The Other McCain

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

The Taylor Lorenz-ing of Journalism

Posted on | July 31, 2023 | Comments Off on The Taylor Lorenz-ing of Journalism

Wes Pruden, back in the day

To explain what’s gone wrong with American journalism is a task so enormous that it’s hard to know where to begin. Whatever faults and failures the profession had back in the days of printing words on paper — yes, kids, that actually happened — there were nevertheless certain standards that were enforced, because you couldn’t just delete an article that got the facts wrong. No, if you got it wrong, you had to print a correction, and when I was at The Washington Times, we didn’t have to print very many of those, while we used to laugh at the numerous corrections that appeared every day on Page 2 of our hated cross-town rival, the Washington Post. Every word in the paper got read by at least four different editors before it went to print.

My job, on most days, was as the very lowest level — an assistant desk editor — and when I was finished editing the story, it got sent to the copy desk, where two more editors read it. Eventually, the news editor (Geoff Etnyre) would read it, and oh, my God! You did not want to be the desk editor whose initials were on a story with a mistake in it that somehow got past the copy desk and made it to Etnyre. He was a very serious man with a very short temper. This was because Etnyre was the next-to-the-last line of defense before a story made it to the eyes of the one reader who mattered most, our editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden, Jr.

Here’s the big thing: Working for The Washington Times was not an entry-level job. To get hired as a reporter at TWT, generally someone had to have 3-to-5 years experience working at another paper, like the Winchester (Va.) Star. By the time I joined TWT as an assistant national editor in 1997, I already had more than a decade of experience at smaller papers in Georgia. The national desk was a pressure cooker, and our reporters were all experienced professionals. Our youngest reporter at the time was Stephen Dinan, who’d served his time covering Virginia politics on the Metro desk before moving up to the Capitol Hill bureau.

My point is that, in the old days, kids fresh out of college weren’t writing stories about national politics. Most reporters started at some dinky small-town paper out in the sticks, and learned their craft covering city council meeting, etc. In his memoir, Prince of Darkness, Robert Novak recalls that when he joined the D.C. bureau of the Associated Press in 1957, he was the only reporter under 30 in the entire bureau. Novak started his career as a teenager writing local sports for the Joliet Herald-News at the rate of 10 cents per column-inch. In college, he wrote for the Champaign-Urbana Courier, then after serving in the Army during the Korean War, joined the Associated Press in their Omaha, Nebraska, bureau. It took him five years to make his way from Omaha to D.C.

That was how you did it back in the day — you paid your dues. But nowadays every callow punk with a laptop and a wifi connection seems to think he should be commenting on Important National Political News, and almost nobody’s getting the experience of doing basic local news stuff that was once the training ground of young reporters. Having sufficiently vented my spleen on that topic, now here’s this:

Surveying the disgraceful condition of our nation’s 21st-century news media, there are times when the question occurs to me, “What would Wes Pruden do?” During the decade I worked as an assistant editor at The Washington Times, I occasionally had the misfortune of angering our esteemed editor-in-chief, who had a low tolerance for errors. Being called on the carpet in Mr. Pruden’s office was an experience one never wished to repeat. As the conservative newspaper in the nation’s capital, our work was always critically scrutinized, and Mr. Pruden enforced high standards to ensure that the news reporting in The Washington Times was always accurate. “Get it first, get it right,” was his motto, and woe be unto he who got it wrong.
Mr. Pruden died three years ago, but his memory lives on, and I have to wonder what he would make of a headline that appeared this week in the Huff Post: “RFK Jr.’s Latest Tweet Is Being Widely Interpreted As A Nazi Dog Whistle.” The key phrase there is “Widely Interpreted,” by which they mean, random people on Twitter are saying stuff.
Where did it come from, this business of turning Twitter content into “news”? The root cause of this phenomenon is probably laziness. Rather than pick up the phone and call some sources about what’s happening in the real world — or, God forbid, leave Mommy’s basement to see for yourself what’s happening — it’s much easier just to cut and paste something you found on the Internet and pretend that this is “reporting.” . . .

Read the rest of my latest column at The American Spectator.



Comments are closed.