February 17, 2008
The Wacko Journalist NarrativeBy David Paulin
Are the hard economic times facing the newspaper industry stressing newsroom denizens beyond the breaking point? While willing to entertain stories of wacko-vets , newspapers seem singularly uninterested in exploring the human cost of their own continuing economic troubles. In place of worries about soldiers allegedly returning home and committing suicide
and murder in unusually high numbers, liberal papers like the New York Times and Washington Post might look at the nation's newsrooms -- their own included -- for a fascinating new narrative. You could call it the wacko journalist narrative.
No parody is intended here.
Trade magazine Editor & Publisher, considered the bible of the newspaper industry, says many newspaper staffers may be at risk for suicide as their industry faces yet another round of painful downsizing and layoffs, along with other work-related pressures.
In a story last June, E&P warned that newspaper staffers affected by the current shake-out should be "watched for suicidal tendencies" according to two health professionals, whom it quoted. Both are familiar with the newspaper business.
E&P's article and a related one in mid-June concerned the possible suicide of a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Richard Ramirez, 44. He was reportedly concerned about impending layoffs at the McClatchy-owned paper; it's now a shadow of the powerhouse it was years ago under its previous owner, the now-defunct Knight Ridder.
Ramirez, according to E&P, had been "troubled just days before his death by personal problems," and his wife was quoted as saying he was worried about impending layoffs. He was found in his backyard with a fatal knife wound. His death was later ruled a suicide.
Putting Ramirez' death into a larger context, E&P interviewed two public health experts. Both raised concerns about the mental health of newsroom staffers in the face of another round of cost-cutting and downsizing.
according to E&P's interview with Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Dart psychiatrist and founder of center, told E&P:
According to E&P, both men agreed that if Ramirez's death was indeed a suicide (as it was indeed ruled to have been) it "will be a reminder that anyone affected by the current news industry downsizing must be watched for suicidal tendencies."(Emphasis added.)
Part of the University of Washington's Department of Communication, the Dart Center, according to its website, "is a global network of journalists, journalism educators and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy." It also says it "addresses the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism."
E&P deserves credit for covering the newsroom suicide angle. Yet E&P's left-wing editor Greg Mitchell has nevertheless demonstrated far more interest in covering the suicides and emotional problems of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along with echoing the agenda of the loony left in his online column, he has exhorted newspaper editors to vigorously cover the suicides of American troops. On the other hand, he's urged no such pile-on in respect to covering journalists who, in increasing numbers, are themselves committing suicide.
Whether journalist suicides are in fact on the rise is hard to say, for no statistics measuring such things are available; at least nothing comparable to the extensive data the U.S. Army keeps on its soldiers -- and that it obligingly shares with the Washington Post.
Even so, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence available on journalist suicides -- and it's troubling. In June 2005, E&P referred to a spate of journalist suicides in a heart-rending story, "In Texas, the death of a reporter."
The in-depth piece (4,646 words) focused on the suicide of a well-respected and award-winning journalist at the Austin-American Statesman, 46-year-old Kevin Carmody. He specialized in investigative and environmental reporting, and, according to E&P's story, was dealing with a number of personal issues and work-related pressures.
Among other things, Carmody was taking the antidepressant Paxil and faced a court date for DUI charges two days before his death, E&P reported. And a week before his death, he brought his will to work: He had two colleagues witness and sign it, and another one notarized it.
Putting the reporter's suicide into a larger context -- that of possible a trend -- E&P writer Joe Strupp wrote:
It's a list, to be sure, that is hardly complete, as any Google search will reveal.
The current shake-out is nothing new. Over the past few decades, the newspaper industry has undertaken one wave of downsizing after another -- part of an effort to remain profitable amid declining readership and ad revenues. One popular downsizing tool has been "voluntary buyouts" of senior editorial staffers -- usually folks in their 60s, 50s, and even 40s, who earn the highest wages. The Washington Post is now undertaking such an effort.
At the same time, newspapers have gone on a minority-hiring binge (sometimes hiring not-so qualified people) under firm affirmative action/equal opportunity quotas. In today's politically correct newsrooms, the goal is to create the same ethnic and racial composition that exists in the local community, state, or even the nation; whichever criteria news executives feel is appropriate (or feel pressured into using). William McGowan's book Coloring the News dealt with the consequences of such multiculturalism.
