Looking back, the first time I referred to it was 2006. I thought of it again today after seeing some hits on a post from November about the protests at Yale and Mizzou.
I've said for years that we'd be better off if political reporters behaved like they worked for TMZ, but the indignation of the kid journos in Missouri, in their own minds, was righteous indignation. They didn't understand journalism and neither did most of their defenders. Journalists aren't philosophers any more than lawyers are. They're ambulance chasers.
A rite of passage for all young provincial journalists is known as the death knock — going and knocking on the door of a house which has just lost a family member, preferably in horrific or embarrassing circumstances. At my Newcastle course we were taught the art of charming and sympathizing one's way across the doorstep, and the absolute necessity, while taking notes, of trying to remove, preferably but not necessarily by agreement, any photos of the bereaved from the mantelpiece. The job of getting these stories can be a horrible, soiling experience which puts people off reporting for life. One of my fellow trainees on that course, Fiona Anderson, who now works for the BBC in London, started by reporting for the local paper in Kettering and had a very similar reaction to Christiansen sixty years earlier: 'I had to do one story about an old guy who was decapitated by a lorry, and I told the editor and subs that the police hadn't told his family what happened to him.' She thought the grisly details had been left out of the newspaper, but as soon as she was out of the office, they were put straight back in again; she had to go and 'doorstep' the bereaved family the following morning:
I arrived just after the paperboy had dropped the paper on the mat, and it was all there. His wife was saying, 'But I didn't know that happened' and I ... well, basically, I just made her a cup of tea. Then there was a house fire with three kids in hospital. I think two died overnight and I had to go round and bang on their door the next morning and I felt like a piece of shit. Then one of our printers had a son who was killed in a car crash and again I had to go round . . . it was all too close and I just had to get out.Barry Norman's experience of doorstepping was less harrowing. He had landed up at the tabloid daily the Sketch, a paper he dearly loathed, as a trainee gossip writer, and he didn't excel. He recalled, for example, being sent to interview a fox-hunting peer, whose wife had run away with the master of foxhounds:
His Lordship answered the door, which threw me a bit because I'd been expecting a butler. 'Who are you?' he asked. I told him. 'What do you want?' I told him that too, in a faltering sort of way — 'Well, you know, your wife and the master of foxhounds . . . gone off together . . . I was just wondering what you . . 'What the hell's it got to do with you?' he said and right away he had me. I was stuck for an answer, knowing perfectly well that his marital unhappiness had nothing to do with me or the prurient readers of the Daily Sketch. I was mumbling something about letting him put his side of the story when he slammed the door in my face. I couldn't blame him; I'd have done the same.'The story could serve as a morality test about intrusive, but interesting, journalism. Norman solved his dilemma by telling his news desk that he was continuing to harass the cuckolded aristocrat, while actually sitting in a local café doing a newspaper crossword. It was a good human answer, and bad journalism.