Twenty-five years ago, in early middle-age, the person with whom I most closely identified was Homer Simpson. Yes, I was a lot more intelligent and responsible, but I still can't say the word "library" as anything but "liberry," and I have been known to devour an entire blueberry pie in one sitting.
Now, in my late 60's, I am even more humbled to say that the man with whom I currently identify most closely is Homer's dad, Abraham Simpson, the funny, adorable, cranky face of old age. Or, as Abe himself would say, "Is it that I remind you of grim death?" I'm considerably less funny and adorable than Abe, but lately I've been every bit as cranky. And with good reason, I believe. My anger is entirely righteous.
Just a few days ago, I woke up to a story in the New York Times about the online magazine, Gawker, and a piece of bathroom wall tripe it recently published about some corporate executive and his online personal dealings with a prostitute of the same sex. That stuff was scummy enough, but then I got to the part about the story being pulled by the website's business staff–after some 450,000 viewings, or well after the horse was out of the barn–and the uproar among Gawker's writers and editors over this unconscionable violation of the Chinese wall between business and editorial.
Are you people fucking kidding me, or what?
If editorial does not possess a collective sense of common decency sufficient enough to preclude the publishing of an article that has no meaning aside from its capacity to destroy a man's life, then, yes, it is incumbent upon the business people to step in and do what's right.
I don't mean to set myself up as a paragon of journalistic virtue, but the ongoing debasement of the Fourth Estate–my former profession–has gotten to be too much to bear. Journalism has to be a business for serious, thoughtful people, or we might as well break out the stakes and kindling, and fire up the live ones.
You thought I was kidding about being pissed?
Back in my first few years as a magazine reporter, I wrote a piece about a veteran newspaperman who negotiated the release of a group of hostages during a full-scale prison riot. The negotiations with the inmates were delicate and rife with fear and trembling, and the reporter's moxie and courage were, in themselves, enough to make it a good story for me. But there was much more to this tale, and it was pretty juicy. Seems the reporter had been an inmate at that maximum-security prison in his younger years and was called upon by the authorities to mediate the release of the hostages because he knew a couple of the rioters personally.
"I beg you not to publish that I'm an ex-con," the reporter implored me. "My editors know about my background, but my readers don't. It could ruin me here…it could ruin my career."
It was a tough call. Like I said, "reporter steps in to save the day" was a good story. But "reformed ex-con reporter returns to his sinful past to save the day" was a much better one. And I could make a fairly strong case that the public had a right to know that information.
But on the other end of the phone was a human being, a working, beat reporter, just like me, and maybe his small children and his closest friends didn't know he had once held up a liquor store, or whatever stupid felony he had committed as a callow youth. There's a great line in a great little newspaper movie called "Absence of Malice," where an editor says something like, "I know how to publish news and I know how not to hurt people, but I don't know how to do both at the same time."
I sure as hell didn't know how to do both. Maybe it was not the most politically correct thing, but I decided not to dump this moral conundrum on my editor–who happened to be an idiot–and I made the call on my own.
I chose to leave out the juicy, ex-con part. The reporter in me took a hit–breaking a really good story, a one-of-a-kind thrill, does not happen all that often. As for the human being in me, he has never looked back.
Life's full of these kind of difficult, nuanced choices. And I empathize with, and respect, all those who struggle with them. But when it comes to hurting some poor slob for a few lousy pieces of silver…well, as my alter ego, Abraham Simpson, would put it, "I'm filled with piss and vinegar…at first I was just filled with vinegar."