Writing a weekly newspaper column is not easy. I’m not talking about putting words on a computer screen and flashing it across town to my editor. No, that’s usually the simple part. The hard part is deciding what to write and how to write it.
Over the nearly five years that I have been doing this column for City Paper, a number of people have brought me tips, and that’s good. Some of my best stories have come from just such sources. The problem is that sometimes people come to me with stories they cannot prove — that probably nobody could prove. That’s not to say that they are untrue. It’s just to say that, as a journalist, I need proof.
In this business there is an old expression: “Shit is buried everywhere!” If you understand anything about human nature, about politics, about economics, you understand that power corrupts and it seeks to hide the evidence of its corruption.
I recently had an anonymous gentleman call me at my apartment (I don’t know how he got my number) to give me a shocking story of racial discrimination in hiring and promotion by a major downtown employer. I have no reason to doubt that he was telling me the truth. He certainly went to some trouble to find my number and call.
But when I asked him what evidence he had to support these charges, he came up short. He had no documentary evidence, he said. I asked if somebody would be willing to go on record describing what they knew about employment practices in this business. Again, he was doubtful. Nobody would be willing to speak up, because it would mean losing their job. That was a price none could afford to pay for justice.
Okay, without any documentation or personal statement, what could he give me to work with? He suggested that I should sort of saunter into the front office of this business and announce that I was working on a little feature story, and when I had lulled my subject into witless complicity, I would start asking questions about discrimination in hiring and promotion. Nothing to it! Just like in the movies. Or maybe he would have me put on a delivery uniform and bring a pizza to the front door and while they were trying to figure out who ordered it and who would pay for it, I could slip into the back room and go through their personnel files, starting with “Discriminatory Practices.” Isn’t that how they used to do it on Mission Impossible?
Perhaps this sounds like I am ridiculing the fellow who called that afternoon. That is not my intention. But there is a lot of misconception out there about what a journalist does and how he does it. Let me say now that journalists have no magic tricks. We cannot see through walls or file cabinets; we cannot make uncooperative subjects suddenly start telling everything they know. We are mortals and citizens — just like you. We have the state and federal Freedom of Information Act — just like you. We have access to libraries and periodicals — just like you. We have a curious mind and an outraged conscience — just like you should have when you see injustice and corruption.
But before you pick up the phone and make that call to a newspaper or broadcast journalist, ask yourself: What concrete information can I offer and what am I willing to risk to get this story told. If the answer is “nada,” then chances are the journalist will say, “Have a nice day,” and that will be the end of it. Journalists love to break stories, but we hate to chase wild geese. And, god knows, we have plenty of other stuff to work on.
The story of the Watergate investigation has inspired journalists for more than 30 years. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein kept digging and digging, long after the other media had given up on the story. With the publication of All the President’s Men, their account of the investigation, it was revealed that they had a secret weapon — a source in the Nixon Administration who was willing to meet with Woodward in a parking garage in the dead of night and give him critical clues. They also had the support of The Washington Post, one of the largest, wealthiest newspapers in the country, which was willing to support their investigation for months, often with little to show for it. That is a luxury very few journalists have.
So please remember: If you want your story told, make it easy on us. We are not magicians. We are just gumshoe journalists trying to do our job.