Journalism: A shitty job in a nuclear winter

One of my former students became a science reporter a few years out of school and once found himself on a trip to Chernobyl. A group of researchers were collecting stool samples from people who lived adjacent to the old Russian nuclear reactor, trying to see if they were suffering from any radioactive poisoning nearly three decades after the meltdown.

He sent me a post card from the area with a final line I still love:

“Journalism. It’s a shitty job but somebody has to do it.”

I thought about him and that trip today when I was trying to read anything in my social media feed that wasn’t about Trump’s press conference. When all I was left with was if Steve Kerr was going to play Russell Westbrook alongside his four Warriors in the All-Star Game and Draymond Green clarifying his “slave-owner mentality” statements, I gave up.

Trump’s hour-plus screed was a brick of uncut alternative facts, packaged in a wrapper of vulgar abuse and denigration. The word “rambling” might be overused at this point and I don’t think it goes far enough. It was like he took every topic of interest or a point of pride he has, wrote them on bingo balls and then had the machine spit them out to determine the order of his talking points.

The biggest problem came when he started taking questions from the press, one of his favorite targets of abuse. A reporter from Ami Magazine, a conservative orthodox Jewish publication, offered Trump the olive branch he was desperately seeking, a pass on personal anti-Semitism. However, as Jake Turx tried to ask Trump to explain how he planned to fight this problem, Trump just stepped all over himself, assuming Turx was calling him anti-Semitic and then told him to sit down and shut up.

When a reporter refuted Trump’s claim that his 306 (actually 304) electoral votes was the most since Ronald Reagan, he dodged with “I meant Republican victory.” He then was told Bush 41 had way more, which led Trump to blame his staff for the information.

Perhaps the worst moment is the one most people are noting: Trump’s clash with April Ryan, a long-time member of the White House press corps. Ryan, who is African-American, asked about Trump’s plans to improve urban areas that he often referred to as terrible hell holes and wondered if he’d reach out to the CBC and Hispanic caucus in congress. Trump seemed unaware of what CBC stood for, but upon learning it stood for Congressional Black Caucus, asked Ryan if she’d set up the meeting for him.

“Do you want to set up the meeting? Are they friends of yours?” Trump asked her in what could only be described as a confrontational tone.

At this point, I had two thoughts:

  • Based on his “you all know each other, right?” approach, I was amazed Trump didn’t start off with, “Hey, I loved you in ‘Hidden Figures!’ What’s your question?”
  • If you believe that Sean Spicer isn’t getting fired, buy stock in Orbitz. This guy is going to put a dent in our national supply by Saturday.

This press conference, naturally, scared the living shit out of me as a citizen, but my one saving grace is that I can turn off the TV or ignore the news. The journalists who have to work in this environment are like the people at Chernobyl in 1986, going shirtless and using some Windex to clean up the mess.

Journalism has always been a shitty job and it takes a weird breed of person to do it. If you don’t believe me, you should have been in our student newspaper’s newsroom this week. Conversations regarding a dead squirrel, double entendres about a professor “coming” and whether Meatloaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)” was about anal were among the most acceptable for public consumption.

The kids do this for almost no money, which will get them ready for a career in a field where cutting positions and salaries is an annual ritual. They talk to people who don’t want to talk to them about things everyone wants to know but no one who knows is willing to disclose. (A student told me an administrator offered him about a three-minute “No Comment” on a topic we had been covering. My first response, “Did you record it so we can use it as a quote?” The answer, of course, was “yes.”)

Abuse in this field is common. I’ve been called scum, an asshole, a weasel, a vulture and worse. One lady told me my mother didn’t raise me right. I’m sure there are worse ones that I’ve just blacked out of my memory. It got so bad that I used to have a recorder attached to my phone so I could record the abuse. That way, when the person on the other end became sweet as pie to my boss and accused me of random shit, I could just play him the tape.

The thing that amazes me about all of this is that we keep having more and more kids entering this field with the idea that each one of them probably has (at the very least) one Cousin Carl who believes everything not on Breitbart is fake news. Many of the kids I teach come from the Rural Red areas of the state where family members at Thanksgiving ask things like why they aren’t earning an “honest living” like “Gene the Retard” down the way who sells dachshunds out of his trailer.

One kid who recently changed majors to journalism sat with me after I mentioned that a long time ago, when I was changing from pre-law to something or other, Dad told me I needed to find a field where I could get a job.

“As long as you aren’t majoring in English or something else stupid like that, I don’t care,” he said. “You just need to be able to get a job.” (Incidentally, English was going to be my major right up to that moment…)

The kid’s dad had said something similar when he made the change to journalism and he wondered what was out there for him. I explained about the various ways the skills he picked up in journalism would make him a fine hire for a ton of great jobs. He relaxed and then asked, “Can you tell my dad that? He runs his own business and he thinks this is a stupid move.”

Of course it’s a stupid move, if you enjoy low-stress jobs with good benefits and career security. It’s also a stupid move if you enjoy being liked and you don’t want your illusion shattered when it comes to thinking the best of people. It’s a really stupid move for 1,001 other reasons that undercut sanity and longevity. Still, the kid felt like he found the right major, so like a moth to a flame, he decided to stick with it.

I was glad for that and I’m looking for more just like him because we need those guys and gals to fill in the ranks of reporters, editors and other journalists who push back every day against the tide of bullshit. Talking to kids who want to be the next reporter to be told, “Sit down! You’re fake news” really energizes me and makes me want to get them ready to go in the corner and fight for the puck. That’s why this weekend finds me at a journalism convention in Minnesota where kids from a lot of small-college Midwestern schools will show up and learn how to write, report, dig, challenge and fight better.

Best of all? The person running the convention told me the number of attendees this year is higher than it has been for the past several mid-winter conferences.

And, like any other decent journalist, I’ll make sure to check it out before I believe it.

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