You Can’t Guarantee Empathy in Anyone, Connie Schultz

Lazy management.

By the 1990s, the landscape in newsrooms across the
country clearly was changing. Longtime reporters and editors
retired, and increasingly were replaced by second- and even
third-generation college graduates who had little in common
with “the underdog,” that handy euphemism we
employ for those who suffer in silence and anonymity until
we step in.

Some of us detected a growing resistance of newspapers to
covering these stories.

The economic turmoil of the last two years has changed
much about America, including the rank and file of
newsrooms. There is not a newspaper in the country left
unscathed. Journalists lucky enough to still have jobs are
now full of their own stories about slashed wages, lost
colleagues and abandoned desks.

Shared experiences nurture empathy, and that’s a
handy skill when you’re capturing in words, pictures
and video the essence of another human being. Our
privileged, arm’s length status from the people we
cover has evaporated, and the view from common ground is
fueling some of the most poignant journalism in years.

Possibly the reporters in Cleveland are privileged and wealthy. I wouldn’t know. The top salary for a reporter at most papers where I worked barely cracked $40K. That’s hardly “at arm’s length” from an auto worker or police officer. Not everybody’s making $100K and to assume all reporters are is just as bad as assuming (as Schultz does earlier in the piece) that all bloggers are senselessly tearing down journalism out of spite. The whole column is full of fail, but this bit drove me over the edge.

This argument that college graduates all suck and aren’t “real” with the “people” and whatnot just enrages me. In my journalism career I interviewed people who jumped out of planes into Normandy and Holland and somehow managed to do it without getting any closer to skydiving than driving by the airport. I did stories about priests while being a woman, about soldiers without ever having served, about mortgages before I had one, about gang violence and racism and sailing and art. And I wasn’t the first person in my family to go to college, I was the third. I managed not because I was a born and bred underdog but because I had people around me in the newsroom from all kinds of places who had all kinds of stories, and because I had bosses who would challenge any assumption I had on any given day.

You don’t need to experience something before you can credibly convey that experience through your words. You just have to fucking listen and keep your own head out of the way of what your story is about, and you need your bosses to actually know you and know what you’re about, which is really the problem here. Newspapers didn’t lose touch with the “common man” because their reporters were too well-educated or too well-compensated. They lost touch with the “common man” because their owners said, “You know, enough with these stories about poor people. Why isn’t anybody buying waterbeds anymore? Let’s write about that.” And the owners aren’t being hit with the economic crisis. They aren’t getting any lessons in compassion and identifying with the downtrodden. They’re just passing on down the bullshit so that old-timers like Schultz can bitch about Kids Today instead of directing her ire at its proper target.

I get that sharing an experience CAN make one better equipped to listen
to those having those experiences, and that diversity of experiences is
necessary and good in a newsroom as in any environment. But to
disqualify everyone who went to college as not being as authentic as
the romantic old-timers of the best days of our lives is such complete
crap. You do yourself no favor, whatever your profession, in dismissing
the contributions of an entire generation, especially one coming to your profession with energy and enthusiasm.

Good journalism is not dependent on the journalist mirroring, in every way, shape and form, the story. In fact, some of the laziest and most self-indulgent journalism comes from reporters feeling they have a personal connection to the subject, because it blinds them to the reality of the situation and gives them the false impression that their readers give a shit what they think. Think David Brooks and George Will and the like columnists, talking about how they’re just so bored with policy. Think Sheilagh Murray talking about how lame it was that the Minnesota senate race dragged on so freaking long. In fact, think local sports reporters considering the high school coaches they cover friends rather than sources. Far more journalistic sins have been committed through too much identification with the source than through too little.

And quite frankly, saying out loud that it took the economic crisis hitting newspapers to make newspaper reporters care about the economic crisis is appalling and parasitic and fucking SICK. You finally get it now? Well, GOOD FOR YOU, announcing to the world that it took being hungry to make you understand why being hungry was a bad thing. I’m sure everybody who’s been laid off thanks God every day their misfortune became part of your education. Talk about privileged and oblivious.

