If you use the term “journalism” loosely—and today there’s no better way to use it—you could say my journalism career began when I was eleven and The Kansas City Star published my first letter to the editor, which complained that the Watergate hearings were pre-empting reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Leave it to Beaver.”
Though my letter failed to sway the local affiliates, its appearance in newsprint whetted my appetite, and over the next few years I sent a couple dozen other letters, most of which were published. They centered on my distaste for Nixon, for television cartoons (too many robots and too much futuristic nonsense), and for the lame-brains who ran the Kansas City Royals. I even got the last few of them published under the pseudonyms of David Sanders and Peter Andrews; I guess these were written when I was finally old enough to have acquired a sense of shame.
Based on these letters, my maternal grandfather referred to me as “The Reporter.” I liked being called “The Reporter,” and I certainly considered myself one, even if my reporting consisted exclusively of reporting my own opinions.
When I was a fifth-grader, my social-studies teacher, Mrs. S., was very “with it.” For instance, during religion class a girl proposed it’d make more sense to sit in a park on a Sunday and think about God and nature than to sit in a church and sulk. And Mrs. S. replied, “Yes, it probably would.”
Even the troubled kids liked her. One bad seed offered this bit of praise: “You let kids do stuff!” So it was no surprise when this teacher embraced my suggestion that a couple chums and I deliver a weekly newscast to the class. She was so enthusiastic that she reached into her burlap satchel and produced a pile of tabloids. “You might find some good material in here,” she said, handing them over.
These were back issues of Grit magazine.
Grit published human-interest stories with a sunny, rightward slant, as well as other oddities, curiosities, diversions, bafflers, and recipes. This all suited me just fine, for the quality of the content didn’t matter; it was the celebrity aspect of it—the act of reading the news in front of an audience—that interested me the most. So I transcribed several of the articles onto notebook paper and soon recruited two lucky friends to help me deliver the news.
The next Friday morning, the three of us strode down the hall to the school library, where we prepared for our first WMS newscast—the letters standing for our last names. The librarian, who’d apparently been tipped off, helped us shoo other learners from other grades to distant tables and study carrels. We then bullied the empty chairs into four tidy rows and placed an oblong table at the front.
Soon my classmates were herded in. Many sat stony-faced with their arms folded at their chests. While they were probably tickled at having the chance to leave the classroom, I think they were also by then rather sick of me.
I thanked them for choosing to make WMS a part of their morning, and then the three of us took turns reading the news from the sheets of loose-leaf paper. It’s fair to say that WMS was a rather low-tech enterprise: no teleprompters, no green screen, no special lighting, no Bryll-Creme.
The WMS newscast became a weekly event. But after the third or fourth edition, Mrs. S. took me aside and suggested I firm up the content by borrowing from more traditional media sources. She said, “This may be the only outlet for news that many of these boys and girls have.”
When she appealed to my civic duty, what choice did I have?
So, the stories about parakeets that could sing like Durante and the Colorado first-grader who’d founded the charitable Loaves & Loafers program were replaced with hard-hitting pieces on Nixon, inflation, Golda Meir, and Helmut Schmidt. Needless to say, our Neilson ratings laid an egg.
In the spring, without seeking permission from the school, I invited a pair of local news luminaries to join the audience. One, Bruce Rice, was a longtime sports anchor for KCMO channel 5. The second, Jack Cafferty, was a junior-varsity weatherman for WDAF channel 4, a station nobody watched. Cafferty also hosted an afternoon show on channel 4 called “Cafferty & Company,” which centered on municipal issues, cooking demonstrations, and other amusements, oddities, diversions, and bafflers. Today he airs on CNN and is considered a curmudgeon—which simply means his opinions often run contrary to those of the corporatists.
A couple weeks later, the intercom summoned me to the principal’s office. In most schools, getting called to the principal’s office was a bad thing, but at ours it usually meant you’d be leaving the premises for the day or forever. Perhaps your dad was just fired from his job and wanted to take you hunting, or your grandma died, or the creditors had caught up with your folks and it was time to flee.
The school secretary stood at the counter with the telephone trembling in her hand. “He says he’s Bruce Rice,” she whispered.
The sportscaster and I had a nice conversation, during which I advised him we couldn’t pay anything. I nearly went into elaborate detail on our school’s financial woes, of how the white flight had deprived the parish of hundreds of tithing families, of how the “hippie nun” mentality had alienated dozens of other folks, of how the zeitgeist of the day militated against organized religion.
