4 April 2011

My Life and Times in American Journalism

The following is an excerpt from Philip Connors’s piece in Issue 4. Buy the issue. Connors’s Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout comes out on Tuesday, April 5.

Once in a while I came across an amusing press release, which I tucked in a folder marked “GREATEST HITS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS.”


THE AYN RAND INSTITUTE—October 20, 1999. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF AMERICORPS = FIVE YEARS OF SACRIFICE. Marina Del Ray, CA—The AmeriCorps should be abolished, said the director of communications for the Ayn Rand Institute. “The AmeriCorps aims to indoctrinate young people into a life of sacrificing to society,” said Scott McConnell. “That is a recipe for slavery, not freedom.” . . . Since 1997, the Ayn Rand Institute has been the only voice morally opposing volunteerism. Through the Institute’s Anti-Servitude Internship Program, students have the opportunity to fulfill their school’s volunteer requirements by working to abolish volunteerism.

NEWS: Re: PEOPLE MAGAZINE’S TRIBUTE ISSUE RELEASE. July 22, 1999. Please note that there was an error in the press release forwarded to you this morning: JOHN F. KENNEDY JR. WAS PEOPLE’S ‘SEXIEST MAN ALIVE’ IN 1988 (NOT 1998). We regret the error.

March 30, 1999: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: News from State Senator Roy M.

One day, about eight months after I was hired, I learned of a job opening on the Leisure & Arts page. It was listed on the company’s internal website, a copyediting job, repairing split infinitives and run-on sentences and the like. I figured I could do that. More important, I knew the job would double my salary and probably halve my chances of lung cancer. I had my résumé and cover letter polished by the end of the day.

I was confident of my chances until I learned that, in order to get the job, I would have to sit for an interview with Bob Bartley, the editorial-page editor of the paper, who also oversaw hiring for the Leisure & Arts page, which he otherwise supervised with benign neglect. Bob Bartley, who has since passed away, was among the most influential American journalists of the second half of the 20th century, although his name was not widely known outside of New York and Washington. He was fairly soft-spoken, and his posture was poor. He rarely smiled, but when he did he looked like a cat who’d just swallowed your canary.

His abiding obsessions were taxes and weapons. He thought taxes should be cut always and everywhere, except for poor people, and he thought America should build as many weapons as possible. The more weapons we had, in his view, the less likely we were to need them. But he believed that occasionally we might need them to bomb other nations that were trying to get them too, because those nations couldn’t be trusted not to use them, the way we could. In order to further thwart the nations that, unlike us, couldn’t be trusted not to use their weapons, he thought we should spend however many trillions it took to build a missile-defense shield, that sci-fi sort of umbrella that would protect America from the rain of other nations’ missiles. (I always admired the childish simplicity of the concept: like one man shooting a bullet at another man, and instead of the second man shooting back at the first man, he shoots a bullet at the first man’s bullet. That way, no one dies. Only bullets die.) Bob Bartley believed that with tax cuts, lots of weapons, and a missile-defense shield, Americans would remain safe, happy, and prosperous.

Bob Bartley had been writing editorials about these ideas for more than thirty years.

Someone once made a joke about editorial writers. Why is writing an editorial like pissing yourself in a blue serge suit? Because it gives you a warm feeling, and nobody notices what you’ve done.

Bob Bartley was no trouser-wetter, though. From what I could discern, he never had warm feelings, and people in power tended to notice what he wrote. The arena in which he’d had his greatest influence was tax policy. He was a ceaseless proponent of trickle-down economics: by cutting taxes for rich people and raising them for poor people, he argued, more money would end up in the hands of not only rich people but, because the rich people would spend it on maids and yachts, in the hands of people who cleaned houses and sanded the decks of yachts. Because everyone would be making more money, the government would generate more money in taxes, even though the top tax rates were lower. Since bloating the government with more taxpayer money was actually a bad thing, an evil outcome of good policy (I know, I know, it all gets very confusing), the government would be obliged to funnel the extra tax revenues to bomb-building projects—in effect throwing the money away, since it created wealth, in the form of weapons, that could only be used once, if at all, and then only to destroy, never to create more wealth, which was supposed to be the essence of capitalism, wealth creating wealth—while at the same time cutting programs for poor people, which would make the poor people angry at the government and entice them to vote for Republicans, just like the rich people did, ensuring Republican rule forever.

