear it relatively slowly, in that we are a couple of branches down the grapevine.

Civilians overhearing one of our rambunctious intramural seminars at a place like Joe Miller University have been heard to exclaim, “Wow, what a talk show that would make!” True enough, perhaps, but in talking to ourselves, while we can color our anecdotes with the images of places we have been and famous persons we have interviewed or owe money to, we rarely learn anything new or useful from each other. As knowledgeable as we may sound, we are only studding cloves into a ham that someone else has provided.

The journalists I know are finding it harder and harder to explain to the wife or girl friend that they will be a little late again tonight because they are planning to have some drinks with the boys from the office and keep abreast of the news beats. Usually the only thing we keep abreast of at these seminars is the latest state of the distillers’ art. Sometimes, depending on the length of the camaraderie, you might actually learn something newsy but you will find the next morning that its retrieval is beyond the reach of memory or Tylenol.

During the days of the Jack Ruby trial, the biggest press club in the world was the musty, and now defunct, Joe Banks courthouse cafe at 612 Main. Everybody met there every afternoon after the trial for beer, chili and banter. A typical tableful would include a couple of scribes from the News, a couple from the Herald, the guy from Agence France Presse, Ike Pappas of CBS, Murphy Martin, then with ABC, a wild man from the Sydney Morning Herald who looked like a redheaded Kit Carson (he had arrived in town towing an Airstream trailer behind his Bentley), and a couple of lawyers from the prosecution. The defense would represent itself on an alternate day’s beer bust; prosecutors and defensemen never showed up the same day. Joe Banks’ cafe swarmed for days with dozens, hundreds, of newsmen from around the world. Only two things happened journalistically as a result of the raps. The fire that erupted in the new county courthouse under construction at the time became the best-covered fire in history as the world’s press carried its bottles of Pearl around the corner to watch; and the famous Ghoul Pool – in which more than 200 reporters paid a dollar apiece to predict the verdict a la the office football pot – sprang from the Banks sessions. Ninety-five pickers of the lucky verdict – Death – pocketed $2.50 each.

These were curious times, and interesting ones, but they weren’t particularly informative.

In a financially oriented city like Dallas, access to information of significance follows a rigid economic and corporate caste system. In Dallas, incipient hot news is batted back and forth at high levels like the blip across the top of a Pong screen. Company presidents keep each other informed at the Dallas Club or the City Club on what is about to happen to whoever’s tract option, or what company’s checks have begun to bounce, or what changes may loom in the hierarchy at the police department.

Inevitably the Pong blip is deflected, by accident, design or the weight of social gravity, and comes down into our court.

It is nothing more, really, than the Old Boy network. News organizations often can look very good indeed at gaffing into a story at an early stage when their publishers and high-ranking editors and executives move in those rarified and knowledgeable circles. It requires the walking of a very thin line between being of the establishment and being in the establishment. If you want to know what’s really going on in Washington, don’t ask Woodward or Bernstein; ask Ben Brad-lee or Katherine Graham.

Garry Wills touched on another facet of the paradox when he wrote recently in More (the Wall Street Journal of intramural journalism): “We do not need better technique. We need to know more about more things . . . How odd that the Watergate affair should have packed our journalism schools, when the two most famous reporters on that case were given on-the-job apprenticeship, and the best commentators were trained in law, or history, or other disciplines, not in the special technique of journalism.” His article was subtitled Journalists Know Too Little And Look in Wrong Places.

One of Wills’ perceptions in the article is that a journalist’s real value lies in the questions he asks once he has the information, rather than in how or when he got the information. Knowing whom to ask the questions of is a corollary I would add. It is as inviolable as a mechanic’s tray of Snap-On tools; please don’t ask to borrow.

As a type, journalists are intelligent, mentally flexible, well-educated in a variety of ways. Modern journalists are even better endowed in these fields than the old hands from the days of The Front Page, although in some ways modern journalists work at a disadvantage by the very sedateness of a modern news room. Where teletypes once clacked, computers now blink and high-speed printers hum and burble. While its product is still excitement, the news room’s environment is surgical, sepulchral, clean of noise and inky elbows.

