The Wayward Press
(with apologies to A.J. Liebling)
by Hamilton E. Davis
I was standing in the mess in my office the other day when my phone dinged and I noticed that it was a feed from Seven Days, the alternative weekly in Burlington. The headline said something about Bernie Sanders and I assumed it was the usual local stuff, but since I can’t stay away from politics, I read the first couple of paragraphs, then a couple more.
Before I realized it I had read the whole thing and I thought, Wow, I haven’t read one of those for two decades. I was still standing up.
The piece was a long, very long, report by Paul Heintz on Bernie Sanders' trip to Wisconsin and Iowa, a staple reconnaissance for a politician contemplating running for president. Sanders has no chance to actually win the presidency, but he has a real following on the political left, and he wants to get a national hearing for the issues he cares about. Hence the trip.
The Seven Days piece had no dateline and I assumed it had been written in Burlington. I wasn’t surprised at that: an aggressive reporter can get a lot of information on the telephone and Heintz digs really hard. But as I kept reading I was struck by the way he way he was weaving all sorts of local color into his narrative and how successful that was.
I began to feel that I was there, I was getting carried along, and then it hit me. Wait a minute, Heintz is there. You can get some good stuff on the phone, but you can’t create a whole atmosphere without faking it, or just making it up. After that epiphany, I just enjoyed it.
Heintz was getting the whole Bernie: the passion, the ranting speech, the rage at what Bernie sees as the depredations against the common man and the working and middle classes.
And at the same time, Bernie’s reluctance to engage directly with the people that flock to hear him. Or to engage in the backslapping and schmoozing that functions as the machine oil of American politics. Bernie as grump.
It was all there: you read Heintz’s story and you’ll know Bernie Sanders as well as you’ll know any political candidate. Worth every syllable of the 4,600 words.
What made it particularly remarkable for me is that small, medium and even the huge majority of big newspapers in the United States don’t do that kind of journalism any more. Long form political stories were one of the early victims of the collapse of the newspaper industry that began around 20 years ago.
The reason is that the stuff costs so much. The meals and hotel rooms on the road, the airplane fares. The business model of American newspapers has collapsed in the face of competition from World Wide Web and the loss of huge numbers of readers.
I covered presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972 and the campaigns charged reporters and t.v. crews first class fares on every leg of every flight. My editors at The Providence Journal didn’t blink.
Today, editors from one end of the country to the other aren’t just blinking, they are backing away from strong journalism as fast as they can. I think that is a major factor in the increasing toxicity of American political life.
The Heintz foray was in fact “pricey”, according to Paula Routly, the editor of Seven Days, who fronted the money to send Heintz on the road. Still, Seven Days did it, and performed the kind of public service that used to be the hallmark of newspaper journalism.
I may be deluded, but I am choosing to think of it as a straw in the wind…and I think A.J. Liebling would have been pleased.