Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dr. Barbara Oakley: 'Why Most
Journalists Are Democrats'

OK, I spent 22 years in the newspaper business, the first nine as a Democrat, but I'll set aside my know-it-all attitude and listen to this:
Unsurprisingly, self-selection plays an important role in choosing a job. People choosing to do work related to prisons, for example, commonly show quite different characteristics than those who volunteer for work in helping disadvantaged youths. Academicians have very different characteristics than CEOs—or politicians, for that matter.
Harry Stein, former ethics editor of Esquire, once said: "Journalism, like social work, tends to attract individuals with a keen interest in bettering the world.” In other words, journalists self-select based on a desire to help others. Socialism, with its “spread the wealth” mentality intended to help society’s underdogs, sounds ideal.
Most journalists take a number of psychology, sociology, political science, and humanities courses during their early years in college. Unfortunately, these courses have long served as ideological training programs . . .
Read the whole thing. To young people, I would say, if you have a "keen interest in bettering the world," and are looking for a job with low pay and little prospect for career advancement, how about you join the freakin' Peace Corps and stop messing up the news business?

Dr. Oakley's observations about self-selection are right on target. So what explains me? Why am I not "bettering the world"? My original career plan was to become a multimillionaire rock star, but my Dad insisted I go to college, just in case I needed "something to fall back on."

After college, I was a nightclub DJ for about six months, then got fired from a job -- honestly, how was I to know that blonde dancer was the bouncer's girlfriend? -- and signed up with a temp agency, doing warehouse work on Fulton Industrial Boulevard in Atlanta. That led to a full-time job for nearly 18 months as a forklift driver, paying the bills and saving up money for a P.A. system.

Falling Back
In college, I'd been entertainment editor and rock-music columnist ("Flock of Seagulls: Threat Or Menace?") for the student paper. The faculty advisor urged me my senior year to do other assignments -- sports, news, features -- so I'd have a more "balanced" portfolio of clippings. But I hadn't been able to land a newspaper job right out of school, and didn't really look for one after that. Before the Internet, you see, the business of looking for a job was much more time-consuming, and the rock-star thing was my real passion anyway.

One day, a buddy of mine, an amateur photographer, was out at Sweetwater Creek State Park and it just happened there was a radio-controlled model sailboat club having a regatta. He got some pictures and thought it was pretty cool, and said he talked to the club members and they'd asked him to send the pictures to them for the club newsletter. He was pretty excited about this.
Well, it happened that, driving through the nearby town of Austell the past few weeks, I'd noticed a new sign on a building downtown: "Cobb News Chronicle." That Austell could be a two-newspaper town was explained by the fact that a local businessman had gotten mad at the publisher of the town's original weekly tabloid (The Sweetwater Enterprise) over ad rates and decided he'd start his own paper.

Seeing this sign while driving through Austell en route to see my girlfriend (who lived in Marietta), I'd been thinking maybe I should see about getting a job there. Compared to forklift driving, being a newspaper writer might be more useful to my rock-star ambitions. And here was my buddy with these model sailboat photos, excited about having them published in a club newsletter.

"Hey, cool, but I tell you what. There's a brand-new newspaper that just opened up in Austell. If you've got these photos, I could do a freelance article to go with it, and maybe we could get paid."
Well, I wasn't going to write for "spec," see? I was first going to find out if they would pay me before I would bother writing the article.

Two Big Things I Never Forgot
So the next day, I put on the blue pin-stripe three-piece suit my grandmother had bought me for my mother's funeral in 1977 -- hey, bell-bottoms were cool! -- took my portfolio and the photos, and drove down to the Chronicle office. Walked in the front door, with my blue suit and rock-star hair, and the green-eyed girl at the front desk had a spectacular rack. (Forgot her name long ago, but I never forget a great rack.)

So I tell the green-eyed girl with the spectacular rack I'd like to speak to the editor. She goes back and gets Chris Barker, the news editor. He walked me back to his cubicle, where I showed him my photos and the clips and pitched the idea of doing a freelance photo feature. What would they pay for that?

Well, he wasn't so interested in this feature idea, but my clips looked pretty good . . .

"Tell you what," he said. "There's a city council meeting tonight. You want to go cover that for us?"

"What does that pay?" I asked.

"If it's any good, $4.50 an hour."

That was in April of 1986. The story needed a good bit of editing -- Chris Barker was both a great editor and a great teacher -- but I got $4.50 an hour for four hours' work. When we were through with the story, Chris offered a full-time job at the same rate. A couple weeks later, they'd hired my buddy as a photographer, too.

Rock On, With Boy Howdy!
So the point of that story is this: My career in journalism had nothing to do with any "keen interest in bettering the world." I was just looking to make some money until the rock-star career took off. Bounced around a bit, then met my wife in the fall of 1987, had our first kid in 1989 and . . well, if the rest isn't history yet, it's only because I'm not finished yet.

I never wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. Maybe I admired the late, great rock critic Lester Bangs (does anyone remember the old Creem magazine?) and I'd been a Hunter S. Thompson junkie since I was 19, but it never occurred to me, in 1986, that I'd end up as an award-winning political journalist in Washington. (Hey, Jesse, how'd you like that pony?) Far less did I expect to become a top Hayekian public intellectual.

Here's the thing: When I was starting out, nobody offered to pay me to write political opinions, and I didn't have any interest in doing that egghead pundit crap anyway. Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet yet, so we hadn't reached the glories of the Information Age, when every random loser with a laptop can tell the world their opinions of stuff they know nothing about. I didn't go to Harvard, so it wasn't like National Review would ever offer me an internship to go skinny-dipping with Bill Buckley.

