I continue to learn from the students taking the feature-writing class I am supposed to be teaching. The other night, for instance, one student was wondering aloud how to gain the trust of a critical source, someone who might be the ideal protagonist for a story. But the subject didn’t trust reporters. “Why not describe yourself as a writer,” suggested another student. Within minutes heads were nodding around the room that “writer” was generally regarded as something nobler than a reporter.Given that I make my living as a reporter, this image gap is of no trivial concern.
It’s not as if I don’t understand. The writer arrives, invited and wearing a sportscoat with padded elbows. The reporter invariably calls at the most inopportune moment, in a wrinkled trenchcoat.
The writer has eyes that are wise and understanding and, even a bit moist at times. The reporter’s visage, by way of contrast, is more ambiguous. Is that a sneer or indigestion?
The prevaling supposition is that the writer has the time to grasp and reveal every nuance of a situation, whereas the reporter grabs a few facts and quotes (or more likely mangles them) and bangs out something on deadline.
Of course, being one of these professional mutts, it has always mystified me how the writer’s mystique survived the libel trial of New Yorker magazine author Janet Malcom, about whom it has been said, “her vocation was not-niceness.”
Malcom hersef has written:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
What Malcom meant, I think, is that journalists are deceivers in the service of truth. They pretend sympathy to extract a story. But they put every word they hear through some journalistic meat grinder to be combined with thoughts and words from other sources — all of this to be poured, sausage-like, into a story. Ideally, the lesser deception of the interviews is justified by crafting a story more truthful than any single perspective would permit.
At least that’s what I recall. But I’m a reporter, and Malcom, a writer, may have had more in mind.
Meanwhile, it would be wise for everyone in the word game to disregard the fact that Malcom tarred journalists with her brush — no matter whether they styled themselves writers, reporters or citizen irregulars .
Instead, let’s add the perceived distinction to our arsenal of deceptions. From now on, if anybody asks, I’m a writer. Or in a younger crowd, a blogger. As for reporter, let them take the fall. They look the part.