“Mr. Rice,” I wanted to say, “we have no air conditioning, no cafeteria, no gymnasium, and our basketball uniforms date to the 1950s and smell like Hoss Cartwright’s trousers.” But there was no need for any explanation. Payment was not an issue, he assured me with a chuckle.
Rice indeed showed up at our school as scheduled, on Friday, April 26th, 1974. In the library, a special table had been placed perpendicular to our news desk, and I ushered our special guest to it, where he was joined by Mrs. S. and the hippie-nun principal.
WMS proceeded to report the news as we commonly did, with all the professionalism and objectivity our audience had come to expect. At the end, I opened the floor to a Q&A for Mr. Rice. As it turns out, most of the questions were asked by me. In one, I solicited our guest’s opinion of Connie Chung, who had begun reporting for CBS World News. Rice said she was a “smart cookie” who had a great future. (Boy, was he wrong.)
One fellow, a delinquent whose brother was later killed while holding up a liquor store, raised his hand and said, “Will you talk about us on the news and stuff?” Rice said of course he would mention us.
So at lunchtime a different hippie nun wheeled in a prehistoric Zenith TV (it was prehistoric even then) and dialed up "Noon Edition." We ate our sack lunches at our desks and strained to see the picture through the snow and squiggles. Bruce Rice had a prominent forehead anyway, but the distorted screen made him resemble one of those futuristic robots in the cartoons that I had railed so passionately against in my letters to the editor.
When it finally came time for the sports report, the anchor turned to Rice and said, “So, I understand there are some kids out there who want our jobs.” And Rice said we were a bunch of great kids with great futures. (Boy, was he wrong.)
The following Friday, Cafferty visited. He was equally gracious and generous with his time, but already the thing had lost its luster. Cafferty and even WMS were yesterday’s news. It was the last newscast we delivered.
The next fall, in an effort to fill the news void, I founded a paper called Intermediate Info. The name owed itself to its captive audience; the newspaper was distributed to those students in the intermediate grades (fourth, fifth, and sixth), whether they wanted it or not.
For each issue, my sister would gather some typing paper and carbons and sit at the kitchen table and keystroke my notations into the official record. Apparently one of the issues was too dense with news and needed some levity, for she took it upon herself to plagiarize a cartoon from a popular midstream magazine—Look, perhaps, or Saturday Evening Post. I can still see it. An uptight fellow in his forties is lying on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office, his hands clasped behind his head, and the quotation says “Try as I might, I can’t keep Goodrich and Goodyear straight in my head.”
I delivered the carbons of each issue to our school secretary, who by now was probably rather sick of me, and she made copies in the principal’s office. An issue consisted of the fronts and backs of two standard sheets of typing paper, stapled. While most traditional newspapers were black and white and “read” all over, Intermediate Info had the familiar mimeograph-purple hue on white background.
The newspaper was light on hard news—an unfortunate precursor to today’s dailies. I was also ahead of my time in that I devoted a lot of column inches to the public’s voice. A department called “Speaking Freely” gave my classmates a chance to opine on any topic that interested me.
One survey asked if they approved of the new 55-mile-per-hour highway speed limit. R., a simple-minded boy who might have sprung from the imagination of Jerzy Kosinski, gave this response: “My brother likes to drive fast!” Another poll asked what had gone wrong with the Kansas City Royals. This same R. said, “They didn’t play right.” And, for the record, R. had this to say about whether Nixon was faking his bout with phlebitis: “I think he is dumb.”
Indeed, the Intermediate Info was harsh on Nixon, even though he’d already bade his staff and the country a stiff and comical au revoir. Again, regarding the phlebitis, this opinion was voiced by another lad: “How come he went in the hospital immediately after the jury heard the new tape which has him cussin out the Canadian president? It might be true about his blood clot, but it’s awfully fishy.”
The paper also ran classified ads, for which I charged five cents. D. wished to sell a nearly full bottle of Elmer’s Glue. M. was anxious to relieve himself of a bowling ball. One boy’s dad took advantage of the favorable ad rates, even if the demographics were not quite right: I’m selling a ‘74 Caprice in good shape, 9000 miles. Come out and see it at 7640 Tanglewood!
