Skip to content

The Glamorous Life of a Journalist

December 28, 2009

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/12/25/opinion/main6022747.shtml?tag=cbsnewsTwoColLowerPromoArea;morenews

(reprinted without permission – but, hey, i wrote it!)

Christmas Chaos: The News Never Stops

Not a Silent Night in Sight Christmas Week as Health Care and Attempted Terrorism Bear Down – Along with a Lot of Snow

Like this Story? Share it:

//

  • Heavy snow in Washington, DC the week of Christmas, 2009Heavy snow in Washington, DC the week of Christmas, 2009 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CBS)

This essay was written by Danna Walker between bouts of chaos on CBS News’ national desk in Washington

While most of the country pauses, at least briefly, in acknowledgement of Christmas Day, the news never stops.

This has been a holiday period particularly full of “breaking news” for that area of the world that comes under the auspices of the Washington News Desk. That’s the official name for the large, horseshoe-shaped cubicle that looks something like the world’s most brightly lit bar on the second floor of the CBS News Washington bureau.

The news-tenders who work there play a key, but generally unheralded role, in the making of what viewers see each day in polished format on The “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric”, “The Early Show” and other CBS News broadcasts.

It all began last Saturday with one of the heaviest snowstorms on record in Washington – a situation that, alone, creates chaos and crisis for the news desk, which must make sure that reporters, producers and crews get to their destinations no matter the weather. Weather, with a capital W, is always a big story in itself. It affects everyone and guarantees an audience.

But this time, we had an additional unrelenting blast of atmospheric pressure – from atop Capitol Hill. The Senate was in around the clock to hash out the final wording on its . That meant last-minute news conferences, live stand-ups, network pool shots live from Capitol corridors, White House statements, and endless blustering, blathering and bloviating from the Senate floor. Er, I mean, it meant lots of news from the hallowed halls of Congress.

Special Report: Health Care Reform

It also meant that because my four-wheel drive SUV allowed me to report to my slot on the news desk at 6 a.m. Saturday, I didn’t get to go home until 2 a.m. Monday. Many of my colleagues fared no better, though we did get to sleep across the street at a nice boutique hotel with an appropriately lit bar and a hot bath for the taking. A colleague who got a later ride with a courier in a cargo van brought me a change of clothes from her own closet.

Pages: 1 2

Improbably Improvisational

November 11, 2009

It was a perfect comedy improv moment. It made our teacher happy, and I saw it through his eyes for a split second. What he had been talking about for six straight weeks clicked: Be in the moment. Support your fellow actors. Say “Yes!” to what is happening in front of you. Don’t look for the funny. It will find you.

The six actors on stage were pretending to be in a small aircraft. They looked for all the world like the cast of an imaginary play called “Chaos on a Plane!” But then it happened.

The actor playing the pilot started pretending he had lost control of the plane. As he looked out the cockpit window in mock horror, he leaned stage right, mimicking a dive. At that split second, the other actors on the plane all leaned stage right as well — in unison.

A small thing, perhaps, to the untrained eye, but to anyone grounded in improv, it was magic. And, the audience of students roared in appreciation.

There was no way logically that the people on stage knew what the others would do in that moment, yet they all moved in the same direction, as if on cue. They were in tune with each other. They were in the now. And they said “Yes!” to the scene, just like the good little improv players they were being trained to become.

Improv is like life: The good stuff can be fleeting but that’s what makes the hellish rest of it worthwhile.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Vamoose Old Van

August 14, 2009

My family and I are saying a little farewell to our old minivan tonight. After 10 years and 109,000 miles, it leaves tomorrow, forever.

The car dealer took a look at our little beauty and offered us a $300 trade-in. We eventually got $1,100 but after my husband took a good look at the car while cleaning out our stuff, he said that in truth, we should return some of the money.

The Kelley Blue Book valued the 1999 Ford Windstar SE at $1,675 in the category of “fair,” which fits the condition of the green/gray metallic behemoth:

* Some mechanical or cosmetic defects and needs servicing but is still in reasonable running condition.
* Clean title history, the paint, body and/or interior need work performed by a professional.
* Tires may need to be replaced.
* There may be some repairable rust damage.

Most of these hold true, but there’s no rust damage because the van has had a cozy home in our garage for seven years. It replaced a 4-year-old Pontiac Montana that caught fire a block from our house with my husband and children inside, after the mechanic forgot to connect the fuel line during a minor repair. (No injuries were reported – other than the emotional ones for Mom, who got the phone call that began: “First off, we’re all fine.”) The kids, 8 and 10 at the time, still talk about the nice volunteer firefighters who came to put out the flames under the hood. They remember that they knew they needed to pay attention when mild-mannered Dad pulled over and turned his head toward the back seat and shouted, “Get out. Get out of the van. Now!”

Pages: 1 2 3

The Seven Laws of Journalism – This Semester

August 3, 2009

As we enter the home stretch of summer my thoughts are turning to the fall semester and how I will teach 20 first-year college students how to write like journalists. Many of them will be in “communication” and won’t necessarily want to become journalists. This task of educating can be daunting but for reasons you might not have considered.

