Everything goes to hell. It warms a curmudgeon’s heart. I remember when, as God intended, reporters were bright and profane drunks with no respect for anything. This philosophical end-point was natural for men steeped daily in the lying, thieving, corruption, bribes, shysterism, misery, and unrelenting stupidity that are public life. Ashen-souled, cynical, with a wonderful acerbic sense of humor that would have dissolved a meat axe, they lacked illusions, about anything. If a reporter thought he saw glimmerings of human decency in a politician or a lawyer, he would have his eyes checked.
News weasels were rough-edged, often talented, splendid company and, usually, ugly. Mencken, who looked like a fire plug with leprosy, was the archetype, combing all of these wis;oyord in profusion, plus a monumental capacity for good whiskey.
By and large they were men of what might be called a robust character, of the sort associated with pit bulls, and sometimes were more combative than quieter people would like. You can’t be diplomatic or spiritual or contemplative or anything of that sort and get a story from someone who doesn’t want you to get it because he is thinking of jail time. It is especially in competition with a snapping pack of dyspeptic scriveners trying to get the same story first. When assembled in hordes, they resembled Mongol barbarians thundering across the steppes. See below.
Some, especially overseas, had odd pasts. There was my friend Paul Vogel of UPI Saigon who, the legend held had been in a catholic seminary somewhere but disappeared over the horizon on a motorcycle with a bottle of gin in one hand and somehow ended up in Hanoi teaching English before joining up with UPI. Most of this has to be apocryphal, such as driving a motorcycle with one hand, but probably no stranger than the truth, whatever that was. Paul spoke several dialects of Vietnamese so well that on the phone he was accepted as native. This is impossible, but I saw it. Anyway we spent afternoons in his apartment above UPI drinking bam de bam and swapping lies.
In Washington you found a more polished sort who were gentlemen or could be if needed–Mike Causey, Wes Pruden, Ralph Hallow– but savvy and smart and of the Pre-Princetonian era. It was only later that we got prissy delicates who probably drank designer water in fern bars instead of sour mash.
Anyway, what brought these reflections on was my stumbling across the following from a previous life. Think of them as being like the Qum Ran Scrolls or something from a cave wall in Lascaux:
The Washington Times, 1982
Bouncing across southern Lebanon is a convoy of 125 reporters, photographers, and TV crazies in 25 rented Subarus, the assembled war corespondents of the western world. Somehow I don’t think this is how Ernie Pyle did it. We look like a traffic jam in Tokyo. Photographers dangle acrobatically from windows. Three TV cameras protrude like poorly thought-out plumbing from the car ahead, intently filming a wrecked jeep. A Brazilian TV crew has crawled onto the roof of its car. Arabs stare, deeply puzzled. They have seen any number of armies roaring about, but nothing so quintessentially mad as this.
For six days I have been living in hotels on Israeli borders with this horde. It is like living in a cageful of histrionic tarantulas. Nowhere but in a war zone have I seen such bellicose, courageous, rude, egotistical, preposterously masculine, faintly reptilian rogues, all working hard at being Marlboro Men. A fellow with a codpiece concession could coin money. Heaven knows what the Arabs would think of that.
We pull into Nabatieh, a village. The Israeli escorts eye the anarchic bull-headed mob like snappish sheep dogs. They know that everybody here wants to escape and get his Subaru blown out from under him at the front. A war correspondent feels slighted by fate if he is not almost blown up every day or two. To a large degree, they believe they are the actors in this scene, the armies being mere props. They look forward to sitting in dark foreign bars in the manner of Hemingway at his most excessive and saying, “Yes, bit of a tiff in ’82, got my bloody Subaru shot out from under me, ought to bullet-proof the things….happens, you know.”
Some Palestinian prisoners are on display for us in a courtyard, so that we can see how beneficently the Israelis treat their captives. The journalists alight in a pack and race toward the alarmed prisoners. The TV guys jog along in pairs, one carrying the camera and the other with a suitcase full of batteries or something. Waving their microphones like the tendrils of some underwater beast, balancing cameras on high so see over those in front, they shout incomprehensible questions at the bewildered Palestinians.
The numerical superiority of the press and its lamentable assertiveness combine, as usual, to dominate the scene. One hundred twenty-five irritated reporters–“Hey, hey, outa the way, buddy, I got pictures to take. Hey you….” engulf and then digest a dozen Christian militiamen on a pair of armored personnel carriers. Nabatieh is now a Press Event. The public will never see this absurd performance, however. Every photographer will carefully frame out the other newsmen, giving the salable impression that he alone was out there in no man’s land.
Bored, I stand with some other reporters next to an Israeli jeep. A framed picture of Yasser Arafat is tied to the bumper. I grin, knowing a GI gag when I see one, but a camera crew begins jogging toward us with its suitcase. The TV types have detected A Visual in ol’ Arafat. The Israeli frantically snatches the picture away: If that goes on the satellite to 500 million viewers, right above the license plate of his jeep, he will have a central position before a firing squad.
The reporters are grousing about the TV clowns and how they don’t know what news is and how they’re always in the way. This is true. Of the major ethnic groups of the news racket, TV types are the most truly pestilential-comparatively. They carry more electronics than the space shuttle, all wired together with their microphones. They need absolute quiet, nobody else in the picture, a lot of time to set up and a long time to shoot. Reporters usually think TV people should be chained in their hotels during a war, and also between wars. This is wisdom.
Finally the Subaru Bureau remounts and heads home. For any other class of people, driving out of a small town would be done in comity and safety. But no. Everybody jumps in his car as if beginning a Grand Prix, backs fiercely into the crowd and spins the tires viciously trying to be first in the convoy. The idea is to be first to the telephones on reaching the hotel. For this they are perfectly willing to run down seven or eight colleagues and a few slow Arabs, and bash into an armored personnel carrier.
Again we bump across southern Lebanon, cameras protruding, Arabs puzzling, a Japanese used-car lot on the move.