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124 TEN Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters? “What is the job [in journalism] that you would best like to have someday?” Asked of the Washington reporters interviewed by phone in 1978, the question offered them a brief and unexpected opportunity to look into their own future and dream grandly—it was merely talk and could do no harm. Yet the collective results are surprising, even shocking, in terms of what they say about how journalists then contemplated their careers. A very small number were specific in their aspirations. Stanley Degler wanted to be president of BNA, the vast niche publisher. When he retired in 1990, after 33 years with the company, his title was senior vice president. “Yes, I am satisfied,” he told us in 2007.1 Vicky Mason, a 26-year-old editor at Telecommunications Reports, wanted to be— and became—the publication’s editor-in-chief.2 Todd Kiplinger looked forward to being “managing editor of Kiplinger.” At his death in 2008, at 62 years of age, the Washington Post wrote, “He spent most of his 38 years [with his family’s company] managing the firm’s portfolio of financial assets and real estate.”3 Helen Dewar, on the labor beat for the Washington Post in 1978, aspired to “political reporting.” The next year she was reassigned to the Senate, where she joyously reported on the politics of “hallway stakeouts and midnight votes” until her last story was published on January 20, 2005.4 Hays Gorey, senior correspondent when he retired from Time in 1991, after a 27-year career with the magazine, imagined someday being managing editor.5 Judith Dobrzynski , at 29 years of age, could see herself as a future editor-in-chief at Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters?    125 Business Week; by 1995 she had risen to assistant managing editor and left to work for the New York Times.6 Karen Elliott House said she would “like to be David Broder,” and Sam Donaldson said he would “like to be Mike Wallace.”7 Yet in numbers almost equal to the number of all other answers combined, journalists answered “What I’m doing” or even “Don’t know.” These were workers so deeply involved in the moment—in the satisfactions and frustrations of the job at hand, in the deadlines and competition built into producing a solipsistic product that defines the world as starting anew each morning—that apparently they paid only glancing attention to the sort of career planning encoded in the DNA of members of other professions or occupations. They were ambitious, but their ambition seemed to radiate within a relatively small sphere. Jack Fuller remembered being a young reporter on the police beat in Chicago: “How long do I have to cover dead bodies in bathtubs? I’m tired of it. . . . I really lobbied hard to be sent to Washington.”8 Looking back on their careers, reporters often credited chance, luck, or even fate for their promotions, assignments, and successes. Tom Fiedler, who rose to become executive editor of the Miami Herald, remembered getting his first job: “I just walked in the door at the right time [1971]. . . . In a real odd twist of fate, an editor asked me if I would be interested in having assignments related to the presidential primary that year [1972] in Florida. . . . Then to get thrown into a presidential campaign primary [1976], almost by accident, again because nobody else wanted to cover George Wallace, and then to have Wallace become as big a story as it did, led to [other] opportunities.”9 The unplanned in journalism fits the journalist personality, reflected at one extreme in the fatalism that I saw when studying foreign correspondents working where the consequences could be deadly: “What will be, will be.” At this point, Stanley Karnow, a famed foreign correspondent, would say, “Journalism is the only profession in which you can stay an adolescent all your life.” As I wrote in The Washington Reporters, “The best reporters never lose this sense of excitement, often associated with youth.” The ones I studied were intelligent people, above average in both quantity and quality of education. Although a majority of them did not major in journalism, at some point they decided to try journalism. Could 126   Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters their unusual absence of focus on their professional future result more from what they do than from who they are? Regardless of how the journalists that we surveyed contemplated—or didn’t...


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