Despite the baroque strangeness of some of his ideas, Bob Bartley had once won a Pulitzer Prize.

When I first joined the paper, Bob Bartley was in the late, hysterical stages of his obsession with Bill Clinton. Bob Bartley’s editorial page had printed enough editorials about Whitewater to fill 3,000 pages in six thick anthologies (now available on CD-ROM!). Bob Bartley was proud of these books, even though no one read them. He thought Whitewater was comparable to Watergate; he was hoping to bring down a president, like Woodward and Bernstein had, and win another Pulitzer Prize. But despite his 3,000 pages of editorials, Whitewater ultimately degenerated into an ontological squabble about whether fellatio is actually sex, and the president did not resign and was not forced from office, although Bob Bartley was adamant that he should have been, because Bob Bartley did not approve of extramarital fellatio. At least not for Democrats. When a reporter asked him whether he would’ve attacked Newt Gingrich or another prominent Republican faced with similar charges of sexual misconduct, Bob Bartley admitted that, “We would have defended them. That’s the way it is.”

I was nervous when I went to Bob Bartley’s office for my interview. My internship at the Nation featured prominently on my résumé. While the work I did there was utterly harmless to the spread of corporate capitalism—fact-checking articles on a labor movement that was doomed no matter what anyone said; researching articles on “the hoax of global warming,” which Bob Bartley agreed was a hoax—the Nation was known to say kind things about socialists. Bob Bartley detested socialists. Bob Bartley held my résumé in his hands. I feared he would ask me about socialism, taxes, trickle-down economics. Then I would face a choice: I could either tell him what I thought about these things, where upon he would refuse to hire me to work on the Leisure & Arts page, or I could betray my own principles, barter away my soul, and lie. I’d been here before, and I knew which path I’d choose.

He did not ask me about any of these things. We talked about Minnesota and Iowa, where, it turned out, we had both lived as boys. He’d been born in southwestern Minnesota but grew up mostly in Ames, Iowa, while I’d been born in Ames, Iowa, and grew up mostly in southwestern Minnesota. This seemed apt, our moving in opposite directions at the beginning of our lives—me upward and to the left on the map, him downward and to the right.
Bob Bartley asked me only one serious question, with two leading follow-ups: What is your ambition in life? Do you, for instance, want to be a reporter? Or do you want to be editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal?

I was sure I didn’t want to be a reporter, especially not at the Wall Street Journal, where most reporters covered a single industry (insurance, airlines) or even a single company (AOL, Microsoft), had very few opportunities to comfort the afflicted, and never detached themselves from their cell phones. And even though a part of me did want to be editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, which was the same thing as saying I wanted to be the Most Important Person at the World’s Most Important Publication, I knew I never would be, because I didn’t believe any of the things Bob Bartley believed. If I said no, he might be insulted. If I said yes, a part of him would always suspect that repairing split infinitives was merely the first step in my devious plan to succeed him, after which I would install a cadre of liberal editorial writers who would call for higher taxes on rich people, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and government sponsored extramarital fellatio for all American Democrats.

I chose my words carefully. I said, No, I want to write a novel.

My answer pleased him, as I figured it would. When I left Bob Bartley’s office, I knew I had the job.

Shortly thereafter, I ceased to hand out faxes, and instead wrote headlines and edited copy for the next three years. I was anonymous, efficient, and discreet. Nothing slipped past me. Day after day an unblemished page was shipped electronically to seventeen printing plants across the country, and the following morning nearly two million readers held the fruits of my labor in their hands. At first I resented the lack of attention paid my mastery of English grammar and the intricacies of the house style book. Not once did I receive a letter from an armchair grammarian in Dubuque or Terre Haute, one of those retired English teachers who scour the daily paper with a red pen in hand, searching for evidence of American decline in the form of a split infinitive. Nor did my immediate superior mention, even in passing, that I did my job diligently and well. But over time I began to take delight in this peculiar feature of my job—that my success was measured by how rarely people noticed what I did. In this way I believed myself akin to oil-tanker captains and air-traffic controllers, those anonymous technicians of social stability whose identities become known only through catastrophic failure.

