A pair of headlights cut through the darkness behind me on a country road outside Claxton, Ga., one night in 1994. They closed swiftly before matching my pickup's speed at about 200 yards.
That almost never happens on country roads. Cars either pass you or you pass them. They don't race toward you before trailing from a fixed distance. So, I slowed down to protect the identity of my source - a black high school student who had been warned to stop dating a white classmate in a town plagued by institutionalized racism.
The mystery car drew closer each time I downshifted, before matching my speed as we drove between forest and farmland. We traveled along in this manner for a stretch at 150 yards, then 100, then 50. We were separated by less than 10 feet by the time I brought my pickup to a complete halt.
The vehicle now visible in my rear-view mirror was a Claxton police cruiser.
I stared at the embarrassed officer for what seemed like an eternity, the headlights of the patrol car illuminating my face on the two-lane blacktop. Finally, the officer floored the gas pedal and hurtled past me. His face was locked forward as my voice trailed off behind him, shouting "go tell your buddies back at the station about this one."
I landed that story.
I found myself recalling that formative experience from my reckless days as a cub reporter last night as I pondered NBC's hiring of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton as a special news correspondent. It's the latest hiring of a child from a prominent political family in the contracting news industry. The field I've devoted my life to never seems to run out of room for these silver spoons, even as thousands of veteran reporters are being kicked to the curb.
You may not read it anywhere but here, but I guarantee you that beleaguered reporters around this nation are quietly seething with resentment over Chelsea's latest "accomplishment." There is such a thing as receiving too much help from mummy and daddy.
An isolated incident? Sorry, no.
This kind of caper by the upper crust is becoming the norm rather than the exception as politicians and their kids take over the national-level media. Journalism objectivity is being transformed into partisan political cheerleading by these entitled opportunists, much as the neutral stock analysis that once characterized Wall Street was transformed into advertising during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s.
A news industry that's supposed to serve the common man as a watchdog over the rich and powerful is itself being remade into a tool of rampant favoritism and political cronyism. In a word - propaganda.
You won't see these silver spoons working for a small-town newspaper or TV station. The 1% and their children don't pay their dues in the sticks like the rest of us.
That's strictly for the little people - the forlorn 99% that the Occupy Wall Street movement is always talking about. We're the "suckers" who still cling to the fiction that we live in a meritocracy where even the lowest-born among us may speak truth to power without fear and rise above our humble beginnings by being honorable, talented, honest, industrious and passionate about our chosen trade.
Even more disgraceful is the fact that Chelsea will have all of the rights of free speech that are now routinely denied to most rank-and-file reporters in the increasingly repressive mainstream media. In the name of "objectivity," we're discouraged from expressing opinions on anything. At times, we're not even allowed to champion the truth over disinformation.
Personal opinions in the news business are now reserved largely for the stars of the newsroom and the rich. Increasingly, they're one and the same. The rest of us are treated like equipment. We're the laptops and the keyboards.
The painful truth is that fake journalists like Chelsea Clinton are stealing from real journalists. They're tapping into our credibility and wrapping themselves in the fourth estate flag, without ever performing any of the unpleasant work our collective reputation is built on.
Who does she think she's fooling?
Chelsea is never going to count decomposing bodies, need to seek medical attention after walking through contaminated floodwaters, or tread a dangerous street in the Bronx or Newark to make sure a murder victim's family has their say in an article. She is never going to risk kidnapping in Pakistan to secure an interview with rebellious religious extremists, rape in Egypt to cover the pro-democracy movement, or imprisonment in North Korea to cover the Hermit Kingdom's starving and repressed people. And she's never going to have to play cat and mouse with racist cops in a racist town, or have to choose between her job and her professional credibility to prevent a ruthless manager from slanting her stories.
The game plan for Chelsea is to derive the reputational benefits conveyed by her apparent association with the journalists who routinely shoulder such burdens, without ever shouldering them herself.
In my book, that's a form of plagiarism.
Chelsea's trying to steal from us. She is trying to steal the idea 20 years from now that she made unspecified sacrifices for the greater good during her time as a journalist, because that's what we do.
It's really no different than George W. Bush playing dress up as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. He partied hard, to the point of being absent without leave during his noncombat assignment to the Texas Air National Guard. Meanwhile, real fighter pilots were getting killed overseas and being emotionally burdened with the knowledge of the collateral damage generated by their ground attack missions - also known as dead babies - as they sought to advance the greater good of this nation.