I get the impression that some in the academy as well as in the profession think that students don’t know what journalism is because young people can’t differentiate between newspapers and blogs, the Evening News and the Colbert Report, or CNN.com and The O’Reilly Factor. That’s true to a degree. They do tend to lump all the genres together into “news media,” which they often deride as a personality-driven cesspool of bias (much like their parents, I presume). But, at the same time, they actually tend to define journalism too narrowly.

Most of us old-school folks have stopped thinking of news in silos — print, broadcast, online; cable, network, public, corporate — and have become comfortable seeing journalism as an entity that crosses platforms and business models. We see that it can occur in big city newsrooms, on neighborhood micro sites, or at the hands of a foreign dissident with an instantly transmitted cell phone video. We’ve grown with the new technology, so even if we were resistant at first, we can spot real news among the digital information din. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, we know it when we see it.

Students, on the other hand and perhaps counter-intuitively, think of journalism in old-school ways. “News,” as they define it, is dry and objective — and generally to be avoided unless you’re a hard-core politics junkie. It belongs in the domain of newspapers, local television news, and hourly newscasts. No way do they believe that blogs or social networking sites like Facebook — or even features on Slate or in Vanity Fair — can be part of news. Oh yeah, and they don’t even use the newest darling of online media –Twitter — unless their journalism teachers have forced them to.

So, you can see that the job of a journalism teacher encompasses much more than showing a class a newspaper and saying “here’s what news is. Let’s learn to write like this.” News isn’t so neatly compartmentalized. Students have to be able to find it in the morass of what masquerades as news. But they also have to expand their idea of what constitutes this particular information product because access to news delivery is so much more porous, and gatekeeping so much less rigid.

What has tended to happen in journalism schools, from what I can gather, is that teachers teach students about what it was like in the past when newspapers defined news, instruct students on how to write like it was back then, and then try to bring students up to speed on the complexities of the current situation. There’s a lot of talk about objectivity, opinion vs. news, the principles of journalism, and the role of journalism as a major purveyor of democracy and justice for the little guy.

In my experience, this approach seems to create confusion, problems of credibility, and a bit of eye rolling. And, it’s getting harder to sustain this linear outlook as the old news world grows ever dimmer in memory. Eighteen-year-olds aren’t really interested in revisiting The Front Page or even All The President’s Men. They care about making a living wage and having a life — and they don’t necessarily see journalists as heroes.

Pages: 1 2

How My Wood Floors Kept Me From Writing — and Other Horrors

July 8, 2009

I ran into a former colleague who had quit her job as a journalist several years before to write a book. I asked her how the writing went. She said, “I never wrote the book, but my house sure was clean!”

She suffered from what I call the Compulsive Reverse Articles of Priorities syndrome or CRAP. Victims of this malady have a long list in their heads of things they need to do but have been putting off, sometimes for years.

Somehow, either through diligence, soul-searching, job loss, or short-term memory failure, they have reached the fine print at the bottom of their to-do lists — the items that they just copy down each week and that demonstrate how impossibly busy they are every single day of their lives. They know they’ll get to them when the urgent items at the top, like, respond to e-mail from old college roommate looking for a job, have “networking” lunch with office mate you spend 56 hours a week with, and shop for shoes at recently opened DSW warehouse, are satisfyingly crossed off.

When you start getting down the list, women, at least, often find onerous items such as clean out kitchen cabinets, dust grandma’s Depression glass, and clean oven. These homemaking tasks harken back to women’s childhoods of spending time with non-working mothers grooming them for housewifery. (This may not apply directly to you if you were born after 1980, but I guarantee it still applies peripherally in your psyche, at least at some level.) Plus, they’re things the cleaning service won’t do. If you’re a man, comparable items most likely have to do with car or yard maintenance. (I’m just sayin’.)

But it’s the very bottom tier of the list that contains the worst of the worst, such things as change careers, find a marriage counselor, make appointment with struggling kid’s school adviser, or get black belt in karate.

This syndrome can hit anyone. In my case, for example, the last two items on my list are “wax floors,” and “write book.”

So, even with this brief description, it should be painfully obvious that this approach in life is CRAP — indeed, that the diagnosis, itself, can be nothing but CRAP. So, don’t fool around with CRAP. It’s a debilitating disease that means we spend most of our time working hard, accomplishing things in the reverse order of what will actually change and improve our lives. I hope this analysis is clear now. And, I just have one more thing to say: Today, I waxed my floors.

Head in the Clouds — A Good Way to Spend the Day

June 30, 2009

First, I cajoled my husband into buying a house on a mountainside in Cumberland, Md., near Lake Habeeb. Harder was cajoling him to buy a canoe. Harder still was getting the canoe to the house. It sat upside down behind our regular suburban home for a year, stamping a canoe-shaped island of mud on our lawn.

