Silver spoon lands plum job in shrinking news industry without paying dues
(Editor’s note: The following was submitted by my friend Victor Epstein, a veteran newspaper reporter. Victor, like a lot of professional journalists is out of a job due to the economy and the newspaper industry still trying to figure out how to make money in the age of Twitter and The Daily Show. His column focuses on how ridiculous it is that Chelsea Clinton was recently hired by NBC News — and his (understandable) frustrations. But the column doesn’t stop there. It gives an insightful first-person account of what it is like to be a journalist with real world accounts about covering the news. Those examples demonstrate how being a “real journalist” translates into better reporting and story telling. The column is longer than what we normally publish here, but if you’re interested in the news and journalism as I am, you wont be able to stop reading it. — Chris Ingram, Publisher, Irreverent View)
A pair of headlights cut through the darkness behind me on a two-lane road outside Claxton, Ga., one night in 1994. They closed swiftly on my pickup before matching my speed at about 200 yards.
That almost never happens on country roads. Cars either pass you or you pass them. They don’t race toward you before trailing from a fixed distance. So, I slowed down to protect the identity of my source – a black high school student who had been warned to stop dating a white classmate in a town plagued by institutionalized racism.
The mystery car drew closer each time I downshifted, before matching my speed. We drove along in this manner for a stretch at 150 yards, then 100, then 50. We were separated by less than 10 feet by the time I brought my pickup to a complete halt.
The vehicle now visible in my rear-view mirror was a Claxton police cruiser.
I stared at the embarrassed officer for what seemed like an eternity, the cruiser’s headlights illuminating my face on the otherwise empty and unlit road. Finally, he floored the gas pedal and hurtled past me, face locked forward as I shouted “go tell your buddies back at the station about this one.”
I found myself recalling that formative experience from my time as a cub reporter last night as I pondered the announcement that NBC had hired former first daughter Chelsea Clinton as a special news correspondent. It’s the latest hiring of a child from a prominent political family in the contracting news industry. The field I’ve devoted my life to never seems to run out of room for them, even as thousands of veteran reporters are being kicked to the curb.
You may not read it anywhere but here, but I guarantee you that beleaguered reporters around this nation are quietly seething with resentment over Chelsea’s latest “accomplishment.” There is such a thing as receiving too much damn help from mummy and daddy.
An isolated incident? Sorry, no.
This kind of caper by the upper crust is becoming the norm rather than the exception as politicians and their kids take over the national-level media. Journalism objectivity is being transformed into partisan political cheerleading by these entitled opportunists, much as the neutral stock analysis that once characterized Wall Street was transformed into advertising during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s.
A news industry that’s supposed to serve the common man as a watchdog over the rich and powerful is itself being remade into a tool of rampant favoritism and political cronyism. In a word – propaganda.
You won’t see these silver spoons working for a small-town newspaper or TV station. The 1% and their children don’t pay their dues in the sticks like the rest of us.
That’s strictly for the little people – the forlorn 99% that the Occupy Wall Street movement is always talking about. We’re the “suckers” who still cling to the fiction that we live in a meritocracy where even the lowest-born among us may speak truth to power without fear and rise above our humble beginnings by being honorable, talented, honest, industrious and passionate about our chosen trade.
Even more disgraceful is the fact that Chelsea will have all of the rights of free speech that are now routinely denied to most rank-and-file reporters in the increasingly repressive news industry. In the name of “objectivity,” we’re discouraged from expressing opinions on anything. Many times, we’re not even allowed to champion the truth over disinformation.
Personal opinions in the news business are now reserved largely for the stars of the newsroom and the rich. Increasingly, they’re one and the same. The rest of us are equipment. We’re the laptops and the keyboards.
The painful truth is that every time some child of the self-appointed American aristocracy gets handed a plum job like this it’s a setback for decent working people.
There are literally thousands of real journalists who are holding off on starting families until they can secure the kind of job that was just handed to Chelsea on a silver platter. There are also thousands of other proven journalists – just like me – who are scrambling to remain in an industry we love after being idled in one of the mass layoffs undertaken to sustain media profit growth the past 20 years.