It's not hard to imagine the conversations.
Question: What did you do during the Vietnam War Mr. Bush?
Answer: "Oh, I was fighter pilot."
Question: Really, you do much fight'in?
Question: What did you do during your youth Ms. Clinton, when the middle class was being buffeted by the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.
Answer: "Oh, I was a writer."
Question: Really, you do much writ'in?
This kind of thing is more than just a bad joke on the rest of us. Every time some child of America's political aristocracy gets handed a plum job like this it's a setback for decent working people everywhere.
There are literally tens of thousands of real journalists who are holding off on starting families until they can secure the kind of job that was just handed to Chelsea on a silver platter. There are also tens of thousands of proven journalists – just like me – scrambling to remain in an industry we love after being idled in one of the mass layoffs undertaken to sustain profit growth.
Finally, there are literally hundreds of thousands of college grads with journalism and communciations degrees who will never work in this field, albeit through no fault of their own.
The U.S. news industry shed 14,106 of its 55,715 jobs from 1990 to 2010, according to the annual employment census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But that apparent 25% decline is only part of the story.
The real decline is actually 40% once you adjust the number of professional journalists for our nation's rapid population growth. The U.S. population expanded to 310 million in 2010 from 250 million in 1990, dropping the number of professional journalists per million Americans to 134 from 223.
Colleges and universities awarded about 872,000 baccalaureate, master and doctoral degrees in communications and journalism during that same 20 year span, according to the annual employment census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the University of Georgia's annual survey of journalism and mass communication graduates. That's 21 grads for every position in the industry. If we all had one year careers everybody would get a shot.
Academia cranked out an amazing 50,850 bachelors degrees and 4,480 masters degrees in 2009 alone, even though there were only 1,641 newsroom vacancies that year and most were filld by industry veterans changing employers. All of which means that landing a real journalism job is like winning the lottery for new college graduates right now.
Unless your name is Chelsea Clinton.
There is never any reduction in the number of newsroom jobs grabbed up by the silver spoons. It doesn't matter if it's the worst of times for the rest of us. For them, it's always the best of times.
Powerful parents don't do their kids any favors when they shield them from the real world in this manner. Not unless they expect to live forever.
Chelsea and those like her will all have to stand on their own feet at some point in their lives. When that time comes, after mummy and daddy are dead, the people who were quietly pissed off about the special treatment their kids received may no longer be so quiet.
Why would any parent who loves their kids set them up for that kind of resentment and animosity?
They do it because they're surrounded by people with a financial interest in making them feel good about themselves. Famous people in the U.S. constantly run the risk of losing their ability to distinguish between right and wrong in this sea of fawning approval, regardless of whether they're named Hillary Clinton or Michael Jackson.
In this nation, we like to think that just because someone is good at one thing they're good at everything. However, a lot of successful politicians are very detached parents. They don't have the time to raise their children right and they sometimes try to make up for it afterwards in misguided ways.
Securing a plum reporting job for your child in a journalism industry that's in freefall is one of them. Chelsea's new network job at NBC isn't even about journalism. It's about building the legend of Chelsea.
I'm sure Hillary is thinking that if she can't be this nation's first female president, maybe Chelsea can. As a journalist, Chelsea can raise her face and name recognition as she prepares herself for a political career, without paying for advertising.
It's one of those misguided ideas which sounds great on paper, like the televised carrier landing of George W. Bush aboard a small jet aircraft on 2003 in front of a huge "Mission Accomplished" sign. Nine years later, we're still fighting the two wars Bush initiated, and he looks like a rich kid playing dress-up in his jumpsuit (above right).
Chelsea's new job has the potential to be the same kind of boneheaded move of epic proportions.
Roll the clock back to September of 1987. I'm sitting in another car outside the old Bronx House of Detention with my dad, who died a few years back. Unlike the parents of the silver spoons, he actually served in combat in the defense of this nation during World War II - crash-landing in occupied France aboard a D-Day glider, surviving the Battle of the Bulge, liberating death camps in Germany, and being wounded as his unit of combat engineers built a bridge under fire during the Battle of the Elbe River.
We were looking up at the imposing prison in the South Bronx, which towers above 151st street like a huge yellow cinderblock, when dad cleared his throat.
"Are you sure you want to do this," he asked me, lifting a graying eyebrow.
I was still living at home at age 22, but I was about to become the first student-journalist to conduct a jailhouse interview in the New York City Corrections system. My subject was Larry Davis, a fellow Bronx resident who had been arrested for shooting six New York City police officers in a 1986 gun battle.
