Reporting: a Skill Of Competent People

REPORTING is a universal trait among competent people.

An essential aspect of reporting is a predisposition to activity, to inquiry and exploration. A reporter wants to see things for himself, to check things out instead of relying on secondary opinions. A reporter is often contrarian, assuming that prevailing views can be routinely wrong. He digs and works.

I approach this subject in frustration over the mush of views offered to the public today in political town meetings, the fake combat of pundit gladiators, and the widespread disdain for the reporting profession.

A test: Did you see the moon last Sunday night? It looked bigger because it was closer than it will be again in a decade. Here in New England the sky was clear. As notable as the moon was how many stars could still be seen. A quick survey of everybody in the Monitor's newsroom showed that about 60 percent had seen the moon. I'm not sure what it proves, but I did want to know how many of our staff felt impelled to see the lunar event - a curiosity check.

The most competent people check things out for themselves. Great chefs want to know the laws of physics that underlie their profession. They go to one another's restaurants to find ideas. They borrow from disciplines like philosophy that might appear quite distant from gastronomy.

Like sculptor Henry Moore, who could find in pebbles ideas for his works, successful creative people are open to new impressions.

Do the talk-show combatants, plied with ideological steroids, even listen to one another, let alone think to persuade?

Peter Lynch, the investment superstar who ran the Magellan Fund, the nation's top-performing equity mutual fund through the 1980s, shows a reporter's temperament in his new book, "Beating the Street" (Simon & Schuster, $23.00). Lynch would visit factories, call up CEOs, check out shopping malls, to get a line on what stocks to hold and what to sell. What did his own kids wear and what did they want to eat? These held clear clues for merchandise and restaurant trends. A factoid about median housing prices

on the rise alerted him to a turnaround in real estate at the same time that empirical evidence was suggesting that the recent recession was holding tight.

Lynch warns against skittishness: Do not react to glum weekend thinking on Monday morning. "Unless you're a short seller or a poet looking for a wealthy spouse, it never pays to be pessimistic," he says.

Prevailing moods, uppers or downers, can distract the investor from studying company fundamentals. The best stock to buy may be the one you already own.

Lynch's success, it can be argued, derived not so much from a market philosophy as from habits of character: For every company's stock that he bought or sold, he had some direct information or experience. The governing aesthetic, DNA, or whatever one might call the organizing factor of Lynch's portfolios was the playing out of his own inclinations, curiosity, and actions. Not blind hunches or impersonal methodology but inquiry.

My father, so far as I can recall, never tried to impose on me any set of political or denominational beliefs. He did, however, relentlessly admonish: "Be observant!" Wherever we went he coached me in observation: What crops were growing in the fields? How much clay in the soil? During the one movie I ever saw with him, he made sure I noticed the substitutions of different horses for stunt and riding scenes.

When my father was a boy in Italy he served as an amanuensis for a young man who had been blinded in a fight. The young man, knowing the mountain paths, would carry the boy on his shoulders and ask him to describe how the buds were leafing out, how the light played across the valley, how spring's color sequence evolved through lemon and lime. After my father had left for America, in the hardship and loneliness of the mountains during the war, life became difficult for the young man.

Be observant. The propagandist sells old programs. The reporter, examining whether even his own precepts are right or wrong, always is discovering something new.

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