Wednesday, November 17, 2004

It Was Like the Charge of the Light Brigade Except with a Happy Ending

My best boss ever is visiting us this week. He's retired now from CNN where he worked for 20 years winning Emmys and Peabodys and the attendant bling, you know, the mantel candy, but I worked for him before that, when he was editor of Atlanta Magazine for a year or two. He's not out here for pleasure. He's freelancing, working on a documentary on wine-making during Prohibition. We give him a bed. If he comes back from Napa with too many pounds of wine, we do what we can to lighten his load.

Since I am on sabbatical and don't get out much -- this austere life of the mind is all very nice but it never taps me on the shoulder and suggests slipping out for a mid-afternoon drink -- my blog topics tend to run inward, much too upclose and too personal I'm thinking.

As Larry said about the current state of television news: "You don't have stories about real people anymore. You have one talking head saying to another. 'You have a navel. Let's talk about it.'"

Navel-gazing. Bad for the posture, bad for everything. So here's an emissary from both my past and from the real world -- yes, here is a Topic:

My fingers get started, dragging my brain along. First thing to deal with is just why he was my best boss ever, for so I thought of him after three months on the job and so I have continued to think of him these 25 years since. But why?

My brain, bouncing and complaining as it is dragged over the cobblestones, is forced to get specific. I am startled by my own conclusion. Larry was my best boss ever because he did things as an editor and encouraged me to do things as an editor that were clearly going to get him fired and were certainly going to get me fired -- if I didn't agree to replace him and do it all the owner's way. But I refused to agree to what I considered to be a betrayal of my friend (all right!) a defiance which (I concluded) was equivalent to giving up my place in the lifeboat because that certainly was an iceberg dead ahead and coming up fast.

Let us pause while I admire myself very much.

Though I was 35, I was still kind of pure in a stupid way. But you should remember that I had spent six years in graduate school getting my Ph.D. The natural and necessary growth of bitterness and envy -- isn't that what they mean by emotional IQ? -- had been retarded, you might say. I was all about truth and beauty, yes I was.

So, having declined to backstab, I went looking for work and was offered a job in California and my wife said I have designed buildings for humidity, I can design buildings for earthquake, too, so what the hell ...?

But that is not the point. This is not about the irony of the better outcome. The point is that Larry taught me to defy power at some personal cost, and he gave me the chance to exhibit loyalty and integrity while having insane amounts of fun.

As I tell my journalism students, one of illusions implicit in so many discussions of journalism ethics is the idea that, once you have formed an opinion on right conduct, anyone will care what your opinion is. If you have some authority, you can act on your conviction. But if you are a grunt reporter or a subeditor, sometimes the only right action you can take is to quit, or to politely refuse and get fired for insubordination.

I wonder if I would do that now? I think probably not. I think I am now a punk, an old punk worrying about a comfortable retirement. But once upon a time in Atlanta, Georgia, I was not a punk.

I had actually been at Atlanta Magazine, which was a city magazine started by the chamber of commerce as a way of marketing the city, for two years before Larry arrived. The editor who hired me quit when the chamber sold the magazine -- but not to him. (Thank you Norman for hiring me. A copy editor with a Ph.D. in English? Overkill.) My next editor was a brilliant drunk in the last stages of his brilliance and his addiction. (Thank you, Jim, for letting Dick and me run things while you went to ruin. You got the credit, while we had the semi-responsible pleasure.)

The brilliant addict crashed, though not because Dick or I melted his wings. And in came Larry, who had the idea that a city magazine should be subversive. Imagine if you will the magazine's Map of Zip Codes, which showed where our readers lived. They lived in Atlanta's white neighborhoods and white suburbs in the north and to the north of the city. They were prosperous and conservative. As far as the staff was concerned, they were the Not Us.

Larry said, in effect, our hand will be quicker than their eye. We will embed what they should know in what they want to know and so the world will be if not saved at least bent toward salvation.