Davis was known for robbing drug dealers and working as a confidential informant for police. He was a suspect in seven murders at the time and was captured after a two-week-long international manhunt.
The New York Post and New York Daily News had been calling Davis a "Mad Dog" and the like in the kind of libelous headlines that appear when a suspect isn't expected to be taken alive. The photos they ran made him appear 6-feet tall.
I didn't recognize the 5-foot-4-inch tall Davis when he finally entered the crowded cubicle farm for our meeting after a four hour delay. He had donned a pair of glasses in a bid to look studious.
"Where's Larry," I said impatiently, looking down at him.
"I'm Larry," Davis said.
"You're Larry," I asked. "Come on. You can't be Larry - Larry's taller."
"Everybody says that," Davis said with a shrug.
An hour later Davis and his legal aide Al Hajj Idris Mohammed were squaring off with eavesdropping Corrections officials. The confrontation seemed ready to go nuclear, with me in the middle, until I managed to calm things down.
I landed that story.
Chelsea Clinton is not the first unqualified silver spoon from the professional political class to be handed a plum news job. There are tons of them. Maria Shriver helped start the trend in the late 80s when she landed a network news gig seemingly out of nowhere.
The current crop of media silver spoons includes Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain, who is a contributor to MSNBC; Chris Cuomo, son of former New York State Gov. Mario Cuomo and a correspondent at ABC; and Jenna Bush Hager (left), daughter of President George W. Bush and a correspondent for NBC's "Today" show.
Hager's professional qualifications?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Either she was hired on the strength of her status as a teacher's aide and reading coordinator, or she was hired because her daddy is the former head of the Republican political machine. Curiously, her first big accomplishment was landing an interview with Bill Clinton, the former president and icon of the Democratic political machine. How much do you want to bet that one of Chelsea's first big "gets" will be a similar interview with former president and Republican political machine icon George W. Bush?
Apparently, it's not enough for the Bush and Clinton families that have wrecked this nation the past 20 years to give their children every possible advantage of money, place and power. They still feel compelled to stick a thumb on the battered scales of workplace meritocracy.
This kind of over-the-top coddling makes you wonder how smart their kids really are if they still can't compete with the rest of us on a level playing field, even with their fancy prep school educations and all the other advantages of being born into a wealthy family. The public school system must be a helluva lot better than we thought.
Which brings us to Chris Cuomo. He decided to make a career in journalism after growing bored in the legal profession. However, unlike you and I, Cuomo didn't have to start his news career at a tiny TV station in Montana where he had to carry his own video camera and tripod. And he didn't have to build his resume at a tiny daily newspaper without employee health insurance.
I still bear the scar (above right) from a laceration suffered while changing the oil in my car in 1992 when I was working for the Pekin Daily Times - a small daily outside Peoria, Ill., with no employee health insurance. I couldn't afford $440 for the ambulance, much less $160 to put the stitches in and another $160 to take them out. Not while making $15,000 a year and paying $300 a month in student loans.
So, I fixed it up myself. Badly.
It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and it's a safe bet that most of you have been faced with similar choices. Cuomo and his fellow silver spoons have not.
Cuomo started right out as a political analyst for Fox, CNBC, MSNBC and CNN in New York City. To his credit, he's done some fine journalism, but we'll never know how many of his accomplishments are due to him and how many are due to his famous daddy, because every door was opened for Chris.
You can't really measure a person until you see how they function in adversity. So, we don't know who Chris Cuomo is yet. Neither does he.
What adversity has Cuomo endured? I don't count leaving the legal profession. And let's face facts – if Cuomo had been a member of the 99% he could have never done it.
Why? Because the kind of student loans that the 99% are saddled with in law school don't permit such capricious changes of heart.
This kind of thing always reminds me of an interview I conducted with Bernard Harleston in 1987. He was president of the City College of New York in Harlem when I was a student-journalist there. He was also the first African American to hold that position.
I asked Harleston if he had been able to shield his children from the racism he had confronted during his life. His answer surprised me.
"There's no such thing as shielding," Harleston said. "If I were talking to parents or young people I would say 'don't even conceptualize shielding.' Shielding means you are raising your children in an artificial environment."
The same lesson needs to be applied to Chelsea and her fellow members of the new American political aristocracy. Like Meghan McCain.
Want to know what Meghan's (above right) qualifications are for one of the handful of network television news jobs? Me too. NBC News hired her Nov. 21.