The U.S. news industry shed 14,106 of its 55,715 jobs from 1990 to 2010, according to the annual employment census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But that apparent 25% decline is only part of the story.
The real decline is actually 40% once you adjust the number of professional journalists for our nation’s rapid population growth. The U.S. population expanded to 310 million in 2010 from 250 million in 1990, dropping the number of professional journalists per million Americans to 134 from 223.
However, there is never any reduction in the number of newsroom jobs grabbed up by the silver spoons. It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst of times for the rest of us. For them, it’s always the best of times.
This isn’t even about journalism for Chelsea. It’s about building her face and name recognition without paying for ads as she pursues a political career. I’m sure Hillary is thinking that if she can’t be this nation’s first female president, maybe Chelsea can.
Roll the clock back to September of 1987. I’m sitting in another car outside the old Bronx House of Detention with my dad, who died a few years back. Unlike the parents of the silver spoons, he actually served in combat in the defense of this nation – crash-landing in occupied France aboard a glider on D-Day, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and the battle to cross the Elbe River under fire, and liberating death camps in Germany during World War II.
We were looking up at the imposing prison in the South Bronx, which towers above 151st street like a huge yellow cinderblock, when he cleared his throat.
“Are you sure you want to do this,” dad asked me, lifting a gray eyebrow in concern.
I was still living at home at age 22, but I was about to become the first student-journalist to conduct a jailhouse interview in the New York City Corrections system. My subject was Larry Davis, who had been arrested for shooting six New York City police officers in a 1986 gun battle.
Davis was known for robbing drug dealers and working as a confidential informant for police. He was a suspect in seven murders at the time.
The New York Post and New York Daily News had been running photos that made the burly Davis look like he was 6-feet tall. He actually was built more along the lines of a 5-foot-4-inch fireplug.
I didn’t recognize him when he finally entered the crowded cubicle farm for our meeting in a pair of non-prescription glasses.
“Where’s Larry,” I said impatiently, looking down at him.
“I’m Larry,” Davis said.
“You’re Larry,” I asked. “Come on. You’re can’t be Larry – Larry’s taller.”
“Everybody says that,” Davis said with a shrug.
Clinton is not the first unqualified silver spoon from the professional political class to be handed a plum news job. There are tons of them. Maria Shriver started the trend in the late 80s when she landed a network news gig seemingly out of nowhere.
The current crop of media silver spoons includes Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain, who is a contributor to MSNBC; Chris Cuomo, son of former New York State Gov. Mario Cuomo and a correspondent at ABC; and Jenna Bush Hager (left), daughter of President George W. Bush and a correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show.
Hager’s professional qualifications?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Either she was hired on the strength of her status as a teacher’s aide and reading coordinator, or she was hired because her daddy is the former head of the Republican political machine. Curiously, her first big accomplishment was landing an interview with Bill Clinton, the former head of the Democratic political machine. How much do you want to bet that one of Chelsea’s first big “gets” will be a similar interview with George W. Bush?
Apparently, it’s not enough for the Bush and Clinton families that have wrecked this nation the past 20 years to give their children every possible advantage of money, place and power. They still feel compelled to stick a thumb on the battered scales of workplace meritocracy.
This kind of over-the-top coddling makes you wonder how smart these kids really are if they still can’t compete with the rest of us on a level playing field, even with their fancy prep school educations and all the other advantages of being born into a wealthy family. It’s either that or the public school system must be a helluva lot better than we thought.
Which brings us to Chris Cuomo. He decided to make a career in journalism after growing bored in the legal profession. However, unlike you and I, Cuomo didn’t have to start his news career at a tiny TV station in Montana where he had to carry his own camera. And he didn’t have to build his resume at a tiny daily newspaper without employee health insurance.
I still bear the scar (right) from a laceration suffered while changing the oil in my car in 1992 when I was working for the Pekin Daily Times – a small daily outside Peoria, Ill. I couldn’t afford $440 for the ambulance, much less $160 to put the stitches in and another $160 to take them out. Not when I was making $15,000 a year and paying $300 a month in student loans.
