Jewish World Review July 12, 1999 /28 Tamuz 5759
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVERY WORKDAY, the mail arrives in plastic bins, and nearly every batch contains at least one request for advice. The typical letter goes something like this:
"I have watched you closely over the years. You appear on a radio show ('The Rush Limbaugh Program') heard by millions; host a television show ('Fox News Sunday') watched by thousands; anchor broadcasts on a cable network ('Fox News Channel') seen by hundreds and write a syndicated column that appears in tens of papers, if not fives.
"You have achieved these things despite obvious handicaps. You have a thin and reedy voice. You have grade-school writing talents. Your hair looks as if it were made of clay or some other ceramic compound. And your smirky smile is so annoying that I want to knock it off your face with my fists.
"Based on these observations, I can only conclude that you have some scam going. Please disclose the secret, and return it in the enclosed self- addressed, stamped envelope. As you can tell, I know where you live."
Letters of this sort have proved quite stimulating, and they have inspired me to think long and hard about the keys to success in the helter-skelter world of modern journalism. While I don't pretend to have all the answers, I have managed to identify a few:
First, master the basics. A good reporter must strive at all times for accuracy and fairness. This begins with getting quotes absolutely right. An inaccurate citation can distort a story dramatically -- maybe even wreck some innocent person's life. So one must listen carefully.
Bob Woodward has become a god in our profession by reconstructing verbatim some of the most historic conversations of our era. He achieves this feat by conducting painstaking, probing interviews of people who were not there. When the absentees finally agree on the precise wording, he preserves the discussion for the ages. This technique has proven especially effective in reconstructing events when the participants are comatose or dead.
Of course, a reporter also must approach any subject with a jaundiced eye and a sympathetic heart. The political world teems with sharks, many of whom gladly would devour the scribe who lacks feck. A good pundit must enter any fray armored with informed skepticism.
I recently observed this phenomenon firsthand, when I overheard a colleague confronting a bothersome and insolent Washington official who seemed determined to lie until the reporter's patience ran out. But the tenacious scribe refused to yield. "You call this a grand cru?" he cried. "It is swill! Cloying and harsh, with a hint of base metals!" A few minutes later, a suitable claret in the glass, the pundit sat back, swished the wine between his teeth and said: "You know, this China story bores me. The polls say nobody cares."
Now, notice I stress the need for "informed" skepticism. Pundits cannot live on their bon mots alone. They must acquire expertise in a variety of fields, or else their opinions would be mere prattle.
To take a recent example, I read a half dozen books on Serbia and Yugoslavia during the opening weeks of the recent war. This enabled me to lay out with historical certainty the facts that air war wouldn't succeed and that Serbs would never surrender an inch of Kosovo.
Book learning only opens a window on the world, however. The truly adventurous pundit also must experience the variety and piquancy of everyday life. There are many ways to do this. I prefer to jog. Each day, I make my way around the Mall in Washington -- looking more like a Macy's Parade blimp than Mercury -- absorbing the sights and sounds, and watching tourists as they gape at the monuments to our democracy.
One day, while trying to keep pace with a septuagenarian runner, I had the misfortune of hyperventilating and passing out. I was awakened by a gentleman who was screaming: "I evict thee! You are sleeping on my house!" In this way, I became an expert on homelessness.
Our fast-changing profession requires other talents: One must acquire the right sources and cite them scripturally. The canon includes the front page of the New York Times, the back page of the New York Post, and anything overheard on a D.C. subway. The alert reporter must learn to use the Internet -- sometimes for purposes other than downloading pictures. And most practitioners of our trade have grasped the importance of kissing up to such folks as Don Imus, knowing that abuse from the right places can help beef up speaking fees.
But perhaps I have revealed too much. There are other important secrets to success, but constraints of space deny me
the opportunity to share them. So let me part with two words that can help resolve, at least for guys, the keys to big hair:
07/08/99: Queen Tut?