Like a lot of aspiring journalists the 27-year-old decided to try her hand at writing a blog - which is the sum of her prior experience. Unlike the rest of us, her blog is published by The Daily Beast – an international news organization that's a destination for most journalism lifers. I can't even get them to look at my resume, and I broke the iconic story of Hurricane Katrina (below right).
There's a tradition in print journalism, which is that reporters start out writing in the third-person and continue to do so for almost their entire careers. Very few get to tell stories in the first person as a columnist, as I'm doing now, and as Meghan McCain does as a blogger. Even after a lifetime in the business.
There's a similar tradition in broadcast news, which is that people work their way up to the networks from local stations.
Meghan McCain landed her jobs at NBC and The Daily Beast at a time when only a fraction of new journalism and communications grads were able to break into the field. She accomplished this amazing feat with a degree in history.
That McCain blog must really be amazing, right? Sadly, it's not. See for yourself by clicking this hyperlink.
The highlight of each column is the introductory paragraph written by the editors of The Daily Beast. Without them, readers wouldn't even know what message McCain was trying to share. The basic story structure needed to communicate that information just isn't there.
McCain also has a Twitter account. That's where she chose to respond to the suggestion by one journalist that she had "never accomplished anything." According to Gawker, McCain posted a series of "expletive-ridden and atrociously spelled" responses. The modest accomplishments they ticked off included tutoring kids at church, delivering flowers to hospital patients, and internships at Newsweek and Saturday Night Live.
Damn. Here I was thinking I was special because I got to cover the cop beat as a college intern at The Bronx Press Review.
McCain also erroneously claimed to have written the first blog in history to document a presidential campaign in 2008. If she'd done her research she would have known that the first blog to document a presidential campaign was the "Official Kerry-Edwards Campaign Blog," in 2004, per Gawker.
Daddy McCain doesn't do his offspring any favors by making it possible for Meghan to start her journalism career at the highest level, instead of paying her dues in the sticks. She's be far better learning from her mistakes at a smaller operation, far from the DC media spotlight.
Rewind the tape back to 1994. I'm standing across the street from the headquarters of Bland Farms in Glennville, Ga., next to a grassy field filled with migrant laborers and their vehicles. I had an 8 a.m. interview with Chief Executive Officer Delbert Bland and was using the remaining time to gather quotes from the migrants.
Delbert's daddy Ray had other ideas.
He fishtailed his pickup to a halt beside me in cloud of dust and leveled a double-barreled shotgun through the driver's side door. The holes at the end of the weapon looked huge. The knot of migrants around me evaporated.
Ray didn't identify himself. He shouted "who the hell are you," insisted I get in, and then drove meto his son's office. He then marched me past the startled Southern ladies in the call center - shotgun still cradled in his arms. No on bothered to call 911.
Bland Farms, which now accounts for a third of all Vidalia Onion production, had just been fined nearly $600,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor for assorted labor violations. Inside the office, Delbert asked me what the hell was going on. I said that's exactly what I wanted to know.
"Are you going to tell me you didn't know anything about that?" Delbert asked, slamming the latest copy of the Savannah Morning News down on his desk in front of me. It was open to the editorial page.
Staring up at me was a powerful editorial and cartoon (right) depicting the Vidalia onion industry's exploitation of migrant workers.
The various newsroom departments don't always communicate as they should and the wonderful, albeit poorly timed, editorial spread was as big a surprise to me as it was to the Blands.
I remember thinking "this is friggin great," while actually saying "this is terrible – this is exactly why you need to sit down with me and get your side of the story out there."
I landed that story.
All of which brings us back to Chelsea Clinton.
What entitles her to avoid paying the same kind of dues that those of us in the 99% have shouldered to claw our way into this godforsaken industry? I'm willing to bet the bank I'd beat her 99 times out of 100 if we ever went head-to-head on a competitive beat. The one is for mummy and daddy's friends.
Chelsea has already had every possible advantage. Why does she merit even more?
Is it because of her lifelong commitment to journalism? No. Chelsea had never been a journalist and never exhibited any professional interest in the field until she decided to pursue a career in the family business - elected politics. She's notorious for refusing to answer reporter's questions, even those about her new reporting job.
If I could ask her a single question it would be "what in the world makes you think you are so much better than me and the middle class people like me in journalism? We've fought hard for the little we have, devoted ourselves to public service without the benefit of inherited wealth, paid our dues and made personal sacrifices to be in this field.