There is no perfect way to make a journalist who listens to the source rather than the boss, who sees stories everywhere and not just among the rich. Good journalists, like good firefighters and good cops and good congressmen and good artists, can come from anywhere. Even from the Internets, about which Schultz is so dismissive.

Schmuck.

A.

P.S. Deploring college graduate journalists? Fucking passé.The Front Page is from 1931, and there’s a line in there in which a crusty old reporter admonishes a young eager beaver, dumb as rocks, with “I bet you went to college, didn’t you?” The world did not begin when you noticed it, honey.

P.P.S. As Mr. A pointed out while I was explaining this idiocy a moment ago, if you don’t want college graduates at your papers anymore, there’s a really easy way to get around that: STOP REQUIRING A COLLEGE DEGREE to get an interview, much less a job. Stop requiring a master’s degree to advance (not a universal practice, but still common). Just go out and don’t suck. It’s that easy. Not quite as easy as writing columns about problems you have no intention of solving, but easy nonetheless.

15 thoughts on “You Can’t Guarantee Empathy in Anyone, Connie Schultz

  1. MapleStreet says:

    So the reporter of tomorrow is Joe the not-a-Plumber?

  2. MapleStreet says:

    In a much more serious vein, reporters are covering complicated topics. I want them to be educated so they can ask educated questions. Otherwise, we’re restricted to glamour shots of Michael Jackson.
    If the reporter covering the got and economy doesn’t have at least a rudimentary understanding of both, they can’t call the person on their attempts to spread false information.

  3. soullite says:

    there’s this bizarre belief that Police are underpaid. At an average of 50k a year, they make almost twice the average income in America. It’s far more than your average soldier gets paid, and they have a much less dangerous job.
    Lets be honest though, there’s more to class than simple income. If your family had the money for you to be getting an advanced degreem, then you’re probably at the upper end of the middle-class spectrum if not well above it. There are a few cases where this isn’t true, but by-enlarge, normal people can’t afford to be idle that long.

  4. virgotex says:

    Far more journalistic sins have been committed through too much identification with the source than through too little.
    Objectivity is now, more often than not, a sin.
    Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the grand tradition of muckraking and consciousness-raising. I love watching Maddow, I still enjoy Olbermann, but they aren’t journalists.
    I wish there was more straight ahead prime time news:
    “This happened today. Make up your own mind about it.”

  5. darrelplant says:

    The idea that cost-cutting at newspapers is new is pretty laughable, as well.
    Nearly 20 years ago, the Newhouse-ownedOregonian shuttered its Sunday magazine insert as part of a series of cutbacks and layoffs. I know, because like a lot of other Sunday mags that was where the book review section and other arts coverage was, and I was in the process of putting together an independent book review quarterly. So not too many months afterNorthwest closes, my own review shows up in bookstores, and gets a lot more attention than it probably deserved because we were seen as suddenly filling a major gap in the local literary landscape. From what I was told by insiders at the time, theOregonian editors were sort of shamed into starting up a smallish review section in the regular pages. I don’t know. Maybe that was their plan all along, but there was a significant gap between the magazine’s demise and the startup of the new section that pretty much coincided with the brief life of my magazine (which died for entirely unrelated reasons).
    But thatwas a generation ago. It wasn’t the first round of cost-cutting at newspapers by any means. I’d heard about it, and I didn’t even work in the industry.

  6. Dan says:

    Hi A. Did you know she’s married to Senator Sherrod Brown? It’s not relevant to her piece but it’s an interesting part of her biography.
    Ah, where to begin.

    I regularly address authors of online comments by their made-up names and pretend this doesn’t feel like junior high school all over again.

