Five days after Pete Hamill started work on his latest book, the Monica Lewinsky affair broke. It proved to be a fitting backdrop for the theme of Hamill's book: the parlous state into which America's newspapers have fallen. Material poorly sourced and sensationally presented has been the order of the day in the Lewinsky story, and Hamill, a veteran columnist and former newspaper editor, lambastes his peers for it.
"Dots were being connected that didn't connect, and gravity was almost totally missing," Hamill writes. "We had reached some turning point in American journalism: The president of the United States was being examined with the tools usually reserved for the likes of Joey Buttafuoco."
In "News is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Century" (Library of Contemporary Thought), Hamill laments the loss of the things that made great newspapering -- checking facts, double-checking sources, actually employing shoe leather rather than waiting for the phone to ring or the computer to boot up in the newsroom.
Last year, Hamill, 62, quit his job as editor in chief of the New York Daily News. He says that the changes he wanted at the paper -- running fewer sensational stories and pouring resources into meatier subjects such as immigration and education -- were met with scorn by a front office more concerned with the bottom line than with serving the public.
Hamill talked to Salon about why he thinks publishers are "swine," his new role as an online columnist and why sleaze doesn't necessarily sell.
In your blurb for Howard Kurtz's new book, "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine," you describe the Washington press corps as "obsessed, self-important, prosecutorial journalists." And you wrote this before the Lewinsky scandal.
The White House press corps is a very narrow part of American journalism. And the self importance is absurd! I mean they should all go cover hockey for a year and get refreshed! They get excited about things that the rest of us don't get excited about.
You mean like some of the minutiae about Lewinsky? The alleged semen-stained dress, the discussion about her love of berets?
Yes, the inflation of the story into this gigantic obsession on the part of the press. Constantly we were being embarrassed by reporters asking questions of Clinton that they knew they would never get answered -- in front of Tony Blair and Arafat! -- knowing it was a game, something directed more towards other reporters or their bosses than towards their readers.
Are reporters more concerned with their own ego than informing the public?
It's hard to generalize. There are some reporters who are serious about what they do and aren't concerned about how much air time they get or whether a certain story is good for their career. But it's been sure hard to find them covering the Lewinsky story.
Who and what specifically has been wrong in their coverage of the story?
I thought the Washington Post was awful the first couple of weeks. It had story after story with unattributed, blind quotes. Someone did a study showing that in that first month only 16 percent of the Washington Post's quotes were attributed to anybody. The press, and newspapers in particular, should be very careful not to proceed with an assumption of guilt, that Clinton did it. Not that I'm a big Clinton fan or anything, I'm not. But what we have to do, particularly with 24-hour news cycles, is act as a useful guide. We have to say: This has been verified from a couple of sources and not by the Fed Ex delivery guy or the Chinese food salesman but by a real source. We need to help sort through this stuff. We shouldn't be in the business of making our audience dumb. We're not here to titillate. The primary requirement is to tell as much as is knowable while a complicated moment is unfolding.
In your book, you take the Dallas Morning News and the Wall Street Journal to task for printing stories they later had to retract.
I used those examples not because they are bad newspapers, but because they show that even good, solid newspapers, caught up in a hysteria of deadline and breaking news stories, can make mistakes. One lesson we learned from this all is that newspapers can never be first on breaking news ever again because of technology. But we have to be right about what we put in the paper.
You say that newspapers don't credit people with much intelligence -- that they dish out sensational stories at the expense of more serious topics such as foreign news, education, the environment. But isn't the sexy stuff what sells?
The thing about tabloid TV programs and tabloid newspapers is that they don't trust the reader or the audience. While you might get a short bump in your circulation based on a sensational story, you might lose other readers who say, "This is stupid, this gives me a headache." If you look at numbers, the U.S. population has increased 26 percent since 1970 while the circulation of newspapers has increased about 2 percent. So, giving the people "what they want" is not increasing readership.
In the book you say all newspaper editors should be required to live in the city where they work. Isn't that a little rigid? What about the editor whose spouse really wants to move to the suburbs and have a yard, get a dog?
That editor should get a divorce! I think being an editor in a city is just as important as being mayor and a mayor wouldn't dream of living in the suburbs and commuting to city hall.
