Separating the Wheat From the Tares in News

It's a short, slim book, but it's all Pete Hamill, which means lots of punch to his words and ideas, but no sourness after 40 years of banging around journalism and life in New York.

And this new book, "News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century," is a scattered gush of journalistic ideas rooted in the conviction that better newspapers are needed. Now and forever.

Mr. Hamill, briefly editor of the New York Daily News and long time New York Post writer as well as bestselling novelist, aims this position paper in two directions: back to the old-fashioned tabloid values and fun that shaped him, and forward to what newspapers ought to do now that TV has won the game of getting there first with news (sort of) at 11.

The Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton story is a case in point, he says.

"We have to be the people who take a deep breath while all the excitement and gossip is breaking," he says, remembering that first frenzied week of White House TV coverage of the alleged affair, "and we make the extra 10 calls. In the morning, we guarantee to the reader to separate truth from rumor, wheat from chaff, and get as close to the truth as possible."

Hamill grumbles that what grips all media today, and slops over into the Washington press corps, is celebrity journalism. "The New York Daily News has two reporters covering education, and three reporters digging into Leonardo DiCaprio's life," he says.

In an hour long interview, Hamill ranged over the wheat and tares sprouting in today's journalistic landscape and edged his comments with a clear, unabashed love for a full life in an honorable profession. Following are excerpts from the interview.

What should the Washington press corps do differently?

For a long time they have been obsessed with politics at the expense of covering government. Politics is easier, just him against him, white hats versus black hats. Obviously 45 years of television have had an effect. A structure of drama has been drilled into the American people; they want life to be like a drama, and it isn't. I think after Vietnam and Watergate there was an exhaustion with seriousness, and that's when this celebrity cycle began I'm not against celebrity journalism as long as the emphasis is on journalism."

What would be an example of covering government instead of politics in Washington?

Here's a story not covered now. Sometime during the Reagan administration the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was repealed and nobody told us. I 'd put some reporters on the story to find out how and why the merger mania is going on, how in the wake of the collapse of the saving-and-loan organizations we are allowing banks to merge again in these gigantic structures? How does this happen? Does someone write it down and apply at a regulatory agency? Exactly how does it happen? Who are the people from the league of faceless men and women who are doing this?

How much are lobbyists paying to keep Congress quiet?

In your book you say top newspaper editors should live in cities, not the suburbs. Why?

When editors started getting paid more in the early '70s they became part of the middle class. And the (conditions) of cities began to drive out the middle class, and most editors joined the exodus.

But I think this has created a big disjunction between people who put out newspapers and the people that read them. You become less certain of your readers, and you're separated by geography.... I can't prove this but I think in the burbs there is a sense of refuge, a sense that [we] just want to get through this part of our lives together, get the kids through school, not get fired, and pay off the piano.

There is the sense that this doesn't leave much room in the imagination for the rest of the world. And now cities are more international than they ever have been. And with some exceptions, like The Wall Street Journal or The Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper is edited for a community.... Even in the last four to five years The New York Times has made their Metro section the best its been in my lifetime. They promise home delivery in Brooklyn or Queens when before they had more readers in London than Queens.

You've written newspaper columns, a half a dozen novels, and screenplays. Do you approach all three differently?

I write fiction in a trance. I surrender to the story in some way, so I need isolation, and no phones. I don't read newspapers before I start, and I do the first draft in long hand because the hands almost have a musician's memory. Journalism I can do double parked. Journalism is about lucidity, focus, and concentration, and I can do it if people were shooting in the hallway. I know how to separate and focus in on the subject. But the task is the same [in both]. You're trying to find the right word, and get the right verb, trying to make sure its not slovenly, not a million words when you only need 10. A lot of novelists I know are good reporters. They come knowing better than to make up their mind before they get there.

Beyond the impact of computers and Web sites on newspapers, will they survive?

I think there is a possibility that the traditional newspaper will disappear. I am very conscious of the huge pressures on us caused by things other than the content of newspapers.

One is the price of newsprint just as literacy is growing in every part of the world, which means a demand for newspapers. In turn this is a demand on a limited resource; at some point there could be seven trees left, and you have to ask, do we take these seven trees for newspapers or do we hold off for a few years and let some grow back?....

One bad sign of computers is that too many reporters are sitting in the newsroom talking on the phone to the cops instead of going to the fire.

You have to go to the fire. Editors have to trust reporters because they are there, or should be there and reporters have to trust editors, and this comes from the top first....

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