When I moved to the Leisure & Arts page, I assumed I’d have little contact with the editorial writers. I was wrong. My cubicle was situated smack in the midst of theirs. A couple of them came forward to welcome me, but most of them didn’t. The ones who welcomed me overlooked the fact that my politics were repugnant. Those who didn’t welcome me couldn’t overlook that fact. By hanging a campaign poster of Ralph Nader in my cubicle, I made it a hard fact to overlook.

I had almost nothing in the way of social interaction with the editorial writers, although I began to read their writing very closely, sometimes even dipping into the archives to sample their obsessions over the decades. They wrote with the zeal of converts, as if they’d all been Communists in their youth, and each of them clutched, with merciless loins, the flanks of a favorite right-wing hobby horse: not only taxes and weapons but the treachery and moral lassitude of the Palestinians, the creeping fascism of fluoride in the water supply, the heroic necessity of Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship in crushing democratic socialism in Chile. In this way the collective voice of the newspaper, the unsigned editorials, was always the furthest to the right of the range of beliefs held by the editorial-page writers, no accident on Bob Bartley’s part. He himself held the most extreme position on every issue, and although he couldn’t write three editorials a day himself, he took great care in his choice of surrogates. He hired people who could just as well have been Republican speechwriters, as indeed some of them had been (Peggy Noonan) or soon would be (Bill McGurn)—a line of work that seemed to me, if not exactly noble, then at least more intellectually honest than masquerading as a journalist.

I tried once and only once to engage in a reasonable discussion about politics with one of the editorial writers. She was a voluble and attractive young blonde who’d grown up in Oregon and gone to college at Princeton. She worked in the cubicle next to mine. She wrote a lot about environmental issues, and one time I told her I disagreed with something she’d written about federal forest policy. The essence of my argument was simple: I don’t think trees should be cut down carelessly. She told me that trees existed to be cut down. Needless to say, I was surprised; I sort of assumed people from Oregon liked trees. She said she preferred clear-cuts—essentially, forests transformed into nonforests. She said that clear-cuts grew back as peaceful meadows, which were aesthetically superior to forests. I disagreed. She said I had an unhealthy, sentimental attitude about trees; she accused me of wanting to hug them. I told her I didn’t want to hug them, I just didn’t think they should all die. But she said most trees would be better off dead, after which they could be given a more useful second life as chairs, ranch houses, or fax paper. We didn’t talk much after that, although we always said hello when passing in the hallways.

Bob Bartley and I talked so infrequently I remember every occasion with total clarity. I even recorded these encounters in my journal, for posterity and biographers. The first time, he asked if I would proofread something he’d written. I didn’t want to proofread his editorials. I thought they were wrong; copyediting would only prettify their idiocy. But you don’t say no to the Most Important Person at the World’s Most Important Publication. The people who usually proofread his editorials were gone for the day, and apparently I was the only one left in the office who knew how to repair dangling participles.

I read the editorial. I disagreed with everything in it, but it was powerfully written. That’s the thing about his editorials—even if you thought they were wrong, they left you with no doubt about what he believed. He claimed to craft everything he wrote for optimal “muzzle velocity,” as he once put it to another journalist. His style owed a great deal to the old yellow journalism of personal invective, and he didn’t just savage his opponents’ ideas, he aimed to obliterate his opponents altogether.

I told him I saw only one mistake. It wasn’t a split infinitive, it was an unsplit word. He’d made the words “pipe dream” one word, with no space between them. I told him it should be two words, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, which was my authoritative source in such matters.

He told me he didn’t care what Webster’s New World Dictionary said. It was his editorial, and he wanted “pipe dream” to be one word. He said I should delete the space I’d inserted between “pipe” and “dream.”

I did.

I never edited anything by Bob Bartley again.

We talked a second time a few months later. I was standing in the hallway with some colleagues from the Leisure & Arts page, and Bob Bartley approached us. He said he had two doctors’ appointments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan the next day. He had a bit of leisure time to spare between them and wondered if there was any art at the museums on the Upper East Side that he ought to see.

I said, Yes, there’s a wonderful show of Walker Evans photos at the Met. Anyone who cares about photography—or America—should see it if he can.

He said, Thanks, I may just go.