    Those junior high schoolers can also be called yourreaders, and some of that rabble you haughtily dismiss may in fact comprise a portion of the “underdog” types you celebrate about 250 words later. And if you’d like to demonstrate how you “believe reporting and attribution must precede publication” then how about INCLUDING A COUPLE GODDAMN HYPERLINKS TO THOSE HORRIBLE BLOGGERS WHO ARE RUNNING YOU DOWN? AND BY THE WAY AN ARIANNA HUFFINGTON WANNABE WHO’S BEEN AN EDITOR OF VANITY FAIR AND THE NEW YORKER AND WON FOUR POLK AWARDS ISNOT A BLOGGER. Bloggers say things likemotherfucker andblowjob and “Jesus Garden Weasel Christ” and mixed in with their torrent of profanities anduncivil rantings are some points about the shape of things that might challenge you drop your lazy assumptions about what blogging is IF YOU WOULD FUCKING PAY ATTENTION TO THEM. Would you write about the impact of unemployment without interviewing someone who was unemployed?
    A few weeks back you wrote something like “5 years ago I thought the trouble with newspapers was that they didn’t know anything about the Internet. Now I realize the trouble with newspapers is that they don’t know anything about newspapers.” Connie Schultz is today’s exhibit A.

  7. whet moser says:

    Huh. I see that Ms. Schultz has a college degree and attended law school.
    Yeah, it’d begreat if newsrooms were open to talented people without college degrees.
    You jump first.
    …oh, wait, I see: thanks to the economy, she’s now real as the streets. How convenient.

  8. Susie Madrak says:

    You know, I can’t tell you how often I got turned down for newspaper jobs because I didn’t have a degree – and I was a damned good reporter, sometimes even a great one.
    At one place, it was the third interview, the people who interviewed me loved me, thought I had great clips and wanted me to meet the rest of the staff before they hired me. The first thing, the editor-in-chief asked me what my degree was in; I told him I didn’t have one. He stood up, thanked me for coming in and the interview was over.
    If more people like me were allowed into journalism’s Magic Kingdom, the economic collapse wouldn’t have been such a shocked.

  9. The Other Sarah says:

    She’s a lawyer, and she runs a newspaper?
    Says a lot about both problems: a lawyer should be in court or in research for court. A newspaper should be run by somebody from the community with a stake in making sure the community isn’t left deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid prey … for, among other things, lawyers.

  10. missy says:

    Evidently, Connie’s never spent the last 3-4 days of any given payperiod eating generic macs and cheese and bulk oatmeal because her newspaper paid reporters just enough to keep them ineligible for food stamps.
    The desire to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable might start with righteous progressivism in college/high school, but every reporter I’ve known has had much more in common, socioeconomically, with the afflicted than with the comfortable.

  11. Scott says:

    Susie, that’s the kind of thing that’ll make you want to publish a few books, just so you can send them to the editor-in-chief with nice little fuck-you note, ain’t it?
    While I was job-hunting, I got a call-back from a newspaper — not a particularly big one, but still a daily — that wanted to pay meminimum wage.
    Newspapers insist on reporters with degrees, but they want to pay ‘em like fry cooks.

  12. Tommy T says:

    “P.S. Deploring college graduate journalists? Fucking passé. The Front Page is from 1931, and there’s a line in there in which a crusty old reporter admonishes a young eager beaver, dumb as rocks, with “I bet you went to college, didn’t you?” The world did not begin when you noticed it, honey.”
    Oh, snap!!!

  13. report from the heartland says:

    Sort of OT… I have made the Daily News a “second read” and folks, I’m loving it. I have noticed that it actually has ads– from local businesses and supermarkets and pool installers. I remember when the Times had bra ads and supermarket ads and now it has no ads. Going national seems to have been one of the nails the Times has pounded into its own coffin.

  14. Interrobang says:

    I saw that and I got kind of pissed off about it too. I have a fucking Master’s degree and I’m, by any reasonable definition, working class, in that I have no supervisory authority in my job, and I answer to about six people. I also make about $23 000/year. I’m hardly some ivory-tower intellectual type who wouldn’t know the real world if it bit me on the ass.
    Granted, I’m also from Soviet Canuckistan, and it’s possible to get a postgraduate degree here without being rich, but I’m also downwardly mobile, compared to my parents, who actuallyare reasonably wealthy. On the other hand, my father was a pilot for a regional airline, and my mother was a teacher and then a tax preparer, so we’re none of us exactly in the kind of professional jobs everyone thinks of when they say that sort of thing…

  15. Dennis says:

    Amen.

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