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Journalists as organisms

Confessions of a retired newsman

By W.W. Anderson

VEGAS — When I myself was a young and smug reporter on the East Coast, I couldn’t see it. Years later, however, I noticed it regularly.

It very much resembled the old Saturday Night Live routine where Chevy Chase would pause, look out at the audience, and then arrogantly observe, “I’M Chevy Chase, and YOU’RE not!”

It was a funny send-up of celebrity self-importance. Of course, as time went by, it became increasingly evident that the routine was also an accurate send-up of Chevy himself — he was kidding on the square, as it’s called, only he was doing so unconsciously.

Many young journalists radiate the same frame of mind. Certain that what they’re doing is of the ultimate importance — defending goodness and revealing evil, after all, just like any idealistic adolescent wants to do — they cannot help but unconsciously swagger about. And in their unguarded moments, the subtext is: “I’M a duly appointed agent of the Forces of Light, and you,… you are merely someone whose main function is to just behold me!”

It’s not really their fault, of course. It’s just the natural egotism of organic life. Remember Dustin Hoffman’s character in Midnight Cowboy, Ratso Rizzo? “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” he shouts in outrage at the cabbie who gets too close. Rizzo may be a sleazy, diseased and crippled conman-thief, but he’s still the universalized center of his own particular universe. And you can see the same attitude in almost any pet dog, as it walks across its master’s or mistress’s living room: “Yes, indeed. I, Fido the Dog, am the center of the universe.”

What is interesting about news people, however, is what they do when they begin to become more aware — as they almost must, since their job, after all, is information-gathering. That's when they begin to recognize that, strange as it may seem, they may not, after all, actually BE the center of the universe, endowed with flawless judgment.

The crisis seeps in slowly. Reporters begin noticing that politicians they were enamored of — the ones who, like themselves, talked of defending goodness and revealing evil — are largely fakes, simple allies of the special-interest groups that get them elected. Or, beat reporters get so deeply into the stories they’re researching that they start seeing the fundamental scams in the government programs that the pols always portray as necessary for the public good.

Eventually it starts to dawn on the reporter that he himself, in his ignorance and naïveté, has been helping perpetrate precisely the sort of evil that his teenage self so vigorously scorned.

“Ohmigawd,” goes the internal dialogue. “If I, the very center of the universe — obviously so much wiser and well-intentioned than all of those ignorant, inarticulate rednecks — can screw it up so royally, why… why …”

Gasp. Sputter. Silence….

Thus arrives the "cynicism" for which newsmen are so notorious. Depending on the personality involved, their crisis of faith tends to push them in one of two directions.

Many pick themselves up, recognize their fallibility and unconscious self-centeredness and grasp the experiential basis of the doctrine of original sin. These reporters’ so-called cynicism is really more of a knowing skepticism about any unconscious reactions. More introspective now, they begin to actually learn some of the deeper dimensions of life. Others, however, seem to lack the capacity for genuine introspection. They’re more like an over-inflated tire that blew out and, once ruptured, is now permanently damaged. They go morally flat. Overtly, not much shows initially. They fall back on a reflexive conformity. “Whatever gets me through to my next paycheck,” they seem to say. Below the surface, however, they are angrier than ever. Everyone is still messed up except for them. Their cynicism is something darker and more nihilistic.

The nihilism shows up in the way that the norms of journalism — fairness, honesty, balance — get thrown out the window when no editor is enforcing standards, and they can let it all hang out. Then they abandon all pretense of objectivity and indulge instead the atavistic satisfactions of sadism in word and phrase.

Here in Nevada, the Las Vegas Sun always seems to end up with a disproportionate number of these savage unfortunates. No doubt it’s a consequence of the long Greenspun tradition of concentrated corruption. Although Herman "Hank" Milton Greenspun for decades postured as a crusading, muckraking journalist, in fact the paper was a bludgeon to compel obedience and payoffs. A Mob employee of Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, “Hank” spent much of his later Vegas career slandering FBI officials and FBI investigations in defense of two criminal chums — one a brazen multiple murderer, Benny Binion, and the other a longtime Mob lawyer who’d wangled his way onto the Federal bench, before being kicked off, Harry Claiborne. One payoff made him rich. According to the PBS program American Experience:

In the 1950s the Teamsters in an unsuccessful attempt to keep him quiet had loaned Greenspun money to buy a golf course. He also bought the land which became Green Valley, one of the area's premier suburbs.

Recently, Hank’s kid Brian, the current editor/publisher of the Sun insert in the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, demonstrated how an anesthetized conscience can be inherited. Weighing in on public revelations of corrupt abuse of public financial responsibilities by staff at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority, Brian came to the LVCVA’s defense (some things never change) while revealing that he, too, had a gripe with the government-run socialized advertising operation: that it wouldn’t agree to pay him off, too!

The Sun’s response to the in-depth public oversight work of a Las Vegas watchdog non-profit this year has shown that, just like in the old days under Hank, the Sun is still corrupt. Although the research into LVCVA activities has been highly detailed and tightly documented (the LVCVA documents that the non-profit procured through the state open-records law are posted online), the Sun has pretended for the last six months that the revelations simply do not exist.

One has to feel some sympathy for the young reporters who’ve joined the Sun over the last few years — especially when they read the sprawling, self-involved maunderings of Boss Brian. Like previous journalists who came here thinking the Greenspun legend was true, the good ones will become disillusioned and leave the paper. Others, however, will adapt to the ever-fermenting Vegas mulch-bed and, like Jon Ralston — who once showed so much promise — become just another sour thing twisting itself within it.

It’s a daunting challenge that we human beings face, if we are to at all be worthy of that name. And though we journalists like to tell other people what’s what, we are no exceptions..

W.W. Anderson is a journalist who retired to Las Vegas for the entertainment.