A few days later I met him in the hallway. I said hello. He did not say hello.

I said, Bob, did you see the Walker Evans show at the Met?

He stopped and looked at me. I wondered if I should have called him Mr. Bartley instead of Bob.

He said, Yes, I saw it.

What did you think? I asked.

It wasn’t for me, he said. I stayed for five minutes and went to the Egyptian galleries.

After I thought about it for a while, his answer made sense. Walker Evans was the great documentarian of Depression-era Southern poverty; Bob Bartley was appalled by the very idea of poor people. In fact, he’d once said he didn’t think there were any poor people left in America—“ just a few hermits or something like that.” (This quote can be found in the Washington Post Magazine of July 11, 1982.) On this issue Bob Bartley was the intellectual heir of an old American idea expressed most succinctly by the preacher Henry Ward Beecher: “No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault—unless it be his sin.” For Bob Bartley, the agrarian pictures of Walker Evans and the homoerotic pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe were morally equivalent. Both depicted human beings in a sinful state of filth and degradation, and such images had no place in an American museum.

Of course I disagreed. Not only did I appreciate the unadorned honesty of Walker Evans’s photographs, I’d grown up in a poor family myself. As a child, while living on a rented farm where we struggled to make enough money to feed ourselves, I’d stood in line with my mother for handouts of surplus government cheese. Pictures of people like us from the time of the Great Depression hung in many museums, a testament to certain unappealing aspects of the American experience.

Bob Bartley didn’t believe the government should be in the cheese handout business.

I never recommended a museum to Bob Bartley again.

The last time we spoke was on the day of his retirement. Dow Jones & Company required senior executives to retire at the age of 65. Bob Bartley was now 65, and would be replaced as editorial-page editor by Paul Gigot, who’d won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and often appeared on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. Paul Gigot wrote signed columns that made him sound like a reasonable conservative, although some of his unsigned pieces hinted at a fear that the Boy Scouts might soon become a front group for initiating American boys in the fine art of fellatio. As for Bob Bartley, he would still write a weekly column called “Thinking Things Over,” in which he would say the same things he’d been thinking for thirty years all over again.

I went to the men’s room on my way out of the office. Bob Bartley was in the men’s room too. We stood next to each other, pissing contemplatively, not talking. When I was finished, I went to the sink and washed my hands. When Bob Bartley was finished, he looked at himself in the mirror and walked out.

We boarded the elevator together. His hair was mussed, and his shoulders were slumped. He had the doleful look of an injured horse aware it’s about to be taken out to pasture and shot.

Big day, I said.

Yes, he said.

I thought a little flattery might cheer him up.

Now Paul gets to see how hard you work, I said.

That’s right, he said. And I have to figure out how to disengage. Not sure how to do that. Maybe stop coming into the office every day.

Yes, I said, I can imagine that would be a challenge after thirty years. He didn’t respond.

As we got off the elevator, I tried to think of something else to say to him—something serious and substantive, something intelligent people may have wanted to ask him but were too afraid—since I knew I’d probably never speak to him again. I considered asking him how he felt about an in-depth study of his editorials by the Columbia Journalism Review, which found that his page “rarely offers balance, is often unfair, and is riddled with errors—distortions and outright falsehoods of every kind and stripe.” I thought to ask whether he felt in any way responsible for the death of Vincent Foster, the White House counsel to Bill Clinton who’d killed himself shortly after Bob Bartley ran a series of harsh attacks on his integrity. A note found in Foster’s briefcase expressed anguish that “the WSJ editors lie without consequence.” After Foster’s death, Bob Bartley’s editorials hinted darkly that Foster may have been murdered for knowing too much about Whitewater, and called for a special counsel to investigate. “The American public is entitled to know if Mr. Foster’s death was somehow connected to his high office,” Bob Bartley wrote. I sort of thought the American public was entitled to know if Bob Bartley thought Vince Foster’s death was somehow connected to irresponsible journalism.

In my heart I knew it was the wrong day for such questions, so I didn’t ask them. We parted ways in the lobby, him heading for his limousine to Brooklyn, me for the subway to Queens.

Well, I said, enjoy your newfound freedom.

I’ll try, he said.

I never talked to Bob Bartley again.

Image: Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2000. From anunews.net.


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