It’s harder to keep informed of breaking news now; in the past, you had only to walk among the stuttering, pealing crackle of the teletype machines to read the news from the world fronts. Now these machines are clinical, sealed in hermetic glass cubicles, spewing out 1,200 words in the same time it once took the teletype to print: BULLETIN BULLETIN.

The stories they send are better and faster but scanned by fewer kibitzers and whisked along circuitries from one computer to another. After several hours in the office on a recent afternoon, I walked across the street and had to learn from Warren Culbertson, the TV weatherman, that Don Coburn of Dallas had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The computer and editors had put out this news without letting me look over their shoulder.

Many people are reluctant or intimidated about calling or writing us with tips. “I don’t want to bother you or waste your time, but . . .” Since tips are my trade, it mystifies me that callers do this, just as it would unsettle a salesman at Arendale Ford if someone called and asked, ’”Would you mind selling me a loaded Galaxie, please?”

But while we are off somewhere “checking out” Story A, people in more strategic professions are hearing the first tips about Stories B through Z.

People on the decision-making, money-lending, lawyer-drafting circuit in Dallas, people on the power grid, exchange more raw and refined information during cocktail pleasantries in one evening than I will in a month of cautious procedure, guile, luck, and trying to return calls from people who don’t want to leave a name, number or message.

This wariness is understandable, for after all, while we may be the last to hear about it, we are going to be the first to be writing about it. Since we can’t be the first to know about news (otherwise we’d be making it up), we strive to be the first journalist to know about it.

We are read or heard by our publics but judged by our peers. Channel 4’s Judy Jordan puts it circuitously but aptly: “The best way I know how to describe journalism is that it’s doing things that other journalists consider journalistic.”

Being in this business is like staying in school all your life. There’s going to be homework. You have to keep up with gossip and social studies on a global campus, know the names of the Attorney General and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Commissioner of District 2, know what Cinéma Vérité is and which linebacker is called Meg – and care about all these things.

When you feel driven to learn all you can and impart this information and entertainment to your fellow person, you’re an infected carrier of journalism. When you feel driven to learn all you can without letting anyone know you’ve learned it, you’re a spy.

Hardly anyone will be comfortable being seen talking to you. Making his rounds in Chicago, columnist Irv Kupcinet will chat at the tables of Cafe Society, then retire to the men’s room, take a discreet notepad from his pocket, and jot down his notes of the evening. They freeze if he tries to do that in public sight.

I have been known to resort to a different kind of johnalism. I have found that the men’s room at any function where news might occur is a good place to hear the principals discussing what they really think.

“Hey, this stuff really goes through you, doesn’t it?”

“Sure does. I thought my bladder was gonna bust before they got through reading that citation for Charlie’s division.”

“Yeah, but it was the least we could do before we fire him next month.”

I have received tips from anonymous callers with Kleenex wadded in their mouths only to learn later that my wife has known the same thing for two weeks, having heard it over the endives at Safeway. She just forgot to mention it.

It is in the nature of most people to be either tentative, loath, or viscerally afraid to speak to a journalist even at a stag smoker. A physician will dissemble when asked, “Would you say that a case of sniffles is symptomatic of the common cold?” and then will go home and continue writing his book about the heartbreak of psoriasis, using his real name.

People as diverse as W. O. Bankston, Toby Harrah and Chastity Fox will leave a cocktail party knowing who’s going to run for judge. I will leave the party knowing, for the moment, only that bean dip is better warm than cold.

We can go out and dig up dem bones, once we have a rough idea of where they are buried. But if you put a scoop of newsmen together and ask what’s new, you will hear the sounds of wit, of glibness, of currency; golden throats and whisky voices, possible inside news and possible inside straights, but you probably won’t hear what’s new.

There are two reasons for this. One, we haven’t heard it ourselves yet. Two: even if we had, we wouldn’t want to discuss it in front of a bunch of nosey journalists.


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