We've risked our lives to get stories and in some cases we've lost them.
What have you ever done, besides be born?"
Sorry, playing dress-up at pricey charity balls doesn't count in my book. Neither does running the family charity.
Like her mom, Chelsea doesn't need to pay her dues at the local level in elected politics. She's big-time.
Mom started right out as a U.S. Senator and Chelsea is probably going to start right out as a U.S. Representative, most likely by being appointed to someone's unfinished term. She won't have to serve on any school boards or development boards to win her place on the pay-to-play gravy train.
Chelsea has been a professional student most of her adult life. She's neither been a journalist nor a journalism student. She attended an exclusive private prep school, just like all the silver spoons in this story. Apparently, the public school system her fancy parents cobbled together for the rest of us wasn't good enough for their own offspring.
Chelsea pursued her undergraduate education at the very expensive and very prestigious Stanford University. She went on to earn master's degrees from the very expensive and prestigious University College, Oxford, and from the very prestigious and very expensive Columbia University. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the very prestigious and very expensive New York University.
Yet somehow, I don't see her struggling to repay any student loans. By contrast, I spent 14 years eating lunch at Sam's Club a couple times a week - where you could buy a quarter-pound hotdog and soda for $1.30 in 1992. They're 20 cents more today. I regularly ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles for dinner as I paid off my college loans.
Then again, "I ain't no senator's son" to quote the song. I ain't no president's daughter either.
Chelsea's supposed to be somehow deserving of this gig because she's better than me? I don't think so. In fact, I don't think she could walk a day in my shoes or those of any working journalist who has paid their dues.
Spin the time machine clock to Sept. 6, 2005.
Ray Couture and I are standing inside the muddy lobby of St. Rita's Nursing Home, in hard-hit Chalmette, La.. We'd found the corpses of 15 elderly Americans in various states of decay. The final count was 35. The missing bodies were under the floodwaters all around the home. One corpse was found hanging in a tree several weeks later.
It was a horrendous experience. The worst bodies looked like they'd been carved from butter after floating in the floodwaters for eight summer days. Some still had catheters hanging out of them.
It took us an hour to perform the room-to-room search in the dark and flooded facility. The wooden doors had expanded in their jambs and we had to shoulder them open without slipping and falling into the stew of decomposing tissue, feces and swamp mud that covered the floor. Yellow streams emanated from the bodies - a characteristic I would later learn is typical of decomposing fat.
Ray and I were in the lobby, where a few beams of sunlight illuminated the brown high water mark all around the big room. An indignant voice broke the silence.
"This ain't right," the voice said, dripping venom. "These guys never had a fucking chance and that ain't right."
Ray was staring back at me in slack-jawed amazement when I suddenly realized the outraged voice was my own. The "me" I keep penned up inside. The "me" that isn't a detached, professional observer of the human condition. The real "me" who has opinions and knows each corpse inside St. Rita's was someone's grandmother or grandfather.
I landed that story.
The same "me" knows that leadership is done by example and that elites are expected to get down in the muck with the rest of us when there's hard work to be done. Chelsea Clinton and her fellow silver spoons haven't done that.
We work hard in the beleaguered middle class, without benefit of the huge financial safety nets that the Bush and Clinton clans have created for themselves. If the silver spoons can't suffer along with the rest of us during these difficult times, they're not fit to lead.
We're suffering through the worst economic climate for wage-earners since The Great Depression and we deserve to be led by someone like ourselves. A self-made man or woman.
Someone who knows what it means to get screwed over for doing the right thing. Someone who knows what it's like to go to bed hungry, patch up their own wounds, and slog through this American life without a financial or political safety net.
That's the essence of true representative government.
Sorry Chelsea, you and your fellow silver spoons are not ready to lead me and hardworking Americans like me. In fact, you're not a patch on us.
If we ever create a "House of Lords" to represent America's political aristocracy, like the one they have in merry old England, you've got my vote. I think you'd be perfect for that.
Until then, leave me and those like me alone. If we wanted to be ruled by a hereditary ruler through an entrenched political machine, we'd move to North Korea.
If you want to do something for journalism, make like your fellow political silver spoons Al Gore and Tucker Carlson and create a news organization. At least that way you'd be creating some news jobs, instead of taking one of the few that remain. A job that you have not earned.
Once you do that you can take whatever title you like. Call yourself publisher. Yell at reporters. Whatever.
Just try to remember to act like we count for something. In return, we'll pretend to be impressed.