So, I fixed it up myself. Badly.
It’s a safe bet that most of you have been faced with similar choices. Chelsea and her fellow silver spoons have not.
Cuomo started right out as a political analyst for Fox, CNBC, MSNBC and CNN in New York City. To his credit, he’s done some fine journalism. However, we’ll never know how many of his accomplishments are due to him and how many are due to his famous daddy, because every door was opened for Chris.
You can’t really measure a person until you see how they function in adversity. So, we don’t know who Chris Cuomo really is. Neither does he.
What adversity has Cuomo endured? I don’t count leaving the legal profession. And let’s face facts – if Cuomo had been a member of the 99% he could have never done it.
Why? Because the kind of student loans that the 99% are saddled with in law school don’t permit such capricious changes of heart.
Want to know what Meghan McCain’s qualifications are for one of the handful of network television news jobs? Me too.
Like a lot of aspiring journalists the 27-year-old decided to try her hand at writing a blog. Unlike the rest of us, her blog is published by The Daily Beast – an international news organization that’s a destination job for most journalism lifers. I can’t even get them to look at my resume, and I broke the iconic story of Hurricane Katrina.
That McCain blog must really be amazing, right? Sadly, it’s not. See for yourself.
The highlight of each column is the introductory paragraph written by the editors of The Daily Beast. Without them, readers wouldn’t even know what message McCain was trying to share. The basic story structure needed to communicate that information just isn’t there.
McCain also has a Twitter account. That’s where she chose to respond to the suggestion by one journalist that she had “never accomplished anything.” According to Gawker, McCain “posted an expletive-ridden and atrociously spelled” response which ticked off a series of very suspect accomplishments. They included tutoring kids at church, delivering flowers to hospital patients, internships at Newsweek and Saturday Night Live, and the erroneous claim to have written the first blog in history to document a presidential campaign in 2008.
Apparently, research is for the little people. Not little rich girls. Otherwise, McCain might have known that the first blog to document a presidential campaign was the “Official Kerry-Edwards Campaign Blog,” in 2004, per Gawker.
It was 1994 and I was standing across the street from the headquarters of Bland Farms in Glennville, Ga., at 7:40 a.m. in a crowd of migrant laborers I had an 8 a.m. interview with Chief Executive Officer Delbert Bland and was using the remaining time to gather quotes from the migrants camped in their cars.
Delbert’s daddy Ray had other ideas.
He skidded his pickup to a halt beside us and leveled a double-barreled shotgun at me through the driver’s side door. The holes at the end of the weapon looked huge. The migrants evaporated.
Ray didn’t identify himself. He shouted “who the hell are you,” insisted I get in the vehicle and drove me to his son’s office. Then he marched me past the startled ladies in the call center – shotgun still cradled in his arms.
Bland Farms, which now accounts for a third of all Vidalia Onion production, had just been fined nearly $600,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor for assorted labor violations. Inside the office, Delbert asked me what the hell was going on. I said that’s exactly what I wanted to know.
“Are you going to tell me you didn’t know anything about that?” Delbert asked, slamming a copy of that day’s Savannah Morning News down on the table in front of me. It was open to the editorial page.
Staring up at me was a powerful editorial and cartoon (left) depicting the Vidalia onion industry’s exploitation of migrant workers.
The various newsroom departments don’t always communicate as they should and the wonderful, albeit poorly timed, editorial spread was as big a surprise to me as it was to the Blands.
I remember thinking “this is friggin great,” and then actually saying “this is terrible – this is exactly why you need to sit down with me and get your side of the story out there.”
I landed that story.
All of which brings us back to Chelsea Clinton.
What entitles her to avoid paying the same kind of dues that those of us in the 99% routinely shoulder to claw our way into the news industry? I’m willing to bet the bank I’d beat her 99 times out of 100 if we ever went head-to-head on a competitive beat. The one is for mummy and daddy’s friends.
Chelsea’s already had every possible advantage. Why does she merit even more?
Is it because of her lifelong commitment to journalism? No. Chelsea had never been a journalist and never exhibited any professional interest in the field until she decided to pursue a career in the family business – elected politics. She’s notorious for refusing to answer reporter’s questions, even for stories about her new reporting job.
