Beware the old nostalgic journalist
No sadder sack exists than the journalist in the twilight of his career. After decades of scrutinizing other individuals and their institutions, the soon-to-be-retired journo predictably looks inward and, if his editor indulges him, pens a heartfelt goodbye essay to his readers.
Robert G. Kaiser, former managing editor of the Washington Post, contributed such a note to his paper yesterday. To his credit, Kaiser doesn’t bawl with nostalgia for his paper’s salad days, like so many other recent writers of goodbye notes to their publications. Nor does he take aim at penny-pinching publishers and greedy chief executive officers, the standard suspect in the who-killed-the-newspaper-and-put-me-out-to-pasture sage. Nor does he slag the Web on his way out. Kaiser is too smart for that. In 1992, he wrote a persuasive memo (pdf) about the coming triumph of digital news and advertising, a memo that the Post tried and failed to translate into a business model.
Instead of giving his publication and readers a nostalgic goodbye with his final contribution — as is usually the case when a journalist departs — Kaiser opens the choke to spray a melancholic farewell to the federal city of Washington, which he’s called home for most of his 70 years. “[T]he political circus that enthralled me for so long,” he writes, has lost its spell on him. Having recently relocated to New York, Kaiser adds, “I don’t miss Washington, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”
Rather than paraphrasing Kaiser, let’s capture his yearning with several quotations, which detail how and why he has wearied of Washington:
Because for me, the fun has drained out of the game. So has the substance. I used to get excited about the big issues we covered — civil rights, women’s liberation, the fate of the country’s great cities, the end of the Cold War. I loved the politicians who brought those issues to life, from Everett McKinley Dirksen and Howard Baker (Dirksen’s son-in-law, curiously) to Russell B. Long and Edmund Muskie, from Bob Dole to George Mitchell — all people who knew and cared a great deal about governing. Watching them at work was exhilarating. Watching their successors, today’s senators and representatives, is just depressing.…
Where once we had Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.) and Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), for example, now we have Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). Did you listen to Baucus testify about China, where he is soon to be our ambassador? (“I am no real expert on China.”) …
When I was young, we had Republicans who liked to govern, resisted political orthodoxy, made strong friendships with Democrats and took principled positions on difficult issues.
And so on. He lectures us on points we’ve now heard several million times, such as the two parties, which once contained multitudes, have now sorted themselves into a consistently liberal party and a consistently conservative party, and that both are captive to corporate campaign money, “a form of pollution way beyond the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Kaiser’s position — that big issues with substance were the quarry when he was coming up as a journalist in the 1960s and 1970s, and the political game was different — will perplex anybody who bathes in the news about gay rights and gay marriage; the wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against “terror”; the Obamacare drama; the triumph of the Second Amendment; the immigration debate; the technology revolution; and the NSA’s snooping. These topics might not animate Kaiser, but they keep my tail wagging. I’m not that much younger than Kaiser, and still find “fun” in the game that has so depressed him he’s had to move to New York to replenish his cheer.
To his credit, Kaiser expresses no self-pity about his career. And in a revealing moment near the essay’s end, he confesses that his advanced age might be contributing to his despondency and his longing for the old days. Yes! Yes! Yes! I thought, he’s going to explain that Washington’s new ways alienate him because many of the reliable news sources he built up over the decades are either dead or living in assisted care! That this sort of heat death is visited upon every reporter and on every beat! One day you’re pumping with vitality and the next you’re an aged agent of occlusion, pining for the old days and blocking the future. And it’s not just journalism! Every professional bonds with his colleagues to fall in love with a shared framework, shared standards, and a shared consensus on what should matter! This doesn’t apply to professionals only. Amateurs long for the music and literature of their youths, growing homesick for simpler times when things mattered, things made sense, and even chaos had an order to it.
But that’s the paragraph not taken. Kaiser lapses back to his original theme about “dreadful politics” and politicians pursuing “partisan advantage” instead of the good of the country — as if Dirksen, Baker, Long, Muskie, Dole, Mitchell, and Hart were philosopher kings riding rescue missions on white stallions — not politicians bent on cutting deals and winning re-election. He’s missing the point.
From the day we fill our first diaper to the hour they plant us in the earth, we struggle to forge identities to shield our egos, regardless of our professions. Cracked and weathered by time, our identities eventually start to give way — when we’re passed over for a promotion, laid off in a reorg, or retire — or suffer other diminution of status. Inevitably, we reach to the warmth of the past to defend against the chill of the present. Or as Svetlana Boym puts it in her 2001 book, The Future of Nostalgia, “Reflective nostalgia is a form of deep mourning that performs a labor of grief both through pondering pain and through play that points to the future.”
Because the meat wagon eventually comes for us all, the least we can do is be prepared for it. If you’re a journalist and you feel compelled to write a goodbye note to your readers, write it when you’re in your mid-40s and you’re most receptive to change, when the world still seems vivid, and your appetite for novelty is still growing.
And after you write it, throw it away.
My thinking on the goodbye note and nostalgia benefited greatly from an unpublished article by Stacy Spaulding of Towson University titled “The Poetics of Goodbye: Plot, Change and Nostalgia in Narratives Penned by ex-Baltimore Sun Employees,” which steered me to the Boym book. Also useful was “Goodbye to the News: How Out-of-Work Journalists Assess Enduring News Values and the New Media Landscape,” by Nikki Usher, which can be read via Academia.edu if you register and search for it. Don’t send your goodbye notes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. For nostalgia about yesterday, see my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: A general view of the exterior of the Washington Post Company headquarters in Washington, March 30, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Reuters White House correspondent Steve Holland (L) asks a question of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, December 13, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed