Before the royal wedding, the British press was buzzing about a speckled jelly bean with Kate Middleton’s face on it.
ABC News reported the story. National Public Radio reported it by making fun of it. Pictures of it were all over the Internet.
By the time William and Kate were enjoying their honeymoon in the Seychelles Islands, a Google search of “Kate Middleton Jelly Bean” found about 1,340,000 results in 0.31 seconds.
It would have been the nadir of journalism as we know it, except for Anthony Weiner.
* * *
I was thinking about journalism a few months ago at the funeral of a great man.
His name was Elbert “Al” Moulton, and his work was in the political sphere. But he never ran for office. He always worked behind the scenes, playing a major role in cleaning up Vermont’s roads and rivers, protecting the environment, and creating an industry that today employs thousands of Vermonters. It’s quite an achievement.
When I started reporting, he was one of the many people my paper covered.
Then, long after he retired, I pitched a story about him to the editor of the magazine I write for. And then I showed up on his doorstep to write his life’s story.
He welcomed me into his home and his life. He shared the story of his accomplishments, which was also the history of Vermont in the latter part of 20th century. He spoke about the many people he worked for and with. He honored their contributions.
We never talked about his family or his belief in God, and I’m sad to say we never shared a good bottle of wine. These are the part of his life I learned about at the funeral. But I wrote his story, and my magazine put his picture on the cover.
And people who had forgotten about him started calling and writing to him.
I made him a very happy man, he told me later. My story let him know that his work was not forgotten. It was my privilege and my honor, I wish I had told him back.
Telling people’s stories is my job. I didn’t realize until I was sitting in that church, honoring him not as a member of his family or as a colleague, but as a representative of the great state that he helped to build, how blessed I had been to know him personally.
* * *
When I became a journalist in the late 1980s, it was with a muckraker’s heart and a survivor’s eye.
“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” was the journalistic motto I embroidered on my banner as I went into battle against the forces of... what? Of evil? In Brattleboro, Vermont?
What was I thinking?
I learned that I excelled at finding subtle new events that altered the patterns of everyday life.
But I resented breaking news. Too obvious.
Since most journalists live for fires and murders, this resentment turned out to be a good thing. True, I covered my share, and I loved the adrenaline rush as much as the next person.
But I loved other things more, and I was no competition for the folks who cared so much they slept by the police scanner.
Through conflict, praise, and pain — plenty of pain — I learned a thing or two about being a public person. I made friends and enemies. Some people would look for my byline simply because they liked my style, even if it was a dull story about a school board.
Some people thought I was the devil incarnate.
Some people thought I was ruining their lives — or their business plans — but they couldn’t understand how I could do that with facts. One person (metaphorically) knifed me in the back so hard that I still bear the scars.
But most people loved the fact that I kept sticking my neck out and taking the guff that followed. Being rebuked and scorned in the letters section of the newspaper made me famous, and being famous meant that more people were reading what I wrote.
And having readers is almost all a writer can ask for. (The other things are a large advance and a good retirement package. Lately, the way things have been going in the newspaper business, it’s enough to have a job.)
* * *
Funerals are a good place to indulge in retrospection. I realized that, after doing freelance journalism for more than 20 years, I seem to have specialized.
I believe that all reporters gravitate toward the stories that most resonate with them personally. The truth is that those who can, do. Those who can’t, write about it. (Ask Ernest Hemingway — but not Dashiell Hammett.)
Most of us journalists were nerdy kids in high school, outsiders who, if we weren’t picked on, felt as though we were. Very few reporters have an old high school letterman’s sweater tucked away in the back of their closets.
Therefore, we tend to write a lot of victim stories. The rape victim who stood up for herself. The guy who lost all his belongings in a fire. The farmer who had to sell the old John Deere. The African-American kid in the mostly white high school who spoke out about unspoken racism in the hallways.
Now, my victim credentials are as good as the next person’s, but I don’t like victim stories. I like the rise-above-it stories, stories about men and women who accomplish things — they write a great piece of music, perform in a great play, make the world a somehow better, or at least more interesting, place. I like to write about other people’s achievements.
So I write about artists — musicians, painters, sculptors, chefs, dancers, actors, and the rest of them. I write about entrepreneurs, people who have a crazy idea and create a company that gives people jobs. I write especially about Vermont entrepreneurs who seem able to add a layer of social responsibility over their drive for profit.
And out of the many in-depth profiles I have written, I haven’t met more than one or two people I truly dislike.
I also write about politicians — not the wicked, stupid, venal ones, of which there is always a plentiful supply. I write about the ones who are trying to make the world a little bit better, or at least more rational.
Which is why I write about people like Al Moulton.
* * *
Here’s a confession: Sometimes, my ego blinds me. Sometimes, I think people should be writing about me, instead of me writing about them. And then I snap out of it and realize that it is my great privilege to go into the lives of extraordinary people and tell their stories to the world.
We are all busy trying to survive. Even in this age of instant accessibility on the Internet, we can’t all go to every press conference and art exhibit and theater opening and concert. We can’t all go into a boardroom and ask personal questions of the CEO. We can’t all follow the president or the governor around, and see what he really does during his day.
But we’re all curious, aren’t we?
Driven by curiosity, the journalist goes out into the world of his or her expertise and observes it closely, analyzes it carefully, and writes about it clearly. That’s what good journalists do.
We are driven to tell you what is happening in your world. Many journalists have risked their lives in war zones doing so. Many have died. Some are dying while you are reading this column.
We stand in for you, the public. We are your eyes and ears and nose. (Yes, sometimes things smell, they really do.) We tell you about the great men and women of the world, and about the liars, thieves and murderers, too.
It is an honor to do this job. Journalists have a responsibility to do it well.
Jelly beans, my ass.