Newsroom jobs are even being outsourced to India. Reuters has done that. And recently the Miami Herald was on the verge of doing it but backed down in the face of strong criticism. Interestingly, the Herald's outsourcing initiative was launched under Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal -- a man you would not expect to be overseeing such things. After all, he's the former editor of the left-wing Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Newspapers, like liberals, are suffering from high levels of cognitive dissonance these days. They love to run showcase exposes on Wal-Mart -- excoriating the retailer (wildly popular among working folks) for its allegedly cut-throat business practices. Another hate-object is the military, whose members are often portrayed as both killers and victims. Yet neither the New York Times nor Washington Post nor anyone else has ever done any comparable pieces about it own industry, focusing on the heart-rending human costs of another wave of downsizing. And make no mistake about it; there are human costs to such shake-outs: Many middle-aged staffers face a future of joblessness; part-time work; or irregular income working as freelance editors and reporters. And because journalism salaries are paltry in comparison to other fields, many have little savings to fall back on to launch new careers.
Ramirez, of the Mercury News, knew first-hand how bleak things could be. He'd been "looking for a new job for at least a year," according to E&P.
Lack of Accountability
All in all, some news outlets do a lousy job when it comes to covering scandals within their ranks. Consider how the American-Statesman reported the death of its long-time staffer, Kevin Carmody.
A well-known reporter, Carmody had written some prominent stories -- and some controversial ones. His work had spurred much public discussion. So you'd think the American-Statesman's readers would have wanted to know what led up to his suicide - and how it occurred. His wife found him near a favorite fishing hole by Austin's popular Barton Creek -- a well-traveled public area. He was hanging from a length of rope tied to the branch of a tree.
Yet none of that ran in the newspaper where Carmody had worked; the 522-word piece about his passing focused only on what a talented reporter and wonderful guy he'd been. Indeed, E&P's article pointed out:
When the American-Statesman reported on Carmody's death, the story offered few details about how he died, stating only that his death was "being investigated as a suicide," and it has written nothing more. Although his body was found in a public location, Editor Rich Oppel contends it was not "public" enough to merit more information for readers.
Well, Oppel must know what he's doing; he's a member of the board that awards Pulitzer Prizes, after all. Still, you have to wonder: How would his paper have covered the suicide of a local solider who -- to the shock of his family and colleagues -- hung himself in a public area?
The New York Times, for its part, found very little that was fit to print following the highly public suicide of a senior staffer. Allen R. Myerson, 47, who jumped from the paper's 15th floor at 10 a.m. on August 22, 2002. Minutes earlier, the business and financial reporter had left a suicide note on his desk.
In the next-day's Times, readers learned only that Myerson "fell from a parapet above the 15th floor." Police suspected a suicide, the paper noted.
Interestingly, a little over two years earlier, the body of reporter Agis Salpukas, 60, was found floating in the Hudson River. He'd reportedly suffered from depression -- a common thread in many suicides.
Could the two deaths be part of a trend at the Times? Well, probably not. Yet imagine if some Times' sleuth had learned that two soldiers at a military base had killed themselves within a number of months of each other? Imagine the next-day's headline: "Amid Iraq turmoil, military investigates another suicide."
Recently, satirist Iowahawk pulled together numerous news reports of journalists who had turned to crime; everything from wife beating to child molestation to murder. It's yet another possible trend that the mainstream media has yet to explore, and to quantify.
If only the Fourth Estate kept as many statistics on its personnel as the military did. Imagine the interesting trends it might dig up pertaining to suicide, crime, and other mayhem.
And who knows: Such stories might even boost circulation -- helping to ward off yet another round of downsizing, buyouts, and the outsourcing of editorial work to India.
David Paulin, a mid-career journalist, says he is not contemplating suicide. He blogs at The Big Carnival.
Note on Editor & Publisher:
E&P stories cited are not freely available online; you only get the first few graphs of the story. This piece reprinted elsewhere provides a good example of their coverage of this subject.