South Vietnamese civilians scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975 Credit: AP Photo

The Sun-Times back in the 70s didn’t have a foreign affairs budget, but it was more than happy to indulge a restless reporter’s existential funk. So on my own dime, in the spring of 1975 I found myself in Saigon as the Communist army closed in on the city and the world watched. And that fall I was in a Basque village of interest to no one but Francisco Franco, Spain’s dying strongman.

Each place showed me something about journalism that’s stuck with me a long time. In Saigon it was the noxiousness of self-importance. About three days before the city fell, I watched a correspondent for a very important American daily—OK, the New York Times—humiliate a tongue-tied South Vietnamese army major who’d left him off the list of journalists to be bused out to the airport for a press conference. It wasn’t enough for the Timesman to get his name added to the list; that took seconds. It was necessary to make the point that it was totally unacceptable to treat the Times in such a fashion. What was the press conference? It was the weekly opportunity for the North Vietnamese delegation that had been lodged at the airport since the peace talks to serve the western press tea, deflect our questions, and smirk—for as everyone knew, they were about to win the war and we were about to hightail it out of the country. This future was clearest to dutiful South Vietnamese including our escort, the major, who had to be wondering if by this time next week he’d be a refugee, a prisoner, or executed by the very people he was taking us out to see.

He could have done without the tongue-lashing from the Times. Though what was their man to do? As soon as newspapers and correspondents stop asserting their perquisites they lose them, don’t they? Clearly, that’s how he saw the matter.

I arrived in Mondragon, Spain, hours after a local innkeeper, a leader of the Basque independence movement, had been gunned down by right-wing thugs loyal to Franco, the caudillo in Madrid. Everyone in the region turned out for the funeral, far too many people to fit inside the church, yet space was cleared for the Yankee periodista who to everyone’s astonishment had found his way from Chicago to their village in the Pyrenees. In the years to come I would decide that evening was the most profound teaching moment of my career. For all the bells and whistles, journalism is witnessing. It is going to the places that the world cannot see and acting as its eyes and ears.

But here’s the thing: the world’s Mondragons no longer have to show so much love to whatever deus ex machina with pad and pencil happens by to behold their troubles. Today they can reach the world themselves. They can tweet, text, post video on YouTube. The silver lining is that there’s less reason than ever for self-regard.

Thinking such thoughts, I recently spotted younger journalists musing among themselves on whether the business continues to be worth it. Isabelle Roughol, who lives in Paris and works for Figaro, explained that she’d talked a “promising young man” into trying to get a degree in journalism, and now she wondered if she should have. “Would you recommend J-school and journalism as a career today to a 20-something without a trust fund?” she asked on a listserv for Missouri graduates.

Let’s set aside the question of J-schools. That’s an old debate, turning on whether there’s anything journalists need to know that they can’t learn on the job, and whether they’d be better off studying law, economics, or poli-sci instead. Or perhaps English.

But can a journalist still recommend journalism? That’s as existential a question as anything I ever grappled with. It doesn’t ask merely about what we do but about who we are. I weighed in with a conditional yes. Did the twentysomething have a real passion for journalism? If so, no other job would satisfy him. And while he was at it, he and his cohort could reinvent the business.

Michael McNamara, a photographer for the Arizona Republic, spoke more bluntly. “I think a big question would be if the kid has student loans. If so, it would be moronic for him to get a major in journalism. Why incur all that debt to go into a profession where your first job will pay about $20k?”

I wasn’t the only one to bring up passion. This might have been cognitive dissonance at work. Find someone doing a job he can no longer trust to keep him alive, and you’ll probably find someone working awfully hard to believe that he loves it—loves it like old-time baseball players loved the game that paid them so little some of them had to throw the World Series to make ends meet.

I know lots of old journalists in Chicago glad to be getting out of the life while the getting’s good. Yet most Mizzou graduates responding to Roughol were of the opinion that would-be journalists should go for it. For instance, Robin Hoecker, now in grad school, told Roughol her years in journalism had been “wonderful.” She said, “I got to go to so many interesting places, i.e. The White House, backstage at a World Wrestling Entertainment event, the burn unit of a military hospital, the pit of a car racing track, the belly of a military cargo plane, countless homeless shelters and a substance abuse meeting. I saw into the lives of others, which forced me to question my own assumptions about the world.”

Dawn Fallik of the University of Delaware described a similar life of constant adventure. “I was a reporter for 20 years. I traveled all around the world, covered Superbowls and executions and met amazing people. I loved my job. I got laid off four years ago. I’m a professor now. It’s stable. It’s well-paid. There is no editor screaming on deadline. But I miss the newsroom every single day. Every day.”

Fallik added a dire warning. “You can always go from being a reporter into something else. But once you’re gone, you can’t come back.”

When Roughol wrote again to thank everyone she’d heard from, she made it clear where her own heart is. She’s in Paris, after all, getting by. Meanwhile, her old English teacher took a pay cut of almost 50 percent to keep her job and lost it anyway, and her retirement fund went to hell. So things are lousy everywhere, and journalists better not forget it. “I don’t think one should dismiss a career they love at age 20-something because the times are tough,” Roughol asserted. “They might regret it at 40-something, when people happily pay for high-quality mass-marketed multimedia journalism with principles (one can dream, no?).”

Journalism is adrift, but if it’s drifting toward greater humility, that’s not so bad. Former Tribune columnist Anne Keegan, who died a couple of weeks ago, was both brassy as a bugle and humble as a monk at vespers. She did not yell at the little guy, and she would never have berated that poor major in Saigon. More likely, she’d have recognized that his absurd assignment and profound troubles made him a wonderful subject for a story on Saigon in its final days.

Keegan was mourned as the purest, least self-important of reporters by a generation that would like to think of its age as golden but, dear God, not as the end of days. Everything is changing, changing utterly, but, as Roughol wrote, full of hope, “The need for information doesn’t go away.” Yes, one can dream, and those who can had better. 

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