I was one day into a new job at a medium-sized paper in the Midwest when one of my colleagues began peppering me with unsolicited advice at the company picnic. I asked her how long she’d been at the paper.
“Are you asking me how old I am,” she responded testily.
“No,” I said. “If I wanted to know how old you were I’d say something like ‘how-old-are-you.’ “
“Oh,” she said. “OK.”
Cue head shaking, from side to side.
It turned out my new colleague had been at the paper all of two months. She had a year in the field, but had somehow reached the erroneous conclusion she was senior to me even though I had been reporting for a decade and had a wall full of awards. I responded by letting my writing do the talking, breaking one big story after another.
It was a formula for conflict that plagued me as long as I remained at this paper. My modestly talented colleague seemed to view each big story as a personal slight and a challenge to her view of the team seniority list.
We’ve all run into unhinged colleagues like this.
They’re the reporters who can’t wait to be a victim of something, are always willing to claim more than their fair share of any success, and build their careers around making insecure managers feel good about themselves. They’re the editors who only manage up, never paid their dues, and view subordinates as a captive audience for their sexual advances.
In short, they’re toxic colleagues. They’re the team chemistry killers who undermine productivity and make life suck for the rest of us by transforming the inherently stressful newsroom into a battlefield.
I was reminded of them this morning while reading a story about toxic colleagues in the mainstream media, which had almost no application to journalism. In fact, two of its negative character types are endemic to the news industry – the big mouth and the narcissist. Professional journalists are almost uniformly outspoken in comparison to the general public and every good columnist I’ve ever met is a little bit of a narcissist.
Journalism is full of eccentric behavior like this, most of which never sees the light of day outside the newsroom. Journalism’s dirty little secret is that for all our high and mighty coverage of workplace injuries, discrimination and sexual harrassment in other industries, there’s almost no critical coverage of our own sins.
As any decent cop reporter knows, police corruption and misconduct flourishes in the absence of scrutiny. That’s why it’s so critical that law enforcement officers police their own and why the tell-tale sign of a dirty police force is almost always a neutered internal affairs department.
However, every reporter who has ever tried to police their own in the news industry has found themselves looking for a new job quick, fast and in a hurry. We don’t just ignore newsroom misconduct in journalism, we dress it up in cashmere sweaters and rub our dirty little faces in it.
So, I decided to write a version of the toxic colleagues story just for the silent majority of scribes who try to do the right thing in the vanishing United States news industry. Some of the behavior detailed in this column is more quirky than toxic. That said, no one is spared. Not even me.
1) The Journalism Messiah
These kids are fresh out of college and don’t know very much about journalism yet, but are convinced they’re the next Woodward and Bernstein. All they ask is that the rest of us get out of the way and give them the best jobs.
Journalism Messiah syndrome is a common affliction among former college newspaper editors. I was one of them once upon a time and I’m sure I was very irritating.
The antidote is to demand a lot from them, work them hard, and give them every crappy assignment that comes along. You can’t be nice to them until after they begin to wear down or they’ll just view it as a sign of weakness and old age.
2) The Source Stealer
These are weak reporters who are new to a beat and ask for help with sources, then bite the hand that feeds them by stealing or over-using their colleagues’ best contacts.
Some will simply stop once you bring the problem to their attention. Some won’t. All you can do is avoid the latter once they show their true colors.
3) The Fake Tough Guy
These gutless reporters pose as crusading investigative journalists by being aggressive with newsmakers who don’t fight back.
I had a colleague who did this years ago with billionaire Wayne Huizenga, because he knew Huizenga’s PR strategy was to ignore negative press. Every time Huizenga sold a share of stock in one of his companies, this guy would cry bloody murder in print about insider trading and make like he’d just discovered who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.
The point isn’t that Huizenga is a great guy, but that you actually have to catch him in misconduct. You can’t just act like you did.
4) The Fluffer
A fluffer is someone who angles for a PR job by writing for their sources instead of their readers. The resulting articles are derisively known as “blowjob stories” within the news industry.
