Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.
How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?
There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones â€“ they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time, you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County â€“ its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely, and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical, they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way â€“ not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you were writing to please them â€“ more that you had to be accurate and you had to be careful.
I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job, and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.
Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.
Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated, but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they were written and the different forms. It’s not hard; it’s not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.
Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising.’ The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising.” That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else; certainly, my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time, and it was a very long and painful process.
Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.
Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us, and I think that process occurred with me.
I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.
For me, the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you do an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do and figuring out of the motives.
I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims â€“ whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power â€“ ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ â€“ or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders â€“ ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’
Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end, it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating, and it still is.