Or perhaps he meant that we will mess with their minds until someone catches on, and -- being journalists and thus itinerants at heart and being men of talent and resilience and thus indestructible -- we will move on to our next opportunity to spread truth and laughter. He was never that clear. He led by example. We were a mishmash of content, with stories on big houses and backyard barbecues next to raw black-and-white exposes of prison conditions and wife-swapping in the Unitarian Church. We did a cover on Martin Luther King Jr. and followed it with a cover that showed Tree Rollins, a large black man who played center for the Atlanta Hawks, being served breakfast in bed by an elf-like white man. The background was white, the bed and the bed clothing were white, the clothes of the elfman were white.

All this vexed and puzzled our owner. He had moved his 25 trade magazines down from New York City to escape the unions, and he had bought Atlanta Magazine the way you buy a table for eight at an event supporting some obscure charity, to consolidate his place in his new community. And here's more backstory. When the chamber sold Atlanta, it agreed each and every month to pay for and to distribute 6,000 magazines to its membership.

Larry did something else a good editor does. He shielded us from the owner. He filtered and diluted and deflected the owner's demands. Perhaps, at the owner's "suggestion," we profiled the owner of some local chocolate chip cookie store or sent a reporter looking for a cat in the owner's neighborhood that looked like Groucho Marx. We were swaying but not breaking.

Then, I did us all in without intending to. It was, of course, inevitable so I am glad that at least it was spectacular. I was working with a writer named Maxine Rock, a tiny woman with big red hair and an earnest style. We were talking about something else when she pitched one of those by-the-way story ideas. In the library at Georgia State University where I believe she taught parttime, she heard a student explaining to another student that his parents were gay and what that meant to him.

A story? she asked. A story! I said. I loved being quick, emphatic and supportive. Encourage the writer and get her moving and then ask.

I asked Larry.

Always have someone behind the big door who can say No, if a No is suddenly needed. but for this one I wanted a Yes. I had not read this story elsewhere, and I knew Maxine would write it right up to the edge of boring, which was exactly how it should be written.

Of course a story!! Larry said. Never a doubt, no hesitation.

The finished piece was dry, matter of fact and balanced. It was very earnest. It was not a story that made you worry about what these people were doing in the dark. But Peter the art director, who was Larry's hand-picked guy, was an artist at heart who really did believe in Flannery O'Connor's notion that to the deaf you shout, for the blind you draw large and startling pictures.

We made children of gay parents our cover story -- Larry and Peter made and I said sure -- and Peter illustrated it with a photo of two brawny hands clasped, his own beautiful ten-year-old daughter, torso only, that torso apparently naked, standing behind those clasped hands. (Time Magazine had a similiar but softer cover that appeared well after our cover.) I was about to say that today it is difficult to imagine the impact this cover had at the time in the city of Atlanta. But when you think about the controversy around gay marriage right now, perhaps you can imagine it.

The chamber pulled their 6,000 subscriptions, and we lost I don't know how many regular subscribers. The owner was furious, though I concede that he did not fire us all on the spot. I think that, as a New Yorker, he was not going to be pushed around by the rednecks and the crackers. Also, we pulled back, rebalancing the book, going for more stories about the local music scene and Burt Reynolds. But it was clear it was only a matter of time. I had my conversation with the owner's son: Would I take over for Larry and be the publisher's man? No. Out went the resumes.

When I told Larry I had taken a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, he said, "If you leave this magazine, I leave this magazine." This is classy. This is how people should talk. Of course, he knew that if I stayed it wouldn't be for long because we would both be going anyway. Three months later he quit, too, and has done so much better since, as have I.

In my magazine writing class, I show my students the cover of Tree Rollins, his smile enormous, being served in bed by his diminutive white houseboy. And then I show them the Atlanta Magazine cover from a little while later, when the new "team" was on board. It shows a blonde woman in a white silk dress climbing out of a limousine while her black chaffeur, his smile as wide as Tree Rollins, holds the door.

I wouldn't have wanted to be the editor who assigned that cover. And I really wouldn't have wanted to be one of his underlings, nodding in agreement.

And here, in order, are the four covers of which I speak.


Anonymous said...