This category always reminds me of a former education reporter who was fired in one of my newsrooms for passing stories to the school board public relations director for pre-publication approval. For those of you who don’t know much about journalism, the school board is the primary government agency an education reporter is supposed to be scrutinizing. It’s not just a conflict of interest to pass them drafts of your stories for approval – it’s also terminally stupid.
The fired scribe was immediately hired by the school board.
5) The Bully
Newsroom bullies are usually weak managers who have never received any leadership training and always have to have a whipping boy or girl. They don’t realize the rest of us relate more to their victims than to them and think “there but for the grace of god go I.”
Bullies are worthless and one of the most destructive of toxic colleagues. All you can do is hope their scapegoat doesn’t quit, because the departure of one victim just creates another by pushing someone new into the crosshairs.
I worked for one guy who turned over every reporter in a news bureau in just three years before upper managment finally figured it out. He was a great guy outside the office – mad with power inside it.
The only time a bully is nice to anyone is when they’re trying to prove they’re not a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth, yearning to tear every subordinate’s professional throat out.
It’s always a pleasant surprise when they act nice, but that doesn’t mean they like you. It’s simply a tactic bullies employ while they’re ruining someone to keep upper management and HR from realizing they’ve turned a sadist loose in a position of power.
In a union shop, a bully can also be a “Grazer” (see No. 24) who uses their seniority to level the playing field with younger, harder working and more talented reporters by making life hard for them.
The best way to handle a bully is for everyone in a newsroom to discreetly support the colleague being scapegoated in ways both large and small. You’re not just propping up this oppressed colleague because it’s the right thing to do. You’re also doing so out of self preservation, because you could be next if they quit.
6) A Dog Named Lucky (DNL)
Some closeted gay and lesbian colleagues are still struggling with the idea that no one cares who they sleep with after decades of discrimination. I don’t know about you, but nothing aggravates me so much as someone who erroneously assumes they must conceal a same-sex lifestyle because their colleagues are neanderthals.
I had a colleague like this who used to say “baby” when he was on the phone at work with his partner, instead of using the man’s name. This went on several times a day for years. It was inherently disrespectful both to those of us in the same cubicle farm being treated like Neanderthals and to the boyfriend, who had a name.
This DNL was the only person in the newsroom who thought he was passing for straight and the only one who cared. I always wanted to tell him “just because I have a Bronx accent doesn’t mean I’m a bigot.”
In fact, I was raised in a showbiz home where my opera-singing stepmother gave voice lessons to Broadway performers every damn day of the week as secretary of The New York Singing Teachers Assoc. All of which means I had gay “uncles” cooking for me and playing Dungeons & Dragons with me from the age of 13.
They didn’t ask me to be gay and I didn’t ask them to be straight.
I’m not the pee-pee police and I’ve never met a single journalist who was. Anywhere.
Fortunately for us all, the world has changed for the better with regard to lifestyle rights.
If you care enough about someone to share your life with them you should have the guts to call them by their right name and insist the rest of the world treat them with respect. If you can’t do that, then hey, grow old alone.
7) Silver Spoons
This is basically every well-connected rich kid who has decided to make a career in journalism without paying the dues the rest of us must shoulder. They believe they are entitled to the best jobs based solely on their membership in The Lucky Sperm Club.
As the number of news jobs shrinks, the entitled behavior of the silver spoons becomes more problematic because it leaves fewer decent jobs for the rest of us to mature into. Some journalists wind up waiting and hoping for a news job that pays enough to raise a family until it’s too late, partly because the field never shrinks for the silver spoons and shared suffering is not part of their vocabulary.
If I tried to count every journalism leader that flouted their own nepotism rules by employing their relatives as interns, staffers or managers I’d run out of fingers and toes pretty darn quick. So much for leadership by example.
8) The Sex Trader
This group ranges from attractive reporters who seek to manipulate socially-awkward editors to predatory supervisors who try to trade favors with subordinates for some play. They’re not hard to spot, because they rarely have the sense to conceal their actions.
