From the time I was old enough to make sense of my surroundings, watching my father come and go as a newspaper reporter and later long-time editor of The Record in New Jersey, journalism seemed to me the most exciting, important, and honorable way to live a working life.
When a major event happened somewhere in the world, in the middle of the night, the phone would ring in our house and my father would get out of bed to answer it, sometimes staying on the call for hours. From my bedroom, I could hear him in charge, urgency under control, asking questions and giving instructions. When an event continued to unfold, news piling on news—the moon landing, JFK’s assassination, the Tet offensive, Watergate—he’d hang up the phone, pack a bag, and go live at the paper.
After I graduated from college in 1970, working at my first job, my enthusiasm for a reporter’s life was heightened by the aura of Woodward and Bernstein. Over dinner at my parents’ house, I’d pepper my father with questions about a business he loved and was happy to discuss and dissect at length. I learned about conflicts of interest; ethical challenges and moral dilemmas; the consequence of inaccurate or imprecise language; freedom of speech; sources and confidentiality; public service and corporate profits; public lives and personal privacy. I came to appreciate the values he treasured: balance, objectivity, fairness, accuracy, and truth.
“Truth’s a funny thing,” he said to me in one of those conversations at the kitchen table. “You can’t even begin to get at it without parallax.” I’d never heard the word until that night. We were talking about the Vietnam War. As a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, he hated the war as much as anybody, but he sought to understand it from the perspectives of both the hawkish Robert McNamara and the anti-war Eugene McCarthy. I was more focused on Nixon’s dishonesty and treachery in “this goddamned war.”
He smiled at me—a sweet smile, not condescending. “You really think you know what’s so, don’t you?” He pointed to the clock on the wall above where we were sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen table. “What time is it?” he asked. I looked up at the clock. “Five of seven,” I said. “Oh, really? C’mon over here, please.” I got up from my chair, walked over to his, sat in it, and saw that the clock read five after seven. “That’s parallax,” he said. “The so-called ‘truth’ isn’t determined by where you stand or by your own particular perspective.”
My father could spot bias in a simple sentence or a photograph. One night, he spread across the kitchen table wire service photographs of Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy. Snap: Lady Bird yawning at a State Dinner. Snap: Lady Bird at the LBJ ranch in Texas climbing awkwardly over a stone wall, legs akimbo. Snap: Jackie, hands back on her lap after yawning, demure in an elegant yellow brocade gown at a White House concert with Pablo Casals. Snap: Jackie sailing on Nantucket Sound, her loose hair cascading in the breeze over her beautiful face. Did these photographs show the first ladies as they were, he asked me, or did they simply reinforce the stereotypes? He gathered up the photographs. “I refused to run them.”
These conversations taught me about journalism, of course, but also about living a responsible and decent life.
At my second job a few years later in Philadelphia, I worked in public television where I wrote about PBS programs before I’d ‘advanced’ to the corporate suite and had little time left to watch any. I missed content. And I was enamored more than ever by journalists who provided content (and a liberal attitude) for my evolving mind: Russell Baker, Joan Didion, Pete Hamill, Clay Felker, Izzie Stone, Oriana Fallaci, and the era’s pioneers Woodward and Bernstein.
Around that time, I asked my father to introduce me to his friend, the editor of one of Gannett’s top papers. I was sure I’d come out of the meeting with a few introductions, if not a job. My father’s friend didn’t waste any words. “If you want to get on a long line behind hundreds of the top graduates of the best journalism schools in the country willing to write obits for $8 an hour for a few years, be my guest.” That was it. Newly-married, with a young family, I declined. The dream was over for me. But not the principles, the ideals, of journalism.
William Faulkner, in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, admonished writers “not merely [to] be the record of man, [but] … one of the props, the pillars to help … endure and prevail.” That may be a highfalutin ambition for an online local newspaper. It’s a stretch, I’ll admit. But why not aim high, bring big ideas into local conversation, honor and engage the curious mind with respect, intelligent thinking, humor, good writing—to help us readers live better lives?
So, pass the wine! Let’s celebrate the arrival of The Connecticut Examiner.
Fritz Jellinghaus is a consultant on editorial/writing projects and on strategic philanthropic partnerships. He is Chairman of the Connecticut Arts Council and the Connecticut Arts Council Foundation. “Pass the Wine” is a regular column of The Connecticut Examiner.