Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Three old things I know: Reporters should be as a fly on the wall. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Flies on walls are more attended than political spouses. Thus I blog.

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Name: Viki Volk
Location: St. George Island, Maryland

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Believe Howard Kurtz

Newspapers died for me four years ago when I was disappeared from mine.

It was already a running family joke. Local elementary and middle schools invited both my husband and me to their job fairs. "Who in their right minds would suggest a child become a waterman or print reporter?" we would laugh at the dinner table. But even as we laughed neither of us really believed we would become extinct. But we have. And it isn't funny at all.

He went extinct first and reinvented himself as an environmental educator. Then four years ago I was banished in 20 minutes from the newsroom I had joined in 1985, before marrying that retrograde waterman who had reinvented himself once again, this time as an elected office holder.

The Washington Post Company's conflict of interest rules that govern the newspaper company I worked for proved impossible to abide during my husband's candidacy -- despite my transfer to a sister paper in a different county. I left the chain around the same time Matthew Cooper of "Time" and Judith Miller of the "New York Times" were refusing to name their anonymous sources regarding the disclosure of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Gallons of ink debated the importance of anonymous sources to journalism and thus to democracy itself. It seemed the debate only generated interest among print reporters.

In July 2005 Howard Kurtz wrote a piece in "The Washington Post" about Cooper who Kurtz apparently couldn't reach, so he quoted Cooper's wife the "Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald."

The story pushed me over the edge. Friends and former colleagues were already desperately tired of my entreaties: Why could reporters of large, national publications retain their positions and marriages to newsmakers? The only answer that ever made sense -- although it never seemed fair exactly -- was size. Large, national newspapers could move a reporter married to a newsmaker to a different floor or a different beat -- the conflicted reporter could be -- at least theoretically -- removed from those reporters who covered the spouse in question. At a community newspaper this is impossible on every level imaginable, including theoretical ones.

I was not assuaged by the size argument. I ranted and raved and fumed. Of course readers didn't believe in newspapers anymore -- from the outside it looks like insider baseball.

So when the layoffs -- called buyouts -- began and it became clear that the bigger the newspaper the faster it failed, I felt slightly vindicated. But that ended quickly, when entire papers began disappearing. And when the meager freelance budget of that community paper one county removed dried up last year, I started getting really scared. That community newspapers could fail, long considered the strongest financial bastion of the industry, was like suggesting that environmental educators could disappear as surely as the ecosystems they celebrate.

It got even worse last week when Kurtz, a self-proclaimed optimist, admitted he, too, saw the end at hand. The newspaper, he wrote within the first 100 words, "might be left behind by history and public indifference."

Might? Meet my daughters: avid readers who grew up in government hallways and the newsroom of a community newspaper. Their humor is newsroom cynical. Their history is community news. One even qualified for admittance to the august University of Maryland's journalism school last year -- despite those laughing dinners. But she turned on her heel and transferred to a school that doesn't even have a journalism department. These are the most newspaper-friendly of their generation. Even if I can convince myself they aren't indifferent, I cannot fool myself into thinking they see newspapers as anything other than history.

Kurtz's article was long and carried an increasingly desperate tone as he tried to affix blame and share blame. I know that feeling. I've lived that sense of banishment for four years now and struggle to confront living with it forever. I've created a webpage and write about all that has been lost of my husband's former life. Now I have to include my own. And I need to find other financial resources since writing doesn't do it anymore. It is hard to outlive your vocation. Really, really hard.

Toward the end of his article Kurtz pegged us all -- the celebrities down to those of us who cover school boards and planning commissions and the biggest pumpkin at the county fair. He wrote, "Newspaper folks may have an inflated view of their self-importance, but what they do has an impact beyond their readers and advertisers. Local TV isn't likely to expose a crooked mayor, as the Detroit Free Press did. Bloggers aren't going to reveal secret CIA prisons."

He's right. We're going to rant and fume and write about what used to be.

And we should all be scared. Really, really scared.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

No More Kissing

What a relief! Finally a reason to turn away this kissy-kissy habit that has become the bane of many a political spouse and one would have to presume thousands of others, who, let's be honest, were much happier with a handshake instead of a kiss.

I'm not talking about those air kisses or even the cheek-to-cheek stuff. I'm talking about how in the past half-decade this kissing business has become extreme.

I don't think it was the matter of my demotion from reporter to political spouse that accentuated my personal awareness of this. I am willing to concede that I might have been more immune to the practice as a reporter but even so, I think this increased kissing was happening in the wider world and merely coincided with my demotion.

It seemed to be an established practice when I was a mere candidate's wife. Standing next to an already installed political spouse I watched with dread a reknowned lip-to-lip politico making his way down a spousal greeting line. (You may ask, "Why were only the spouses stuck in this line?" Even now as a bona fide elected official's spouse I can still only respond that I don't know. But after a mere four years I must add that their timing is a constant wonder to all us spouses.)

So, standing next to this tenured spouse, watching the lip-locker drooling his way toward us I asked, "Once you're elected, can you just say no? Turn your cheek? Avoid this lip-lock?"

"No," she said just before the lip-to-lipper drooled her silent.

As he turned to drool one on me she took a deep slug of her deeply amber shaded drink and as he laid one on me she lowered her drink and confessed quietly in my ear, "It's why I drink. It kills the germs."

The H1N1 flu warnings do not suggest alcohol as an antidote, but the warnings do make clear that the casual lip-lock is a bad plan in a world frightened of a pandemic. So while the warnings don't pointblank admonish casual kissing those masks appearing on everyone's faces imply it. And the constant handwashing advice goes further, suggesting that the handshake might rightfully be banished as well.

This has given me pause, I had never equated the handshake to a kiss, which is quite surprising as I look back. My decades of public bathroom behavior inspired stand-up comedy from both my daughters. Who would have thought washing with soap through at least two choruses of Happy Birthday, using elbows for turning off faucets and toilet paper for opening doors in restrooms equipped only with blow driers could be so inspirational?

But for all of that bathroom paranoia, I was a consummate handshaker. And for decades of such behavior I had never even heard of hand sanitizers. What was I thinking? Extending my hand all these years of reportage to politicians, criminals, lawyers, teachers, the afflicted, the winners and the losers, all in the search of a good story, a better angle, a closer bond. I used those same hands to first diaper, then brush hair and ultimately guide those little girls in and out of those bathroom incubators for, well, ever it seemed at the time.

And I missed the grip after my fall from reporter to political spouse. As a reporter the handshake felt like a great equalizer. As a spouse I learned that my old hand clasp became merely a handle pulling me into often awkward and occasionally really yucky encounters. Perhaps this is merely redirected bathroom paranoia, but once no one was interested in printing what I had to say about those objects of my hand clasps it began to feel that some of those former claspers relished lipping me up in my new role. And it didn't feel as though they meant it in the good way.

So these pandemic fears of damp germ distribution seem a healthy step toward a better life for many -- certainly for me -- but what's the alternative with handshaking suddenly considered risky behavior as well?

A friend suggests the oriental bow. Palms clasped together -- not offered -- and a slight inclination of the head toward your own fingertips. Of course, she counsels, the lesser personage must bow slightly deeper to the higher ranked, which will certainly pose some difficulties -- although not for spouses who are pretty clear where they stand in most greeting situations. But the lower bow can carry its own gender issues, not the least of which will be who gets the best view down someone's blouse.

Still, I like the idea. Frankly, looking strikes me as a lot healthier than all this touching. And I can think of a certain sloppy kisser who might be well pleased with the trade-off.

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