In fact, the biggest nerds seem to take the most pride in flaunting these inappropriate relationships. They don’t realize that the message they’re sending out to those of us who don’t have a problem getting laid is that they do.
In my experience, Sex Traders are the most common toxic colleague in the industry. They also do the most damage to a news team simply by changing the terms by which reporters are judged from journalism excellence to fawning promiscuity.
I remember one older, influential, male editor who approached our publication’s table of 12 at a charity event and warmly and meticulously hugged every young female reporter there, while completely ignoring the male reporters and older females.
This kind of crass behavior is not confined solely to older managers. I’ve worked at two papers where young single reporters created friction by treating the newsroom like a meat market.
The first was a copy editor at a small Florida daily who simultaneously dated both of her nerdy colleagues on a three-person copy desk with predictable results. It was surreal to watch the guys, who had been close friends, try to do their jobs without talking to one another.
The second instance involved a reporter who dated at least five newsroom colleagues at different times at our mid-sized Florida daily. She approached me shortly after my hiring – allegedly for career advice – just hours after a screaming spat with her photo editor/ex in the middle of the newsroom.
I couldn’t help myself, I told her the truth, reporter-to-reporter: “I think you should start dating people outside the newsroom.”
The only way to protect yourself from a Sex Trader is to determine who they’re screwing around with and treat both members of the couple as a single powerful entity. If the Sex Trader is dating more than one colleague you should be even more wary of the resulting clique.
The easiest way to avoid being a Sex Trader is to confine your dating to the 99.9 percent of the population that is not employed in the news field. Unless you can’t get laid any other way or don’t have the talent to make it solely on your journalism skills, in which case you may as well hang a sign around your neck that says exactly that.
They can’t write their way out of a paper bag but are determined to secure an undeserved supervisory position by consuming their peers.
I know two zombies who managed to become mid-level editors in charge of reporters without ever being a reporter themselves. That’s like winning a gold medal in the Zombie Olympics.
They have four telltale signs:
- Zombies either have never been a reporter or can’t wait to stop being a reporter, which is odd because it’s a helluva lot of fun if you’re any good at it.
- Zombies never own up to being wrong about anything.
- Zombies never admit they don’t know something.
- Zombies possess an insatiable desire to lead a National Writers Workshop panel, which is strangely at odds with the speed with which they left reporting.
You know those reality TV shows where they have to remove a wall before a greviously obese person can be removed from their bedroom? Well, those people don’t have anything on a good, old-fashioned, newsroom hoarder when it comes to obsessive compulsive behavior.
The funny thing about our hoarders is that they have it all – from annual reports for defunct corporations to the minutes of the Dec. 15, 1966 meeting of the local school board to the 1956 childhood shoplifting arrest of some former sheriff who has been dead for 20 years. The problem is they can’t find any of it in their piles in the abbreviated time span we must navigate to make deadline.
Hoarders regularly miss deadline and just as regularly turn in stories that look like they only spent 10 minutes working on them. There’s a good reason for that: they typically spent the day searching fruitlessly through their piles of fool’s gold for some tangential document.
A newsroom hoarder’s head is barely visible above the stacks of documents on their desk, beside their desk and on top of any horizontal surface within reach. Their documents are piled so high they look like furniture.
Hoarders can’t bear the thought of throwing any document away, out of fear they may need it again someday.
However, the really odd stuff is what you don’t see. That’s because the worst hoarders try to hide vestiges of their obsessive compulsive behavior.
The easiest way to tell if you really have a serious hoarder on your hands is to inspect the drawers under the printers and copiers, the desk drawers that once belonged to downsized colleagues, and the office’s unclaimed filing cabinet drawers. If they’re full of uncategorized documents that means you have a person on staff with a serious problem.
The best way to help your local Hoarder is a friendly bonfire. Think of it as a journalism intervention and be prepared for tears.
Folks who shift their work to colleagues every chance they get, but shamelessly demand the shared byline anyway.
12) Jayson Blairs
These are reporters who constantly attribute routine information to phantom, unnamed sources either because they won’t put the work in to get it the right way or can’t. Think former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair.
