"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Down the memory hole

I had kind of an odd experience today at work and I'm not exactly sure how I feel  about it. I work for a newspaper (it's not a very big one and unless you live in my area you've probably never heard of it and at any rate, its name and location are irrelevant). To a certain extent, we are the media of record in our little corner of the world, keeping track of the local events and milestones that mark the passage of time. I got a call today from someone who grew up in the area and achieved a certain level of fame for her accomplishments here in her youth, who's gone on to be a great success in the wider world.  She is well-educated, intellectually on the ball, accomplished and energetic. She now works in the TV news media and is an up-and-coming young journalist who has worked on national and international stories. You've probably seen her on television.
So why is she calling me? I mean, aside from my spasticrkling conversation, startling sterling lack of character and stunneding looks?
Why does anyone call the editor of a local newspaper? She wanted a favour.
 Now that she is out in the wider world pursuing the career that she trained and studied so hard for, she is finding out a few simple truths that many of us have known for a while.
First, most real journalists aren't that impressed by a pretty face, in fact they tend to be a bit suspicious of people who are better looking than them. Believe it or not, this is true even in television news. I'm not talking about the on-camera talent - they are blessed and cursed with beauty. Their looks might get them in the door and even get them a job in front of the bright lights reading a script with that killer smile and perfect hair, but even the pretty people get old. If they don't have the talent, skills, brains and training needed to do the actually work of journalism, they don't last long. Eye candy has a very short shelf life if there isn't some nutritional value attached. No, I'm talking about the people who run TV news, the cynical, jaded old producers that hire and fire. They might be willing to hire a hot 20-something to read the entertainment news off a cue card and fire that person when the next cutie comes along, but most of them are not going to assign Ken or Barbie to do hard news.
Second, most people, especially the aforementioned cynical, jaded old producers of hard news programs,  - rightly or wrongly - see pageants as a shallow excercise in sexist objectification, in other words, a T&A show. We don't call them beauty contests for nothing. Yes, the young women who succeed in these competitions are often smart, well-informed, ambitious and talented -- but that is tough to tell from the evening gown or bathing suit portions of the competitions.  Many people buy the stereotypes of the dumb blonde and the brainy nerd, the idea that you can be smart or beautiful, but that you can't be both.
Third, that employers these days, especially the previously discussed cynical, jaded old newmen who work in an industry where credibility is everything, know how to use Google -- something that some people really should keep in mind.
Perhaps you see where this is going?
This accomplished, intelligent and able young woman that called me is also very attractive, in fact she won the Miss Whatever contest locally and went on to compete in the national Whatchamacallit Queen pageant. Half a dozen years ago when she was a beauty queen, the newspaper had naturally done what community newspapers do and published a few stories about her becoming a pageant winner and later a judge and emcee of pageants. In all those stories, she stressed her intellectual accomplishments, but the bottom line is that the stories were about her winning or competing in "Miss Something-or-other" contests.
Now, she is finding that her past has come back to haunt her - not in the sense that she is being teased by the other folks in the newsroom or called Corky Sherwood behind her back, but in the sense that she is pretty sure it has kept people from hiring her for some jobs. All of which is very unfortunate.
Which, to make a short story much longer, brings me to the odd part.
The favour she wanted was for the newspaper to delete the stories about her pageant days that we have archived on our website, or at least to delete her name from the stories.
Now, if someone who had been convicted of some sort of misdeed - something serious like murder or a crime of  blatant stupidity like impaired driving - or even some unfortunate youthful shenanigan that cast them in a bad light - had called and asked me to delete stories about them that had been in paper years ago because the stories were embarassing or had cost them a job, I'd have told them "we all have to take responsibility  for our actions" and that "there are consequences to the things we do" or even "you should have thought of that before you decided to commit a crime -- Karma's a bitch, ain't it?" -- the same thing I would tell anyone who wanted me to suppress a story about some nefarious deed or leave an important, relevant name out of an article about something unfortunate that happened this week -- in essence, that they can go piss up a rope and that I would publish and be damned.
But to have someone ask you to conceal their accomplishments? This was new territory.
Imagine a former jr. hockey star asking the newspaper to delete references to him winning an MVP award or an author begging us not to promote his new book. Will I someday have an entrepreneur come in to my office and beg me not write about the successful business he started a few years ago?
"Hello, is this the editor? I just won a major award - it's very prestigious and a great honour, so please, don't tell anyone!"
So what did I do?
I did what anyone with kids to feed and bills to pay would do if  they were four weeks into a six-month contract.
I gave her the extension number for my boss and went back to figuring out what to put on next week's front page.
Me, Winston Smith and Pontius Pilate -  birds of a feather, I tell ya, birds of a goddamn feather.


In which I channel David Letterman...

(I know I said I wouldn't blog about my new job - and I'm not. This is more a reflection on my long history in the newspaper business, not any calls I've received at my new job. Honest. Most of the people who call or email me at work have very useful story tips or vital information, but I have gotten some doozies over the course of my career)

Top reasons people call their community newspaper:
  •  Because they saw a story that improperly used "who" instead of "whom" - twice! - and "don't you people have any standards?"
  •  Because they've been eating paint chips all morning and need someone to talk to other than the voices in their head. 
  • Two words: Damn & politicians
  •  Because the communists are putting fluoride in the drinking water and polluting our precious bodily fluids
  •  Because the precious fruit of their loins has just done something exceptional that has never been done before, like put on a really cute Halloween costume.
  •  Because those damn kids won't stay off their lawn
  • Because those "politically correct types" at the other newspaper are "censoring" them because they wouldn't  print their letter to the editor about how "the jews and the blacks are conspiring with women's libbers and homos and immigrants to destroy this great country"
  • Two words: Free & advertising
  •  Because their uncle/cousin/neighbour/some guy they met down at the legion last Tuesday is brilliant and we should give him a regular column
  • Because we should interview them about their passionate interest in a vital issue that concerns the entire community: their exhibitionist  narcassistic personality disorder.
  • Two words: Insufficient & medication
  • Just saw the "first robin of spring" in mid-February or mid-June
  • Because "their as MAD as HELL!!!!!!! and there NOT going to take it ANY MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" --- oh, wait a sec, wrong list. That one is from the "reasons people write letters to the 'Editur' list.
  • Two words: Shut & In
  • "Why don't you people ever write about anything good happening?"
  • "Did you guys hear about whatsisname? You know, that guy. You should do a story about him. I think he won some kind of award or contest or did something, I forget what, but it was really something!"
  • "You didn't hear it from me and I don't want name any names, but I'm pretty sure that guy across the street is up to something"
  • And the #1 answer on the list: Two words: Church  & bazaar

(Not that I ever get these kinds of calls anymore, because all the people who read the paper I work for are terrific, wonderful, salt-of-the-earth types. But the people who used to call those other newspapers I used to work for? Whoo boy!)