Should a publisher live in the city too?
He oughta live in the suburbs because usually the publisher doesn't know a goddamned thing about the newspaper. One of the things that would improve the state of American journalism right away would be if about two-thirds of the publishers moved to the south of France. Just signed the checks and stayed out of a business they don't understand, know anything about and have nothing to add to.
Aren't there any publishers who are doing a good job?
Katharine Graham [of the Washington Post] is a great publisher. I think [Arthur] Sulzburger of the New York Times is a great publisher. He is someone who very carefully trained to be publisher. He worked as a reporter, he worked on the business side. He took 15 years preparing to do that job and he's professionally trained. You might quarrel with one section or another of the newspaper, but it's a terrific paper -- still.
Often though, even if an editor or reporter is living in the city, he or she is part of an elite crowd. They get paid pretty well; they hobnob and socialize with powerful people who are covered in the pages of their newspapers. Is this a problem?
There is no doubt that reporters and editors getting paid more has shifted the culture of the newsroom. One of the reasons there are virtually no newspaper bars left is that reporters, once they become middle class, move to the suburbs. And it's allowed newspaperman to be middle class, which they weren't before. Not that they were working class, but they were sort of this bohemian class. It was possible for people like me and [Jimmy] Breslin to come out of a working-class background and get into newspapers without that being questioned. I didn't finish high school. But today, if an editor were thinking of hiring me or someone with a degree from Princeton, he would probably hire the guy from Princeton. And that prevents absorption into the newsroom of reporters who you desperately need if you're going to cover the city.
Are too many reporters covering the city from the safety of their desks?
The computer has been a great tool for us, but it has also been narrowing in a way. For example, when I was the editor at the Daily News, I refused to use e-mail. I thought it was nuts to use e-mail to communicate with someone two desks away! There has been a de-personalizing of the reporter's trade, and that hurts reporters because you don't get the same human contact. You're getting quotes, but you don't know who the quotes are coming from. Is the guy scratching his ass while he's talking? Is that relevant? Does the dead guy have white socks on? When they are in the office, reporters miss certain details that make a story come to life.
So editors should order reporters to get off their ass a couple of times a week?
Newspapers are so prosperous now, everyone has their own chair. When I was a kid at the [New York] Post, we didn't have enough chairs, so you always had to have some of the reporters out of the office to allow the other guys to write their stories. Maybe what they should do is remove about six chairs from every city room! At least then you know someone would be out on the street.
You've criticized the use of e-mail. But you, the quintessential newspaperman, have your very own monthly online column.
I know. It's a peculiar form. I started doing that column just to see what the Internet is about. A lot of the Internet isn't professional yet, it's therapy. It's not communication to me.
And what have you found?
I haven't figured it out yet. I don't even know how to find my own column half the time! They insist that people on the Internet have very short attention spans and so copy should be short. I think they are wrong. I think Salon and Slate and the others do show that there can be an audience for longer pieces. So I'm experimenting with this thing now. And I'll decide in a month or two if I want to keep doing it.
Any regrets about leaving as editor of the Daily News?
I didn't feel bad for myself, because at my age what the hell. I have a wonderful wife, a terrific career, I love the newspaper business. But I felt awful for the young reporters and the reporters I hired because I spent a lot of time trying to change the climate of the place. I said, "This is the greatest job in the whole world, let's charge the barbed wire!" To do that and then to be relieved of your command, like a general, by people who don't understand newspaper journalism, who have no respect for it, who think it's romantic bullshit. Nobody can hurt me -- I'm too old. But when young people are hurt, young reporters who are better people than the swine who run the place, that really infuriated me.
Yes, but what about their charge that you're a hopeless romantic who longs for a bygone past and is out of touch with the present?
I don't care. We romantics put out better papers then they do. We romantics create better writers than they do. And although it is a romantic vision, I think it's honorable. I don't think it's more honorable to say, "You didn't treat the readers with enough contempt -- why don't you treat them like the dumb-ass swine they are?" Readers are smart. I don't think people are successful by putting out crap. I think we can do better than we do now and we have been better than we are now. And people who are blocking that -- because they think the audience is stupid -- they'll pay for that. Through failure. Or there will be this special place in hell for them that will be tended by old romantic newspapermen with pitchforks.