These toxic colleagues have a free pass to terrorize the rest of us, regardless of their place in the corporate chain of command, by virtue of being related to a powerful news mogul or having some dirt on a sex-trading boss. The best way to deal with them is avoidance.
The modern newsroom doesn’t have any booze, but there’s a lot of free food and these folks can’t get enough of it. They’re not really toxic colleagues so much as comical, and they tend to build newsroom chemistry rather than undermine it.
Chowhounds line up outside the catered meetings with big newsmakers that occur at most news organizations, waiting for the handshaking to end so they can pilfer what’s left of the buffet.
My fellow chowhounds and I had an internal email list in one newsroom, which existed solely to share intelligence about catered meetings. Here’s a typical message:
“They’re meeting with an OPEC minister and they’ve got prime rib and some kind of pasta dish. Jim is in there and he just texted me to say they ordered way too much and are about to wrap.”
The OPEC minister was impressed by the line of reporters waiting respectfully for him outside the meeting room that day and proudly exchanged becks, smiles and handshakes with us as his entourage made its way to the elevators. Cue fixed look on the face of the bureau chief escorting them.
The moment they turned the corner we were cleaning the place out.
Because while there may not be a “free lunch” in normal life, every so often there is a pretty good one in journalism.
Given the lousy pay and benefits even the best reporters are receiving these days, we need every free meal we can scrounge.
15) Drama Queens
They make everything look hard, whether they’re struggling to make deadline or simply trying to buy something online. Drama Queens stomp around the newsroom pouting and shouting because it makes them feel important and gives their lives added meaning.
In their mind it is literally them against the world. They’re fighting the good fight against societal decay, even if it only involves the decline of bathroom toilet paper from twin-ply to single-ply.
The hardest thing to understand about Drama Queens is that they will never exhibit any gratitude for your help. In their mind, the rest of us are supposed to support them – it’s their due as crusaders battling all that’s wrong in the world.
You also need to understand that the life of a Drama Queen has no meaning without a crisis. Despite all their rhetoric, they really don’t want their problems solved, because that entails finding all new problems to bitch and moan about.
Happiness is difficult for them.
16) Mel Gibsons
They hold a bible study class in the cafeteria every Friday morning at 8 a.m. and all the big editors are there. They’d like you to attend and consider accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or becoming a Hasidic Jew, or joining Al Quaeda.
“What do you say,” they ask. “We’re serving free pizza?”
This group consists of news bosses who are so full of themselves they will compromise a reporter’s reputation by actually putting stuff on the record that was meant to be off the record – or by achieving the same thing through implication and innuendo. They toss around the names of anonymous sources during casual conversations with their spouses and friends at the local Chili’s, then wonder why reporters stop trusting them with confidential information.
18) Bobblehead Dolls
These are physically attractive opportunists who build their journalism careers on the objectification of their bodies, instead of mastering the fundamentals of newsgathering and increasing their intellectual knowledge. They have absolutely no moral compass beyond boosting ratings by any means necessary.
There’s seemingly nothing a Bobblehead doll won’t do to advance themselves. And that’s also the biggest indictment of them in a field where true ethics are now based almost entirely on what a good journalist is unwilling to do.
Think sportscaster Ines Sainz (right) and her sexy news uniform. I realize New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman dresses like this all the time, but the economic sage rarely moves his press pass from chest to hip to give sources a better view.
Clearly, Ines is someone who wants to be taken seriously – as what, I do not know. She could be the next Walter Cronkite if a network ever finds a way to combine news and pornography.
The nice thing about Bobbleheads is that they go away as soon as their looks fade, because they’re so busy tanning and working out they rarely have any time left to learn anything. The bad news is that there is always another one in the wings.
These are typically male journalists who keep a watchful eye out for any attractive female in the newsroom and then direct a copulatory stare at them. They look just like Meerkats when three or four of them simultaneously engage in exactly the same leering behavior in a cubicle farm.
This toxic colleague is the bane of young journalists everywhere, because editors love to put experienced reporters on big stories that occur on a cub reporter’s beat.
