In John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” a character approaching the end of things looks back and asks himself, “What have I contributed to the Great Ledger? What am I worth?”
It is an eloquent and moving passage. Perhaps because I am a writer, I love the metaphor.
I suspect many of us in San Luis Obispo County, each in his or her own way, have asked the same question. Our demographic here is not, after all, chock-a-block with young ‘uns.
Now it’s my turn.
I will leave the work force Friday, and I’ve been looking back to see if I’ve contributed anything.
It’s not an easy question for a journalist. The old line about newspapers being used primarily to line birdcages still rings true.
(I worry about parakeets and canaries after newspapers become entirely electronic. How will they deal with their bodily functions in a sanitary way? But I digress).
On paper, I’ve clearly been hard at it for decades. My first full-time, paid newspaper job began the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Since then, I have worked as reporter, feature writer, and bureau chief. I’ve done rewrite, worked the copy desk and wire desks, been city and metro editor, and helped run a newsroom of 50 reporters at a paper that had eight daily editions serving 35 cities and towns. Yikes!
Much of my career was in opinion writing, as editorial page editor for a news group that had a quarter million readers, and later writing editorials for its competitor. I wrote columns for both and have picked up a writing award or three along the way.
When I washed up here eight years ago I was assigned to cover county government.
I’ve sought to do so in a way that went beyond who, what, when, and where, and spent time on the why and the how. I’ve worked to explain context and provide gravitas. I’ve tried to use language with the respect it deserves, and with flair.
I’ve done all this under a handful of guiding principles, chief of which is the observation of Finley Peter Dunne that “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” As I think of it, giving a voice to the voiceless.
I’ve had a couple of death threats because I adhered to that credo.
GOOD RESUME, SO WHAT?
But here’s the thing: Does any of that, as solid as it as it may seem on paper, matter? Did it help anyone, the way a social worker, say, or a nurse helps people?
That to me is the gold standard and the answer to the question “what am I worth.” Did your actions make things better for anyone else?
For my journalism career, I don’t know. I just have to hope that maybe it did, in some small ways that can’t be measured.
Meanwhile, looking back, I somehow feel as though I should impart some words of wisdom.
However, sorry, I’m fresh out. The talented young journalists with whom I work know better than I where the information industry is headed, and the older folks are doing their own ruminating about what their lives have meant; neither needs my meanderings.
I do want to make a couple of observations about how journalism has changed, because I think it’s important. I am still cornball enough to believe that our system of government relies on an informed electorate.
I think we have moved away from that.
It’s all shaking out, and will be for some time, and I concede that because of the Internet there is more information available to real journalists than ever before. That’s all good, and it will lead to positive things in the end.
What has alarmed me is the disastrous turn that gathering and disseminating news has taken as the new order shapes itself.
We have somehow become a society in which people can shop for news the way they shop for cereal, as though there were no such thing as truth. Another problem: professional standards have all but disappeared from too many quarters.
There are so-called “news” organizations and individuals on the national and local levels that consist of damaged people printing and broadcasting stories that follow no journalistic principle.
They are doing exactly the opposite of what I have always believed people in my profession should be doing: They are afflicting the afflicted. It’s psychodrama and personal vendetta masquerading as news, and to a real reporter who has spent nearly half a century honoring the profession and its principles, that it could gain any traction at all is deeply troubling.
But, hey, I’ll get over it. This, too, shall pass, as karma keeps rolling relentlessly toward the swamp where these vermin hiss and slither.
BACK TO STEINBECK
Circling back to me and Steinbeck, his character also asks ‘”what can (my life) mean to me in the time I have left.”
For me, I want to focus more on comforting the afflicted than afflicting the comfortable (of which I’ve done more than my share).
There is personal precedent: Ten years ago I went out on my own, freelancing. I wrote about Arab-Americans who were discriminated against after 9-11 and people who were being maligned by the health care system. Those stories had real meaning to me.
One woman I interviewed remains in my mind. She took care of abandoned children, and went out of her way to seek out the children of crack addicts because “they need the most love.”
Those are the people I want to interact with and, if there is a way to do it, help out, using the one skill Ahura Mazda gave me: the ability to string words together in a compelling way.
So, what have I written in the Great Ledger? Not nearly enough, I fear. I guess I’ll just have to keep on scribbling. That rustling you hear is me turning to a new page.