Booze, grudges and paranoia: what makes a journalist a journalist

Jobs are meant to include “occupational mythology,” expectations that are perhaps more commonly taken on than commonly found in a given position. Many with those positions relish in embodying these traits: rock stars use drugs, athletes use women, lawyers love the gray and green in their lifestyles. It’s why politicians kiss babies and go door-to-door.

These are ways we characterize someone, which makes it a hell of a short cut to being regarded as a rock star, an athlete, a lawyer or a baby-kissing politician.

Men and women become journalists, I have experienced, because they think their task is important, they are bearing light on what needs light most: from Washington D.C. to school board meetings. Journalists are self-righteous, unfailing in their belief what they are doing is good and just and unappreciated.

Of course, by journalists, I am speaking quite generally and referring almost exclusively to the breed of journalist that came from the urban print daily mold. I made the distinction in an earlier post.

They are independent, competitive and insular because sources won’t help, other media don’t stop, and no one understands.

Back in January, Slate magazine had a great article on this phenomenon, particularly in the newspaper field:

The journalist likes to think of himself as living close to the edge, whether he’s covering real estate or Iraq. He (and she) shouts and curses and cracks wise at most every opportunity, considers divorce an occupational hazard, and loves telling ripping yarns about his greatest stories. If he likes sex, he has too much of it. Ditto for food. If he drinks, he considers booze his muse. If he smokes, he smokes to excess, and if he attempts to quit, he uses Nicorette and the patch.

I mentioned state government reporters here in Harrisburg having lavish Christmas parties and then reserving some of the excess liquor “for snakebite,” a late swig by members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. (Come on, even Paulie in A River Runs Through It has a flask in his desk, gambles, smokes, drinks and runs with fast women)

The Philadelphia Daily News has a history of people like this.

There is Zack Stalberg, its former front man who had a 30-year relationship with the paper before jetting to nonprofit Committee of Seventy. A 2001 profile on Stalberg from Philadelphia Weekly spoke of his legend:

But there was myth long before that. Take, for starters, the way Zack Stalberg began doing what no one does anymore. Here it was 1971, and this 24-year-old kid, fresh out of Temple and even fresher out of Vietnam, with nothing to show but a portfolio of cartoons and a year’s worth of clips from the Bucks County Courier Times, applies for a night rewrite job at the Daily News.

Within two years the night rewrite kid is a City Hall reporter covering Frank Rizzo at a time when Rizzo was, as Stalberg recalls, “unstoppable … He was going to be governor and his image was untarnished and then–boom!” Boom, of course, was Stalberg himself, who persuaded the mayor to take a lie detector test to resolve a political dispute. Rizzo, as the whole city knows, failed the test in grand fashion, and Stalberg, as the whole city also knows, became someone who would make a name for himself.

And that’s just it, Stalberg – known for Jack Daniels being his drink of choice – has all those qualities: paranoid and Messianic and self-righteous like any top level journalist has to be… and likely wants to be, drink in hand.

“There are probably about 150 people who could be the editor of the Boston Globe,” Stalberg told PW for the story. “And this may sound egotistical, but I feel only I can do this,” he said of being editor of the Daily News.

The Slate piece by Jack Shafer ended:

Wise editors know when and how to encourage newsroom insubordination, as opposed to squelching it, because they appreciate Bob Woodward’s aphorism, “All good work is done in defiance of management.” By giving the newsroom the opportunity to stand up to him, the wise editor instructs his reporters in the advanced techniques of standing up to CEOs and politicians. The wise editor understands that quality journalism requires a bad attitude, foul words, a brawl, and sometimes a drink afterward.

You aren’t really the friend of a journalist, unless under extreme circumstances – which is why everyone is so amazed by the reign of former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts (1972-1990), who, evidenced by this month’s reunion of Inqy staffers from that time, loved the man, as his former writers suggest.

Many grizzled reporters I’ve come to know paradoxically take great value in being independent and balanced, but hold grudges longer and stronger than any others. If someone tells you a reporter has it out for him, he is probably right.

So, our legends are those who most embody that mythology, those traits and flaws.

Legends like Pete Dexter, cast most recently in a fantastic story by Steve Volk in a March 2007 issue of Philadelphia Weekly, before Volk left for Philadelphia magazine.

“I think Pete Dexter might be the greatest newspaper columnist of all time, anywhere, in any century,” Steve Lopez, a former columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who now writes a column for the Los Angeles Times, told Volk.

In addition to being a fine writer, Dexter was known to drink, carouse and philander. He was a newspaperman’s newspaperman.

This from Volk’s piece:

In the 12 years Dexter spent writing for the Daily News—from 1974 to 1986—people got to know the Dexter who haunted Doc Watson’s, Dirty Frank’s and McGlinchey’s, the Dexter who’d go to the Pen and Pencil, the journalism press club, and head-butt fellow Daily News scribe Jack McKinney between rounds of drinks.

He took bets on whether a case of beer could be hurled across Pine Street. He caroused with boxer Tex Cobb, freely loaning him company cars that would end up stranded across the country. For a column he counted transvestites on 13th Street and circled a knife-wielding old man. He threatened to drown an editor in a pot of chili. But that was the old Drinking Dexter.

But, as it is a focus of Volk’s March 2007 story, the lasting story of Dexter is a violent night in Grays Ferry in 1981.

A night where, after a Dec. 9, 1981 column called “In Tasker, It’s About to Stop,” Dexter showed up at Dougherty’s, a bar at 24th and Lombard. In that column, Dexter referred to a local kid who recently died of a drug overdose as “being high all the time.” That kid’s older brother didn’t take too kindly to that. When Dexter arrived at Dougherty’s to confront the issue, he was pummeled. He returned with “six or seven guys” including former heavyweight boxer, actor and recent Temple graduate Tex Cobb, and those he opposed countered with a group double that.

This the end of it, according to Volk’s piece:

In any event, Lego and Max agree that someone in the Dexter entourage said, ‘We could wreck this place,’ which prompted Lego to pick up a pool stick—Max says it was a bat—and slam it on the bar. “Let’s wreck it right now, asshole!” he said.

Cobb started hustling everyone out the door, but the balky-kneed Dexter was quickly caught out on 24th Street, where Tommy Lego began wailing on him with the kind of weapon that can only exist some 26-odd years after a bar fight—a combination pool stick and baseball bat.

The only one in Dexter’s entourage who stayed and defended him was Cobb, the heavyweight. He stood over his fallen friend, pushing away the men who were striking him, and absorbing blows with an arm that was ultimately broken in the fight.

That is why Dexter, now in his mid-60s, is still revered as one of the great columnists in newspaper history – his writing has been replaced by his legend. He fits this occupational mythology, which reminds me of something I read in his 1988 National Book of the Year award winning novel Paris Trout:

“…Never invite a newspaperman anywhere there are people with manners.”

Via the Huffington Post. Image courtesy Sarasota magazine.