It’s also common for star reporters to use their access to top editors to “bigfoot” younger peers by actively poaching the best stories on their beats. This common practice is inherently unfair to talented young reporters seeking an opportunity to distinguish themselves, because 99 percent of their assignments are routine. In other words, they don’t get that many big stories to begin with.
There was a collective groan from every cop reporter at The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1993 when an Amtrak train hit a gasoline tanker and the front-page story was given to two star reporters instead of the cop reporters who regularly cover murders, rapes and car accidents.
The flipside of bigfooting is that it’s almost impossible to avoid being party to the practice as a senior reporter. No one turns down a plum assignment from a top editor. First, because editors are notoriously short-tempered. Second, because almost all of us have been on the losing end of a bigfoot in the past – with the exception of the silver spoons.
Still, there’s a world of difference between accepting a plum assignment with a smile and yielding to the temptation to poach a big story from a colleague’s beat behind their back. The latter is a sin and you’re going to hell for sure if you’ve done it.
On the plus side, you will have plenty of company. I suspect I might see you there. Remember to dress light, cause it’s going to be hot.
21) Smiling Bobs
Contrary to the photo at right, Smiling Bobs are not happy campers. They have a problem and that problem is young reporters. Nothing pisses them off as much as a free-spirited young kid fresh out of college who is having a good time every night after work, while they deal with health issues and stale marriages.
Smiling Bobs make life hell for these kids every chance they get. Instead of showing a cub reporter the right way to do things, they take pleasure in letting a kid screw up and then jump on them with both feet.
The kid’s crime? Usually it’s just being in the prime of their lives and assuming everyone else is as pleased to be a journalist as they are.
Smiling Bobs prefer to see these kids walking around with their proverbial tails between their legs and will tolerate no fun of any kind from anyone younger and better looking than themselves.
Warning: Smiling Bobs and Journalism Messiahs are incompatible with one another and should not be allowed to work together without adult supervision.
These are journalists of convenience who present themselves as reporters, but should really be political activists due to their penchant for omitting information to slant stories to support their own views, like the opportunistic James O’Keefe (below right).
This behavior is completely contrary to two of the core values of journalism: the pursuit of objectivity and the pursuit of transparency.
There’s a common misunderstanding about objectivity, which holds that reporters are not entitled to personal views. Not true.
Reporters are simply expected to pursue the goal of objectivity by balancing their stories and any personal views that might influence their coverage to allow readers to reach their own informed conclusions from even-handed articles. For example, if a liberal husband and a conservative wife have an ongoing debate about legalized abortion, they should be arguing more intelligently after reading a balanced story about the topic over their morning coffee.
When a journalist is not being objective, either because they’re writing a a first-person column like this or championing middle class values on a website like The Cynical Times, they’re supposed to be transparent about it.
Unfortunately, O’Keefe seems to have missed that class.
Radio personality Howard Stern, political pundits Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough, and wingnut prop Michelle Malkin are other examples of O’Keefes. These journalists of convenience routinely wrap themselves in the fourth-estate flag when they’re under attack, but demand to be compensated like entertainers when it’s time to get paid.
It must be nice.
O’Keefe was raised in the affluent community of Westwood, New Jersey, and sidestepped both the burden of obtaining a proper journalism education and paying his dues in the field, by securing a philosophy degree and functioning as a conservative hack. He secretly recorded representatives of groups that didn’t share his political views and then peddled redacted versions of them to conservative media organizations like Fox.
O’Keefe, 27, was arrested in 2010 while allegedly tampering with the phones of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
There’s a myth among non-journalists that this kind of misconduct is epidemic and that most journalists slant their stories toward the Democratic Party. I hate to rock the bullshit boat with painful truths, but this is completely untrue in my experience.
I’ve only worked with three O’Keefes in my 30 years in the news industry. Two leaned Republican and one leaned Dem. I fought them all tooth and nail when they tried to slant my stories. Successfully.
That’s three out of at least 500 colleagues. Economists have a term for that kind of number: “statistically insignificant.”