That is fascinating. It reminds me of my first question when next we are sipping a quiet cabernet and gazing at something: "Michael, can you tell me more about what it was like at Atlanta Magazine in those days?"
Which reminds me, wasn't there a thinly veiled novel about those very days
at that very magazine? A woman wrote it, as I recall -- a love story, sort-of.
More of a love-hate actually, as it concerned journalism.

....J.Michael Robertson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


How I remember that story so very well from one of the many reporting classes I took with you at USF (still convinced this man's sweet demeanor must mean he grades easily...oh how wrong I was). It was a great story, the story that Bay Guardians, SF Weeklys, and Mother Jones' rally young reporters with at all-day conferences in hotels that never lead to connections, never lead to jobs, never lead to internships.

I thought: and that's why I want to be a journalist. I want to be a bad-ass, I want to have gumption, convictions, opinions, and balls.

Sadly, journalism has changed. Most journalists I know run with their tails between their legs at the slightest hint of dissent for fear of the firing ax, and with good reason, there are a billion eager, bright-eyed reporters shoving and clawing to take your place. Journalism no longer cares about losing a *good* reporter because there are thousands of mediocre, complacent ones to take your place.

I stood my ground once. Quit a job on the spot. Left all my things there because I was tired of all the bullshit. I thought, this is what sets me apart, this is why I am going to show them someday, show them all! And now I find myself at the will of the freelance market. Auditioning like a performer on Broadway for the smallest bit of print, still smiling stupidly while one magazine asks to see my clips yet again for a story that's been in negotiation for three months, all too happy to get paid three to four months after a story has been published. Freelancing for one of my old rags for a pittance of pay, pissed that I need them, but resolute that damnit if they every off me my old job back I'll still say fuck'em. Gosh, I hope I say that...but there is always health insurance.

Journalists are no longer the free-spirited, seat-of-their-pants heroes we learned about in school. If you don't get your masters from Berkeley, kiss your bad-ass good-bye. It's about degrees and sophisticated vocabulary. Frankly, it's stuck-up, and the radical free-press is just as bad, snooty in the exact same way, just in a way that seems more edgy.

Am I bitter? Of course! I know I'm good, damn good. I'm one of the best there is. I know I can still win, but the course is a lot harder to navigate. Editors like Larry are almost non-existent. They cower, they IM, they stay holed up in offices, hoping no one asks them to read any copy and that the copy editor can handle any great needs from their end. It's a lazy field these days. Who knows, maybe all the reporters will eventually be replaced by Google. Fast and cheap. That's what counts.

Maybe it can get better, but it's hard to say. Maybe journalism is dead. Is it? I don't know, I hope not, b/c then I'd have to go back to school...damn.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Well, I can't exactly disagree. I have no doubt there are brave, heedless, hard-drinking journalist types out there still. But do many if any of them still work at newspapers or magazines? Are they all in their rumpus rooms doing blogs? I am sad sad sad that you are not working somewhere that appreciates your worth and uses it to their advantage. The only advice I have isn't really useful, and that would be to do the proverbial nationwide search for the Best Darn Job you can find in the middle of nowhere. You would counter that those newspapers are unlikely to be better in any of the ways that matter to you, and your domestic arrangements won't allow it anyhow. Sigh. My journalism experience was aberrant, working for a guy whose nickname was Che -- this is what we call a true fact -- and then at one of the craziest newspapers in the U.S. at the tail end of its craziness. I wish I had something smarter to say. My encouragement must be general. Find something you want to write about and figure out a way to write about it. But if the figuring it out involves drug sales or robbing liquor stores, I withdraw the advice. (That advice didn't last long.) Maybe you should start making book proposals??

Anonymous said...

What was wrong with Cathy Shen?

Ellen Braunstein said...

I would love to be able to email Maxine Rock. I had her as a magazine professor at Georgia State a long time ago. Anyway you could put me in touch with her?

Ellen (Bernstein) Braunstein

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I have not communicated with Ms. Rock these 25 years. I would like to think that she is now a fine tiny old lady who dyes her hair.