All good things do come to an end. Sad to say, declining revenues and cut-throat competition from other sources (The Weekly Reader) soon exacted their toll, and after the third issue was put to bed I unceremoniously ceased publishing.
But my affair with journalism was not at all over. It goes without saying that in high school I contributed to the paper, called The Sword, which came out once a semester.
In college—well, where does one begin?
I’ve heard that Al Gore still cannot talk about the 2000 election. There are seasoned English professors who are afraid to open Moby Dick. Woody Allen claims to have never watched one of his movies after its release.
In this same vein, I’m skittish about revisiting those drama-filled years at the university newspaper, where I began in 1983 as a humble contributor and climbed the treacherous ladder from arts & entertainment editor to managing editor to editor-in-chief.
What a long, strange trip it was.
I will say this: it had its benefits. As a staffer, you had the run of the facility, with no responsible adults getting in the way. Between classes you could take a nap on the sullied couch in the anteroom. In the evenings you could bring a young lady there and get her in an amorous mood by showing off the equipment—the computer terminals, the typesetter, the headline machine, et al. And if she was duly impressed by the typesetter, et al, she might even take a nap with you on that sullied couch in the anteroom.
At any rate, none of the many dramas that I observed and took part in while employed at the university newspaper were ever matched during my years as a part-timer for the Kansas City Star and Times. To my experience, that big newsroom downtown was not a site of great and recognizable drama. The plot lines that played out there were as loud and as interesting as the fingers tapping at the keyboards.
I had begun working there while still in high school, as a “fifteener” in the sports department. A fifteener got paid fifteen bucks for answering the phones and writing game stories on weekend nights. The glamour of working among dissipated, pot-bellied sports writers and copy editors apparently compensated for the low wages and for the fact that you were inside a tall building answering phones on a weekend night.
Eventually I moved to the obituary desk, where I worked part-time for much of the 1980s. Despite the ingenuity and ambition I had demonstrated in my youth, at the Times I was happy to be just another body filling another chair. Of course, the obit desk has long been considered a springboard for greater things, and there were opportunities to show your gumption, and many colleagues did so by asking the city editors a lot of clever questions. But by then I had come to realize that journalism was not my destiny, based largely on the fact that I hated speaking with strangers on the phone.
Still, I was pretty good at my job and I took care to do it right. The only error I can remember was, unfortunately, quite a smash-up. In the obit for a young woman who’d died of breast cancer, I somehow referred to the Mastectomy Support Team as the Vasectomy Support Team.
Though I didn’t enjoy the work, I did like being in the newsroom. Nothing big ever happened, yet you had the sense that something could. Plus, it was easy to pass the time there, and most evenings I had three or four hours to kill. You could scan the electronic mailboxes and read unedited versions of articles (and thereby discover that a couple of the more prominent bylines were almost functionally illiterate). You could surf the wires for stories that never made it into the paper. You could use the terminals to work on your own short stories.
Sometimes in the late afternoons the stocky little publisher wended his way through the newsroom, causing most of the editors and reporters to sit up straighter and swallow hard. He was an unpleasant mixture of a corporate good-old-boy and a Texas good-ol-boy; indeed, few in the building seemed to find anything good about him. After he passed through, the editors and reporters invariably exchanged glances that suggested the emperor was wearing no clothes.
One evening the phone at my station rang. The phone didn’t ring often. I was hoping it was a girl I liked.
“Obits,” I said.
I was greeted by a Texas-styled growl. The man identified himself as the publisher.
“Heyyy! How are you?” I responded blithely, which was my customary phony response when all callers identified themselves, and which continues to be my customary response for any caller, even telemarketers from New Delhi.
The publisher had no time for phatic conversation. An acquaintance had died. And this death had caused the great publisher a great inconvenience. He said, “You make sure you get every God-damned last detail perfectly correct because I don’t want those bastards ribbing me on the golf course, you hear?”
I learned a lot about life that day.
A few years later, when my journalism career was a thing of the past, I landed a gig as a copywriter in an ad agency. Our biggest client was a local company that was micromanaged by a larger-than-life figure who, like the publisher, had a tendency for scaring the bejesus out of everyone. After I was assigned to write a television commercial, a marketing rep from that company took me aside and whispered this advice: “All that matters is the Boss wants a commercial that won’t get him teased by those bastards at the country club.”
But even before he could complete the sentence, his advice was old news.