A hard life; a good life

A hard life; a good life November 4, 2018
The Bill of Rights, twelve articles of amendment to the to the United States Constitution proposed in 1789, ten of which, Articles three through twelve, became part of the United States Constitution in 1791.

The week of October 22, as I wrote here, one of President Trump’s supporters mailed pipe bombs to critics of the president, including CNN.

This past Friday, because the president seems pathologically incapable of uniting the country behind any cause or ideal, no matter how noble, Mr. Trump told reporters, to their faces, “You know what, you’re creating violence by your questions.”

Lest anyone not get what the president really meant, he followed up with a thinly veiled dog whistle to any maniac in his base who wants to pick up where pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc left off:

The people that support Trump and the people that support us, which is a lot of people, most people, many people, those people know when a story is true and they know when a story is false. And I’ll tell you what, if the media would write correctly and write accurately and write fairly, you’d have a lot less violence in the country.

In other words, “Write well of me or suffer the consequences.” Thanks for sharing, Mr. Trump.

That not a single Republican objected to Mr. Trump’s latest scapegoating of the media—have any of them once spoken up, in almost two years of the Trump presidency?—is not lost on me, or any professional reporter, for that matter.

It strikes me that few seem to realize that the president’s verbal assaults on print and broadcast media are not just the rantings of a deranged old man (though they are that); or that they inspire actual violence against reporters. Mr. Trump’s assaults on the press are an assault on the fabric of our constitutional democracy.

The pertinent language of the First Amendment reads thus:

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…

I don’t know how many, even professional journalists, who realize that these fourteen words make journalism the only profession, outside of government employment, to be enshrined in the United States Constitution. It is an overwhelming burden. It also is a high honor. As both a U.S Marine veteran and a veteran reporter and editor, I know what I’m talking about.

I spent six and a half years writing for daily newspapers in Illinois. After that, despite having a day job outside of journalism, I edited Gilbert, a literary journal devoted to English writer G.K. Chesterton, for thirteen years. I know a thing or two about journalism. I take Mr. Trump’s attacks on my profession and on my colleagues personally.

Some of my background was included in an essay, published Saturday night, by my friend Rebecca Bratten Weiss. I’d like to expand on it here.

I got my MS in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1996. My professors had distinguished careers reporting for the UPI, the AP, the Wall Street Journal, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and other news outlets. One of my professors covered Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1968. He was just a few feet away when Sen. Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin in Los Angeles.

Of all my classmates, few went into actual journalism, i.e., writing for a newspaper or magazine. The master’s program at the U of I trained us, but also weeded out the lukewarm. If you weren’t into the drudgery, you weren’t into it. Class assignments such as covering local school board meetings dampened many fantasies.

My purpose here is not to disparage my classmates. I loved them all and I still do. But I had the sense that at least some of them thought “journalism” meant gadding about Washington or some big city, meeting sources in coffee shops, commentating sagely on the Sunday morning news shows, and being world famous. One guy in my class thought he’d go right to covering Bulls, Cubs, and Bears games for the Chicago Tribune after graduation. Imagine his chagrin when the weekly suburban paper that hired him sent him to cover high school football. I don’t think he lasted.

What we all learned in journalism school held true when I got hired at a newspaper: journalism is a lot of tedious crap. But it always is something that matters to people. It is, yes, school board and city council meetings. It’s covering a ribbon cutting at a new veterans’ home or the auctioning off of a Krugerrand that someone put in a Salvation Army kettle.

It’s crying in the bathroom back at the newsroom after watching a dead mother of eleven get pried out of the back of a van after a car crash.

It’s cranking out a story about a drug bust on a tight deadline—while out of nowhere the sports editor collapses thanks to a bad heart. I called 911, then got back to typing because DEADLINE.

It is stopping to cover a house fire on the way home from a long shift because no one else is around to cover it at two a.m. It’s getting bullied by cops who don’t like you just because you’re a reporter—and making it all worth it that night when, tired of harassment from one cop, you crack a joke to his face about cops and doughnuts.

It’s extremely long hours for very little pay. It can be devastating to family life.

I covered everything from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s funeral in Chicago and Pope John Paul’s visit to St. Louis to shootings, fires, car crashes, and local citizens who spent their Saturdays building wheelchair ramps for shut-ins.

I learned more about the relationship between school budgets and property taxes then 99 percent of the loudmouths who bitch about schools and taxes. I’ve been cried to by parents of children with terminal illness; I’ve been yelled at by politicians. One of my briefest interviews was with then-Illinois Governor George Ryan:

Him: “Who are you? I haven’t seen you before.”
Me: “I’m the police reporter, so unless you did something wrong you wouldn’t have seen me.”
Him: “WELL I HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING WRONG.”

Gov. Ryan was sent to federal prison a few years later, so yes, he did do something wrong.

And yes, I even got to cover a Bears game once (take that, Chicago sportswriter wannabe!). It’s a hard life. It’s a good life. I don’t recall it ever being a glamorous life.

But unlike Mr. Trump and his base, I learned a lot about life. And people. Which are a lot more complicated than you will ever understand if all you know about the world comes from Fox News and other peddlers of propaganda.

I will say it, and I will stand by it for as long as I draw breath: Donald Trump’s demonizing of the press, insofar as it is a violation of his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” is treason. He is a traitor. And so are all who still support him.

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