If I could ask her a single question it would be “what in the world makes you better than me and the people like me in journalism? We’ve fought hard for the little we have, devoted ourselves to public service, paid our dues and made personal sacrifices to be in this field.
What have you ever done, besides be born?”
Sorry, playing dress-up at pricey charity balls doesn’t count in my book. Neither does running the family charity.
Like her mom, Chelsea doesn’t need to pay her dues at the local level in elected politics. She’s big-time. Mom started right out as a U.S. Senator and Chelsea is probably going to start right out as a U.S. Representative, most likely by being appointed to someone’s unfinished term.
There won’t be any school boards or development boards for Chelsea. She probably won’t even need to unseat an incumbent to win her place on the pay-to-play gravy train.
Chelsea has been a professional student most of her adult life. She’s never been either a journalist or a journalism student. She attended an exclusive private prep school, just like all the silver spoons in this story. Apparently, the public school system their fancy parents cobbled together for the rest of us wasn’t good enough for their own offspring.
Chelsea pursued her undergraduate education at the very expensive and very prestigious Stanford University. She went on to earn master’s degrees from the very expensive and prestigious University College, Oxford, and from the very prestigious and very expensive Columbia University. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the very prestigious and very expensive New York University.
Somehow, I don’t see her struggling to repay any student loans. By contrast, I spent 16 years eating lunches at Sam’s Club and having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles for dinner as I paid off my college loans.
Then again, I ain’t no Senator’s son and I ain’t no president’s daughter either.
Chelsea’s supposed to be somehow deserving of this gig because she’s better than me? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think she could walk a day in my shoes.
It was Sept. 6, 2005, and Ray Couture and I had just about finished the gruesome body count inside St. Rita’s Nursing Home in hard-hit Chalmette, La. We’d found the corpses of 15 elderly Americans in various states of decay.
It was a horrendous experience. The worst bodies looked like they’d been carved from butter after floating in the floodwaters for eight summer days. Some still had catheters hanging out of them.
It took us an hour to perform the room-to-room search in the dark and flooded facility. The wooden doors had expanded in their jambs and we had to shoulder them open without slipping and falling into the stew of decomposing tissue, feces and swamp mud that covered the floor. Yellow streams emanated from the bodies – a characteristic I would later learn is typical of decomposing fat.
Ray and I were in the lobby, where a few beams of sunlight illuminated the brown high water mark all around the big room. An indignant voice broke the silence.
“This ain’t right,” the voice said, dripping venom. “These guys never had a friggin’ chance and that ain’t right.”
Ray was staring back at me in slack-jawed amazement when I suddenly realized the outraged voice was my own. The “me” I keep penned up inside. The “me” that isn’t a detached, professional observer of the human condition. The real “me” who has opinions and knows each corpse inside St. Rita’s was someone’s grandmother or grandfather.
It was also the me that knows that leadership is done by example and that elites are expected to get down in the muck with the rest of us when there’s hard work to be done. Chelsea Clinton and her fellow silver spoons haven’t done that.
The painful truth is that if they can’t suffer along with the rest of us, they’re not fit to lead.
We work hard in the beleaguered middle class, without benefit of the huge financial safety nets that the Bush and Clinton clans have created for themselves.
We’re suffering through the worst economic climate since The Great Depression and we deserve to be led by someone like ourselves. A self-made man or woman. Someone who knows what it means to get screwed over for doing the right thing. Someone who knows what it’s like to go to bed hungry, patch up their own wounds, and slog through this American life without
a safety net.
That’s the essence of true representative government.
Sorry Chelsea, you and your fellow silver spoons are not ready to lead me and hardworking Americans like me. You’re not a patch on us.
But if we ever create a “House of Lords” to represent America’s self-appointed hereditary aristocracy, like the one they have in merry old England, you’ve got my vote. You’d be perfect for that.
Until then, leave me and those like me alone. If we wanted to be ruled by a hereditary aristocracy through an entrenched political machine, we’d move to North Korea.
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