The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Journalism and Mental Health

Posted on | April 6, 2021 | Comments Off on Journalism and Mental Health

Dear Ms. Aviles:

What you need here, ma’am, is an expert analysis, and you’ve found the right guy for the job because — ask around — I’ve always been crazy.

One spring afternoon in 1986, I put on my three-piece suit and walked into the offices of the Cobb News-Chronicle. I walked out with a $4.50-an-hour job as a staff writer and an assignment to cover that evening’s Austell City Council meeting. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was better than driving a forklift, which was what I’d been doing for the past year-and-a-half, saving up money to buy P.A. gear for my rock band.

Thirty-five years later, I’m still at it and, some would say, I still have no idea what I’m doing, but I am by God doing it, aren’t I?

My point here is that journalists have mental health problems because no genuinely sane person would ever get into this miserable racket. Some people pine for the Golden Age of Journalism, but this “profession” (if you can call it that) has always attracted more than its fair share of kooks and cranks who, if they actually became successful at journalism, were politely called “eccentric,” which is just a word for crazy people who make good money. But these were rare exceptions, and the bulk of the people in America’s newsrooms were always a mix of neurotics and drunks, supervised by sadistic sociopaths known as “editors.”

You want to talk about “trauma-facing” work? Yeah, I spent a few years as a sports editor in a small town in North Georgia, where the fans of the various high schools constantly accused me of being biased in favor of their rivals. Calhoun fans thought I was in the tank for Gordon Central and vice-versa, but all I cared about was hitting my deadlines and having enough copy to fill up the section. Talk about trauma . . .

Bowling-league standings.

For years, my job included typing in the local bowling-league scores, which is about as low on the journalistic totem pole as it gets, but I had a wife and kids and bills to pay, so I did it. The problem with most young journalists today is they never had to do that kind of grungy low-level local journalism. Instead they graduated from Northwestern or Columbia and landed a job with one of those clickbait farms — HuffPo, Buzzfeed, Vox — cranking out listicles and other worthless crap. On my tombstone, the epitaph should read: “Here lie the mortal remains of Robert Stacy McCain, who never once in his journalism career wrote a listicle.”

Bowling scores, yes. Listicles, never.

Nowadays, every 23-year-old J-school grad thinks he’s qualified to be a pundit, telling us How to Save Our Democracy. They don’t want to do any actual work, so they haven’t paid their dues covering the police beat or city-council meetings or whatever, but you can find them on Twitter 24/7 snarking away about national politics and how utterly oppressed they are, because they’ve got $60,000 in student-loan debt. And then when they get axed in the latest round of layoffs, we’re expected to take seriously the wailing about the Death of American Journalism because some 26-year-old lost his/her (they/them?) job writing clickbait for HuffPo.

How was it that I managed to make my way up the food chain from the lowest level — bowling scores! — to covering presidential campaigns? Working crazy hours, mainly. I once worked 30 hours straight to hit a major deadline, then went home and slept for 18 hours. More than once over the years, I actually fell asleep at my desk from sheer exhaustion, but the thing was, I knew it was my own fault. I am disastrously inefficient — easily distracted, an undiagnosed case of ADHD if ever there was one — so it takes me more hours to produce the necessary amount of output, and this overcompensation for my inefficiency became a habit. Above all, I was persistent, doggedly determined to keep banging away until I amounted to something. “You sons of bitches think you’ve got me beat? Ha! I refuse to admit defeat.” And so here I am. Not rich or famous, but still working long after most of those sons of bitches packed it in and went off to write P.R. or sell insurance or whatever.

One of my college buddies, who landed a newspaper job in Alabama at the time I was driving a forklift in an Atlanta warehouse, decided to go to law school instead. “Forget about journalism, McCain — it’s a lousy job and there’s no money in it.” I refused to heed his warning, and sometimes think what might have happened if I’d stuck with that forklift gig. But I’m crazy, see? You want to talk about mental health in journalism, sweetheart, I’m an acknowledge expert. Out on the campaign trail, I did 110 mph in a rented Nissan racing across upstate New York covering the craziest congressional campaign in American history. That was after I’d gone to Kentucky to cover an alleged murder that turned out to be a suicide. And did I mention I’ve been hate-listed by the SPLC? Sued for defamation by a notorious bomber? I’ve smoked cigars with members of Congress and drank beers with presidential candidates.

