My Life and Times in American Journalism

Lookout Tower
Mark Sackmann, Lookout Tower, 2006, woodcut on rag paper, 6 x 7”. Courtesy of the artist.

My whole foray into journalism arose from a misapprehension. I wanted to be a writer, and I thought the most important thing about being a writer was seeing your work in print. Becoming a newspaper reporter seemed like the quickest way to see my work in print. I was 18 and callow. What can I say.

I spent six years, off and on, and $60,000 at two universities to obtain a bachelor’s degree in print journalism, but six years and sixty grand weren’t enough, according to my professors. I needed internships—as many and as illustrious as possible. This is how I allowed myself to be talked into a summer job at the Fargo Forum by a professor who knew the managing editor there. I would cover the beats of reporters who went on vacation, one by one: cops, courts, agriculture, religion, et cetera.

Eight weeks into it, I knew I didn’t have the fortitude to write against deadline, day after day, on subjects I didn’t give a damn about—city water-board meetings, the travails of emu farmers. The managing editor kept putting my stories on the front page, but the thrill of seeing my work in print wore off pretty quickly. The only really interesting story I covered was an anti-abortion protest at a women’s clinic, during which the protest leader stood and shouted, “Fargo is a nice town full of nice people. But when people hear the word ‘Dachau,’ they don’t think of a nice little Bavarian town. And Fargo, unfortunately, is known as the city in North Dakota where they kill babies.” I wrote that down in my notebook and used it to lead my story. It seemed like something the residents of Fargo would be interested to learn about their town over breakfast the next morning.

One of my professors had justified this sort of story by calling it “Swiss-cheese journalism.” He said people will often stage events or call press conferences that are plainly acts of demagoguery, and although reporters generally have a duty to report on these events with a straight face, most readers will recognize them for what they are.

It’s like Swiss cheese, he said. You hold up a piece of Swiss cheese, and everyone can see what it is. You don’t have to point at the holes.

I was beginning to doubt whether I wanted to make a career out of holding up pieces of Swiss cheese. One Monday morning, not long after my feature on the artistry of local pet groomers was splashed across the front of the B section, along with big color photos of poodles and dachshunds undergoing various forms of beautification, I decided I’d had enough. One month remained of my internship—one month more than I could take. I skipped breakfast and went straight to a neighborhood sports-medicine clinic. To a kindly but perplexed nurse, I explained that I was with the drama department at the university. We were putting on a play in the fall, and in the play there was a character who wore a sling on his arm. Our prop room didn’t have a sling. I asked whether she might let us borrow one, or, if that wasn’t an option, whether she might take cash for it. She seemed to pity me, for some reason; she let me have the thing for free. I told her I’d stop by with a couple of complimentary tickets in the fall, before the play opened, and she looked pleased. I was relieved when she didn’t ask the name of the play.

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