The Fourth Estate

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In addition to being a voracious reader, I’m a news junkie. My original plan for “what I want to be when I grow up” was a Reporter. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Detroit, which in the 1970s and ’80s had two stellar independent newspapers – the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press – and from junior high school onward I wrote for each school newspaper, the Parish bulletin, the local penny saver, any print medium that would let me.

I won just enough awards to feel like I could ‘do this,’ and followed my favorite columnists like other kids followed sports stars… More than one Hallowe’en costume included a narrow spiral notebook and a fedora with a “press” card tucked into the band.

I mastered the basics of photography, editorial reviews, and layout far before the days of digital media; certain scents (darkroom chemicals, hot wax…) carry me back decades each time I smell them. Though I focused on print I also learned Radio and TV reporting just in case.

After college I did have some success as a reporter at small local papers, but I had not anticipated how (small-P) political newsrooms were. As a young reporter, I didn’t play the game very well, and bounced around as a stringer for longer than I want to recall.

Also, even though I knew going in that “journalist” was among the lowest-compensated professions (I made more money bar tending on weekends than I did working about 60 hours a week as a reporter) after a certain point I realized the best way to dig myself out from under the debt load I had accumulated was to work in restaurants and bars full time (yes, I made more money waiting tables than working in my college-degreed field…) Finally around age 30 I gave up story-chasing and got (as my Mom puts it) a real job as a technical writer. I haven’t filed a story since.

For a while my ultimate goal had been to serve as an AP or UPI Stringer: a foreign correspondent. I was ready to carry the strength and integrity of a Free Press with me to repressed societies and dictatorships around the world. To use my narrow spiral notebook and press card to shine a light into darkness, and be a voice for good. To bear witness.

This reminisce has a point, one that seems to be sharpening with each day’s news cycle. What I’m afraid is being forgotten is – just like fire fighters running into burning buildings – journalists put their lives on the line on a regular basis, and the job is getting more dangerous, not due to the usual suspects of wars and disasters but purposeful targeting.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think in 2020 the country with possibly the greatest need to journalistic strength and integrity would be the one I grew up in.

I’m closer to the end than the beginning these days, without the drive and determination (or physical ability, if we’re being frank) needed to jump into a jeep and roar toward the story. But I can still bear witness. So every day I read the morning paper and watch the evening news to bear witness: the courage of my colleagues; the voice of the stories themselves; and strength and integrity of a new generation, who only need an iPhone to by heard ’round the world.

I am proud of the journalists, bloggers, reporters, stringers and foreign correspondents who commit their lives to chase and publish the truth. Good reporting is just as important fighting fires, and there are a lot of fires – of all kinds – that need to be fought these days.

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