So I made my living by skill, not opinion. And because of that, I realized the only way to get ahead was to work hard every day to improve my skills.

I like the blogosphere, especially when regular people do real journalism (Look, Jesse, Santa brought you a pony!) and as a means for regular people to talk back to the media. But merely having an opinion wasn't worth $4.50 an hour even in 1986. You can't succeed merely by having an opinion -- much less by trying to "better the world" -- whether it's in blogs or newspapers or anything else.

Well, that's my story. Dr. Barbara Oakley's article is also excellent. Read the whole thing.


  1. http://www.creemmagazine.com/_site/Pages/Archive.html

    From an old fan who still has issues boxed-up somewhere.

  2. Kudos to my colleague Barb Oakley! Now that Stacy picked up her post, she's officially big time now!

    Stacy - you've got a compelling life story as well. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Now that Stacy picked up her post, she's officially big time now!

    Tell Barbara I said thanks for sending it to me. Smitty will have a more political reaction tomorrow, I think.

  4. From an old fan who still has issues boxed-up somewhere.

    Circa 1975-1985, Creem was the best rock magazine in the world. It was smart and funny. They had these incredibly hilarious, sarcastic captions on the photos, sometimes with running gags. For example, on any photo of Neil Young, he would always be a "whining Canadian."

    The writing was excellent. Like I said, Lester Bangs was my favorite. I'm pretty sure it was his review of the first Ramones album -- to say nothing of that ultra-cool album-cover image -- that caused me to go out and plunk down $8.99 for an album by a band I'd never actually heard, because the Ramones never got any radio back in the day. But the writing was all-around excellent, and I'm sure you could tell me the names of the other writers whose names I've forgotten.

    The photos were excellent, too. One I'll never forget had Gene Simmons holding Brooke Shields in a sort of King-Kong-and-Faye-Ray fashion. Simmons had his tongue hanging out and was leering suggestively, as if he were about to ravish this innocent girl (Brooke couldn't have been older than 14 at that time), and the look on Brooke's face -- sheer terror -- was classic. The implication of that picture was totally wrong, and yet Brooke's eye-bulging fear made it ROTFLMAO funny, long before anyone ever heard of "ROTFLMAO."

    Finally, of course, there was Boy Howdy! Beer, favorite beverage of all cool rock stars. When I was in college, my goal in life was to become such a cool rock star that one day I could appear in the pages of Creem magazine holding an ice-cold bottle of Boy Howdy! And the coolest thing about that dream? Well, the year I graduated college was the year Brooke Sheilds turned 18, so . . .

    Well, those clueless bastards who run the music industry never recognized my genius -- or how cool I was -- so Brooke's loss ended up as Mrs. Other McCain's gain.

    Bitter? Sour grapes? Nah. My wife's sexier. Besides, who wants Gene Simmons' sloppy seconds?

    (OK, that implication of that joke was totally wrong. But three days of scouring over Gryphen's blog is enough to warp anyone's sense of humor. What I really need is a cold Boy Howdy!)

  5. Oh, forgot to add: Simmons was in full KISS makeup and costume in that photo. I believe that was before anyone had ever seen them without their makeup. When they finally did appear without makeup, I think the blurb on the cover of Creem was: "KISS: PLEASE, DEAR GOD! PUT THE MAKEUP BACK ON!" Or something to that effect.

  6. Truly inspiring and one of your best articles. I'd definitely like to know more about you.

  7. Years ago, when talking to a journalism student on his show, Rush Limbaugh urged the young conservative to tell his liberal professors the reason he got into journalism was to "change the world" to ingratiate himself with them. This post explains why. Great work here.

  8. The most tragic thing for the news business was when it became The Profession Of Journalism (insert important sounding voice here). I remember when it used to be reporters, men (and a few women) whose job it was to tell folks what was going on. Newspapers and radio stations made money. Reporters were mostly working class kids with a good command of language and a healthy dose of curiosity. They jumped on reporting because it was a way out of the farms and factories.

    Now upper middle class kids, the ones not bright enough for Med School or to inherit the family business go into The Profession Of Journalism to change the world. And newspapers are going broke because we customers didn't hire these clowns to change the world but to tell us what is going on in the world. Want to change the world? Start a business and hire some people, you will change the world for those people and their families.

  9. That KISS cover rings a bell.

    Bangs wrote, in my opinion, the greatest record review of all time: it was for one of Lou Reeds albums, took up a full column, and consisted of only the word 'NO' repeated over and over and over. His review of 'Metal Machine Music' is also a classic [http://www.rocknroll.net/loureed/articles/mmmbangs.html].

    My goal, too, was to be in the pages of CREEM holding a Boy Howdy Beer in one hand and a bottle of Jack in the other, sitting next to Jimmy Page discussing sharks and sharing Miss Pamela's charms.

    CREEM understood that rock and roll was supposed to be fun [the wankers at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy always took it too damn seriously], like National Lampoon understood that life was absurd.

    I just may go dig out my old issues soon.

    Now, about this IG thing...

  10. I forgot...two of my favorite CREEM article headlines:

    Robert Plant Hits The Road
    From Hot Dog to Big Log.
    he'p! by Dave DiMartino

    A Flock Of Seagulls: Hair Apparent
    That was no blow dryer, that was my wife.
    continued hair coverage by John Mendelssohn