Low Tide By Brandon Loomis
Yesterday was one of those days when a newspaperman belatedly wishes for the foresight to enter the office the back way, to telecommute from home in a bathrobe, to install a trap door in front of the receptionist's desk.
"Good morning, Brandon. This gentleman has been waiting to see you."
Harold "Bill" DeLong, a slender, kindly 84-year-old New Yorker in a blazer with a "Dance Host" button on the lapel introduced himself, said he hadn't much time before his cruise ship left, and inquired whether we might be writing up something to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism victims and the heroes of that day. I hadn't had coffee yet and I didn't know which reporters might be available at the moment, and New York is a long way from Juneau, and I was silent and puzzled long enough for him to reach for his file and start handing papers and news clippings to me.
As the conversation progressed - me in befuddled silence, trapped in mid-step toward the stairs and my desk, accepting photocopies in my left hand while using the right to fiddle pointedly with my knapsack - I heard the rapid-fire abbreviation of Bill DeLong's epic octogenarian humanitarian tale: oldest walker in the 2001 New York AIDS walk, once and future nurse to irradiated Chernobyl children, educator of children in Africa (though he's having trouble getting into Sudan right now), former diplomat, Rotary International Relief's UN Co-Chair at large, dance host, world's oldest union waiter, champion of elderly workers' rights ("You're an awfully young editor - must've climbed the ranks quickly"), New York Mets fan, and first to erect a food-service tent for the police officers and firefighters working the 2001 World Trade Center disaster.
Dance host? I didn't ask, but he said it was "mostly a relaxation thing," and I later learned it's someone who dances with singles on cruise ships. It was clear that his real passion was niceness, which I have to admit is something I don't always compute. And so, as he told me he'd be the featured speaker at the Ketchikan Rotary Club on Tuesday, I bade him bon voyage and good luck and climbed the stairs to a work day that would not include assigning a reporter to his story.
I mention these things because it struck me, a day after an independent journalist appeared on the Juneau Empire's front page criticizing the media (those conniving, conspiring devils) for ignoring human plight in Iraq and for declining publication of his dispatches from that country, that few readers know how many decisions a cynical, jaded but ideally truthful and compassionate news person must make in a day.
"I have literally sent stories to big newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, which I felt were big stories, and literally have had them write me back and say, 'This is not news,'" the freelancer said before a speech to the Juneau World Affairs Council.
Him and literally thousands.
Newspapers struggle with issues of credibility, which limits what they'll accept from people who aren't their own. It admittedly can be insulating, and big papers in particular can be too proud for their own good, shelving worthy stories in favor of their own man or woman on the ground. These days, as an independent journalist rightly sniffs, some established reporters come dangerously close to getting in bed with the military by "imbedding" with the military during maneuvers. These are dilemmas that every news organization should sort out.
They aren't a conspiracy. They're just choices, made individually or in teams within hundreds of newsrooms distinct from one another. "The liberal media" used to be a buzz phrase for paranoid conservatives. Now every lockstep liberal thinks the media are obstructionist, a smokescreen. Newspeople deserve scrutiny and often mockery, especially when lives are at stake in a place like Iraq and especially if they're being lazy or dense. But the only people for whom decisions are easy are those with narrow agendas. It's nice to be on the right side, but propaganda is propaganda on any side.
This week the Empire received a handwritten letter of warning about the dangers of blending church and state, and it was written in the margins of a photocopied tabloid story about the Rev. Sun Myung Moon being coronated Messiah by U.S. congressmen. The anonymous writer - oddly from the precise block of Chicago's North Winthrop Avenue where an ex-girlfriend of mine once lived - underlined some passages, blacked out others and added the words, "antichrist, false Christ." And don't think I wasn't thinking what you are, but the ex-girlfriend has since moved. I mention all of this not because it's newsworthy, but because it's not.
About 10 years ago a man came to me telling me he had the formula for a water-fueled car. He sounded persuasive, and I lived in community that had pioneered nuclear power and then claimed the highest number of advanced engineering degrees in the nation. What did I know? To my knowledge his story has never appeared in print, and I live in fear of the day that it does and I learn I missed a story for the ages.
Would I recognize a true Christ if he came to me with his story? Would I put him on hold? Maybe I'd dismiss him by playing a prank on a friend: "Who you really need to talk to is so-and-so at The Associated Press."
Woops. I've shown my establishment media connections.
Incidentally, dance host Harold "Bill" DeLong's story checks out. Among other praiseworthy achievements, The Rotary Club of New York lists him as "international ambassador," and in a recent speech to members, the club's president mused about DeLong's continuing work in Ghana.
Sorry for doubting you, Bill. But New York is still a long way off.
Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.