Only a maniac could have done all the things I’ve done over the past 35 years, and yet for some reason I’m not under psychiatric care. My only medications are two packs of Marlboros a day, copious amounts of coffee and maybe a beer or two every now and then.

Since you’re so interested in mental health, maybe I can come see you up there at Columbia Journalism School. Just rattle the tip jar for a road trip, book a ticket on the Amtrak to New York, take an Uber uptown to Morningside Heights, and we can have some beers, talk things over.

Would you like that, Ms. Aviles? One-on-one interview with the craziest living American journalist? Clarice and Hannibal Lecter?

No, probably not. In fact, I imagine you’d call 911 and get a restraining order against me if you really thought I might do it.


NEW YORK — Police here launched a manhunt this week for notorious right-wing blogger Robert Stacy McCain after he was accused of “stalking” a Ph.D. student at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
The threat came after Columbia’s Gwen Aviles issued a Twitter request for journalists to talk to her about their mental health problems. McCain, who has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “neo-Confederate white supremacist,” apparently took this as an invitation to visit Aviles in person. He quickly raised money on PayPal to fund a trip to New York, and was last seen driving a rented Dodge Hellcat.
“His current whereabouts are unknown,” said an NYPD source, recounting how McCain had eluded state troopers in New Jersey last weekend after a pursuit that hit speeds of 130 mph. . . .

They’d never think to look for me in a low-rent tribal casino, playing $2 roulette and drinking beer until the panic died down. Find some loser who went bust at the blackjack table, offer him a couple hundred bucks to drive me up to New York to, uh . . . visit my girlfriend Gwen.

Nah, they’d never catch me. But there’s no point pursuing this wild fantasy digression further, because it’ll never happen. I’m not that crazy.

Or maybe I am.

That’s the thing about crazy people. You never really know how crazy they are until they do something so insane that all the neighbors are telling the TV reporters, “He was a quiet guy, kept to himself, but he didn’t seem like the kind of maniac who would do something like this.”

And when the radical priest
Come to get me released,
We was all on the cover of Newsweek.

Just a bit of a Gonzo trip there. But they don’t teach Gonzo journalism at Columbia University, do they Ms. Aviles? No, of course not. People in Respected Institutions of Higher Education have never sanctioned the Symbiotic Trapezoid Quote, because they’d never pay a practitioner of Gonzo to teach kids how to do it: “Now, class, if you’ll check the syllabus, you’ll see that you’re gonna need a substantial supply of mescaline . . .”

But obviously this kind of first-hand experience with serious craziness is not what you were looking for when you sent out that tweet talking “trauma” and “mental health” in the field of journalism. What you had in mind, Gwen, was people talking about anxiety and depression and stress, which is quite a different thing than the bizarre manic freakouts that are my special area of expertise. I’m also familiar with several forms of weird sexual fetishes that are common (although seldom mentioned in public) among journalists. You might be surprised — or maybe not — at how many staffers at the New York Times are into really sick kinky stuff. Certainly you would be unwise to trust any NYT staffers alone with your pets or your children, if you know what I mean. But I digress . . .

In summary, Ms. Aviles, after 35 years in this miserable racket, I think journalists are not really crazier now than they were back in the day when there was an ashtray on every desk in the newsroom, and a pint bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer of most of those desks. In fact, I think the problem is that most journalists now are just too uptight — they don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t have any fun at all, as far as I can tell. Most of them spent four years chasing some paranoid fantasy about the Kremlin and Donald Trump and expected us to take that shit seriously — clearly, they’ve lost touch with reality. If the entire newsroom of CNN were to be hospitalized in the psych ward at Bellevue, they’d be less danger to the public. I mean, have you seen Brian Stelter?

He’s demented, deranged, depraved, a few fries shot of a Happy Meal, nutty as squirrel farts, and cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. If your research project into mental health of journalists results in Stelter finally getting a straitjacket in a padded cell, America will thank you.

Meanwhile, you should consider taking me up on my offer of a one-on-one interview. Ask around. I’m an expert on crazy.



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