Sadly, the news world has lost a bit of its ethical mojo with the rise of Fox News to national prominence, under the leadership of fomer Republican media consultant Roger Ailes, and the revelations that British journalists working for Rupert Murdoch routinely hacked into newsmaker cell phones.
23) Johnny Friendly
This modestly talented toxic colleague tries to secure their employment by wrapping themselves in the organized labor flag. I’m not saying every union leader is like this. Quite the contrary.
But all unions and union leaders are not the same. There are good and bad.
Johnny Friendlies are local union reps who are always bad news because they don’t exist to sacrifice themselves to make life better for the rank and file. They exist to feather their own nests and are perfectly willing to toss a fellow journalist under the proverbial bus to increase their individual job security.
These newsroom posers try to create the impression they’re smarter than they really are by wearing bow-ties and applying buzzwords from other industries to journalism, like “holistic.” As in, “it’s more of a holistic approach to earnings coverage.”
Uhuh. Cue eye rolling.
Bow-ties are not content to be judged strictly on the quality of their work because they’re convinced the rest of us are too stupid to appreciate its greatness.
I read a lengthy feature story about the Everglades by one Bow-Tie a few years ago that mentioned seven different types of green. The only one missing was plain old “green.”
I spun my chair around in mid-read and queried, “hey man, what’s the difference between kelly-green and emerald-green anyway,” thinking I might learn something.
There was a long pause.
Turned out Bow-Tie didn’t know. He just thought it sounded erudite, so he threw it in the story.
Bow-Ties are intelligent and educated people who desperately need to be told that they’re intelligent and educated. They simply cannot leave it alone and routinely oversell their stories and themselves.
The Bow Tie’s relative lack of empathy also makes it difficult for them to get sources to open up. It’s hard to get a good quote during an interview when you’re so busy impressing sources that you never let them utter more than few words.
Bow-Ties are death to street interviews. They’re like a balck hole that sucks in words. Everything around them tends to stop talking the moment they open their mouths, which is really a pain in the butt when they’re following you around on a competitive story.
It’s almost as if sources want to retract everything they’ve said as soon as a Bow Tie arrives. That means that if you haven’t already got a name from a source to go with a fabulous quote before a Bow-Tie’s arrival, you can forget about securing one afterward. You may as well throw the reporter’s notepad away.
These are former star reporters who are past their prime, been put out to pasture in undemanding beats, and forgotten how much fun journalism can be when you give a damn.
Grazers are masters of the single-source story, who don’t always realize why they get away with mailing it in every day. They think they’re gaming the system, when they’re really beneficiaries of the system.
Time passes rapidly for Grazers in the absence of big stories. Before they know it 10 years has gone by since they produced something anyone else would want their byline on.
Their cute little cubicle toys are all in disrepair and it’s long past time for some new work clothes, but what’s the point when you’ve only got three more years until retirement?
These lackeys stand for nothing except themselves. Spineless and unprincipled, the manner in which an Igor interacts with their colleagues is determined entirely by the relative juice of the other person within the newsroom hierarchy. Break a big story and these lackeys worship you; piss off a powerful editor and the lackeys pile on.
If a powerful editor comes by your desk to share a funny story, Igor is watching. A minute later he’ll be ambling by to chat-you-up and see if a change is in the wind.
When you’ve got lots of newsroom juice, everything you say is “brilliant” in the eyes of your not so loyal lackey, and everyone you criticize is a “pain in the ass.” But when you’re on the outs with the ruling clique, you’re a pimple on the ass of humanity to them, who shouldn’t even attempt to speak in staff meetings.
Igors are at their most entertaining immediately after you break a big story while in the doghouse, because they don’t know whether to shit or go blind. If a top editor who was mad at you before the story comes by afterward with an “attaboy,” Igor can literally give himself whiplash trying to figure out what’s going on and where to land politically.
The defining quality of this newsroom lackey is that they don’t have any talent – that’s why they’re so afraid. That’s also why it’s so hard for them to understand that talented people don’t have to live the same way as they do – in constant quaking fear. And that an editor who demands a lot from a talented reporter often does so because they think that person is worthy of their interest, criticism and time, whereas Igor is not and doesn’t want to be.
