Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ugly Journalist

No, I wasn't referring to male colleagues.

But seriously, that joke aside, I'm intrigued why, when I ask journalism students to choose a reporter or editor to study, everyone invariably chooses a much-admired figure, not a detested one.

For the past three years or so, I've asked students in journalism classes at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College and St. Theresa's College to interview a journalist they can learn from.

Every time, they make a beeline for the Isolde Amantes, Sheila Coronels, Cherry Ann Lims, Myke Obenietas and Bong Wenceslaos.

I'm pleased, of course, specially as each year sees more students swallowing their fears and seeking out women journalists, with experiences ranging from the just-green-from-graduate-school to green-from-newsroom-longevity, covering not just the traditional hard news beats but the lifestyle sections, youth magazines, women's journals and edgier online sites that are more open to literary journalism.

While the pragmatists latch on to the first editor that emails back a smiley to their inquiry, the conscientious seek out mentors.

But since last year, I've been thinking: can't one also be conditioned for excellence by seeking out the so-called ugly journalists, those who trash every standard inscribed in newsroom codes?

My curiosity surged back after I stumbled on two collections of Doonesbury cartoons. Created by G. B. Trudeau, the award-winning syndicated comic strip documents the “high- and low-lights” in American contemporary history with a humor that's wicked.

Among its memorable characters is Uncle Duke, the ex-governor, ex-ambassador to Pago Pago, ex-coach, ex-farmer, ex-fugitive, ex-deep penetration agent, ex-zombie who dabbled, at one point, as a gonzo journalist while pursuing his vocation of being a walking chem lab.

The Bald One never relinquishes his aviator shades and cigarette-speared-on-a-filter in any of the Doonesbury frames he appears in. To the everlasting nightmare of his editors at Rolling Stone, he has also never met any deadline yet.

According to wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, “gonzo” is a style of reportage that precedes the Gulf War brand of embedded journalism.

Popularized by American reporter Hunter S. Thompson, this journalism “enmeshes” the reporter in the action being covered, doing away with traditional notions of dispassion and balance.

Although it is now used as a pejorative, gonzo was Thompson's attempt to air out the profession, which he saw as stuffy from too many “useless” conventions, fairness for example.

Gonzo journalists “tell it as it is,” a conceit espoused also by the New or Literary Journalism school promoted by Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote.

In applying William Faulkner's idea that “fiction is often the best fact,” Thompson regarded editors as superfluous. According to wikipedia, he regarded the “mojo wire,” or the fax machine, as the only other indispensable feature in a newsroom, next to the reporter.

This “notorious misser of deadlines” just faxed articles, which were “too late to be edited, but just in time to make the printers.”

Since he often used alcohol or drugs to enhance his moods for his style-driven journalism, there may not have been too many editor-admirers of Thompson. In a Doonesbury strip, Uncle Duke smokes the peace pipe with his editor by turning out a 15,000-word essay on snorkeling that begins with this lead: “Glipper. Pptple pi zip. Xxplt copa lipzz.”

Interviewed by The Atlantic about his unconventional practice of just tearing out pages from his notebook and faxing these to editors when the deadline was long past, Thompson blamed too much objectivity as the reason why American politics was corrupt. “You can't be objective about Nixon.”

Or as pointed out by Uncle Duke, first appearing in 1976 as Gregg and Cher (formerly Bono, presently Allman) Bureau Chief, gonzo journalists can be that industry contradiction, the “insanely great” uglies.

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Fat Savage said...

Great and encouraging essay. By the way is there room for "insanly mediocre" uglies who are experiencing and documenting their own quests for enlightenment and knowledge?

Mayette Q. Tabada said...

Hi, Mr. Savage :-) Salamat for the encouraging comment. It took me some time to find out how to post a comment to your comment: that's the best argument in support of the view that the Internet should have enough room for all quests, even those carried out by ignorant Luddites like me. Have a good day!