The fate of the canoe had been colored by The Mattress Incident.

You see, in furnishing our mountain house with Craigslist finds, I also cajoled my husband into hauling a pristine but bargain-priced mattress to Cumberland atop the mini van. The mattress flew off onto I-270 about 10 miles from home. He wasn’t used to hauling things on tops of cars. The bad thing was I wasn’t in the car at the time, so I just had to hear about the ordeal, repeatedly. No injuries were reported, at least.

Yesterday, I convinced him to do it again, and we strapped on the canoe. Turns out mini vans are factory fitted with hooks under the bumpers for just such occasions. After two nervous hours, we made it to the mountain, and today — taking another leap of faith — we put the canoe in the lake.

I say leap of faith because the canoe is seriously vintage — another Craigslist find. It was made in the 1960s and is solid aluminum. It’s heavy, and it came with a wooden liner and wooden seatbacks for the middle passengers who sit inside — down in the bottom, not on slat seats like the canoes you rent. I had heard all about the canoe’s adventures on various rivers and lakes in the U.S. from the elderly gentleman who sold it to me for $60. I loved it and its history.

My husband was skeptical of the canoe’s potential for buoyancy but he had not met the owner and heard the tales of his annual scraping and painting of the canoe, which is red. It’s best to get off every bit of paint each year before putting on two new coats, he said. The seatbacks have the initials of the man’s family professionally lettered on the top. The wooden liner was lacquered. It’s so beautiful I want to hang it on the wall. The canoe harkens back to a time when families took the kids fishing on vacation and understood the character of the many waterways across the country, and wanted to navigate them all.

The canoe, its paint now dull and its bow caked with dirt from my yard, performed like a champ — not a leak anywhere among its grommets or seams. It was sturdy and solid in the water, even with two teenage boys standing up, waving paddles around, and mindlessly floating into the wakes of more powerful boats.

The boys had complained about having to put the boat on the car, about having to haul the boat to the lake, and about having to carry the boat to the water’s edge. They moaned, too, about having to paddle the darn thing. Why didn’t we get a motor for chrissakes?

Pages: 1 2

News and Comedy: That’s a Laugh

June 21, 2009

First, the late-night comedy writers invaded the Newseum in Washington, courtesy of the Writers Guild of America East. Then, Jason Jones of the Daily Show infiltrated the New York Times. Around the same time, Stephen Colbert shows up as guest editor of Newsweek. Of course, comics have been appearing at news industry functions — Colbert’s past appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner comes to mind — for a long time. But finally, the mythical line has been crossed and the hilarious critics of the news are taking their rightful place in the actual news media!
After all, a lot of young people get most of their news from Comedy Central anyway, so why not marry the two? It’s a win-win — real-world exposure for the cable comics and a shot in the arm for the ailing news industry, right?
Believe me, I would have thought so. I’ve been a member of the news media for decades, and I love those guys on late night. I use the devastating critiques of the news media by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in the journalism classes I teach, and they’re real crowd pleasers — the hippest guys ever allowed on the bus.
But, the reality is it’s not good, just not good at all — and mostly for the news media.
I attended the Newseum event, “A Potentially Regrettable Evening with Comedy Writers,” which featured a series of fierce stand-up routines by J.R. Havlan (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Bill Scheft (Late Show With David Letterman), Anthony Jeselnick (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon), Matt Goldich (Best Week Ever), Tim Carvell (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Opus Moreschi (The Colbert Report), Tom Ruprecht (Late Show With David Letterman), and Allison Abner (The West Wing).
Anthony Jeselnick particularly rocked the packed house on the Newseum’s terrace level with its picture windows facing Pennsylvania Avenue. The event was so hip that I almost forgot I was wearing my best corridors-of-power sensible heels and pearls and sitting high atop the city overlooking the majestic Capitol dome.
But then, the comics overstayed their welcome by agreeing — against their better judgment, I’m sure — to symbolically don their own version of Washington costumery. They sat on a panel at a dais and analyzed what they do and how it relates to news.
The earnest Washington audience — lobbyists, policy types, writers, etc. — picked up on the conventional wisdom that the comics have become the go-to source for America’s news. They kept asking about it in different ways for an hour. The comics took the questions seriously at first, but then they grew more and more uncomfortable with what was starting to sound like a growing social responsibility.
As the crowd marveled at the comics’ ability to skewer the very people those in the audience spent their days courting or covering, the comics essentially said, while shrugging their collective shoulders: “Hey, we’re just doing our jobs. We’re just trying to make people laugh. Sure, we try to be accurate and not make up facts, but that’s as far as it goes. We don’t want people to use us for their main source of news.”
Then it hit me that the people in the audience thought the comics led a glamorous life and the people wanted the comics to bring that glamor to news. But the comics made it clear they work hard at their jobs, similar to journalists perhaps, but they’re not journalists. Their job title is “comic” and they report to their offices early each day with enough on their plates for chrissakes, and that usually entails keeping up with what journalists are reporting.

Pages: 1 2