27) The Michael Scott
These are managers who create personality cults, rather than productive workplaces, because of their insatiable appetite for shameless flattery. If you make a Michael Scott feel good about himself, you’re in the trusted inner circle.
Who does it hurt? Talented, hardworking employess who think they work in a meritocracy where their efforts are both noticed and appreciated.
You work for a moron. All you have to do is make them feel good about themselves and you can stop busting your ass.
Of course, once you hit the cruise control it can become a habit. You may never be worth anything again.
28) False Victims
These are folks who won’t stop talking about a group trait over which they have no control that gives them some kind of victim status they wouldn’t otherwise merit as an individual. In essence, they’re profiling themselves.
The news industry has encouraged this behavior by defining its own staffers through group traits in the clumsy, but well meant, quest for newsroom diversity.
By the way, have I mentioned that I’m Jewish, lost a bunch of relatives I never met and didn’t know during the Holocaust, and have a dad who served with distinction during World War II?
All of which means exactly what when it’s time for me to beat the competition like a drum on a story?
In an ideal world, it wouldn’t mean anything. We would be able to promote group diversity without stifling self determination.
I’m all for hiring in such a way that newsrooms represents the communities they cover, but the only qualities that should be relevant to individual story assignment decisions are those reporters control. The criteria should be the individual choices they make, like how hard they’re willing to work for a story and their personal interest in the subject matter. Not the amount of pigmentation in their skin or their preferred name for the invisible dude in the sky.
I would dearly love never to be assigned to the annual Hannukah story again just beause my last name is “Epstein.” Not because I’m a victim, but because I’m a lousy Jew.
I eat shrimp, I like bacon, my wife is Catholic, and I don’t pay much attention to organized religion. I have to call my sister every December just to find out when Hannukah starts.
A non-Jew with a thirst for knowledge about Judaism would be a far better choice for the Hannukah assignment in every way, regardless of their last name, religion or skin color.
This kind of newsroom racial profiling cuts both ways.
For example, I’m dynamite when it comes to covering racism. I beat the hell out of a nine-county area of Southeast Georgia that was rife with institutional bias when I was a cub reporter. Why? Because I was personally commited to the work as a white guy who was raised in the Bronx and attended college in Harlem. I was “all in,” to borrow a poker phrase, and willing to sacrifice my own time and risk my safety to get the stories.
However, as soon as I moved on to bigger employers in major cities where racial assignments were less risky, but carried greater social standing, I encountered both a tremendous increase in the competition for them and a bias against coverage by white journalists.
Dare I say, an institutional bias.
Look folks, we need newsroom diversity, but creating a world where blacks cover black stories and whites cover white stories is both terminally stupid and completely counter to the evolution of a race-neutral world where people are judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin.
I stole that line from the 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech by The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Remember that speech?
I have a hunch that MLK would cover Hannukah better than me if he were a reporter today by virtue of his interest in organized religion, although it’s doubtful he would ever get the opportunity in today’s profiling newsrooms.
But that’s another story.
If you’ve read this far you can probably tell by now why you won’t find “Big Mouth” on this list. Not only am I an unrepentant Big Mouth, but I don’t view it as a negative trait for journalists – any more than it is for guard dogs. Shyness is not a desirable quality in either case.
We get paid to bark as news professionals and, sometimes, to bite. Not to be victims, not to be lazy, not to walk on eggshells, not to ignore injustice, and not to exploit our own like the toxic colleagues described above.
So yes, I’m a Big Mouth. And every so often a small part of the world is better for it.
You also won’t find Narcissist on the list above.
Because writing in the first-person is by its very nature a form of narcissistic behavior. Columnists tend to make everything about themselves.
Cynical Times columnist VJ Epstein (above left) has been getting paid to commit journalism since 1982 as either a reporter or editor. He’s worked just about every newsroom beat with the exception of fashion, and that’s next.