The always clever Dan Barry waxes about movies romanticizing journalism, surely a time capsule if ever there was one.

It’s a scary time for journalism, but Barry provides some much needed nostalgia about ink-stained wretches and the culture that keeps them crusading to uncover and tell the next big story.

I’m in stitches as he recalls an inside joke that had generations of reporters trying to slip one past the goalie. “As if by the wave of an occult hand,” appeared on news pages undetected by copy editors asleep at the switch. The great Charley Stough and his Burned-Out Newspapercreatures Guild newsletters in the 1990s helped us cotton on to the Occult Hand Society and heady journalistic subculture of generations past; a time before Quark Xpress and health fads.

Barry makes reference to Hollywood’s take on the world of reporting, singling out All the President’s Men, His Girl Friday (which we own copies of) and The Paper (which we don’t. But should.)

He writes: “Hollywood has never tried too hard to convey a typical reporter’s work life because so much of it involves bearing witness to the actions of others. This may include trying to stay alive on a battlefield, of course, but a reporter is more often trying to remain conscious during that zoning commission meeting in Woonsocket.

“Imagine the pitch to producers:

“A reporter in khaki pants and a white shirt is working on an investigation that could blow the lid off this town. But his editor keeps sending him to cover daily news events: a house fire, a court hearing, the unveiling of the new sewage-treatment plant. This is how it goes, day in, day out. And every night he cracks a beer and reassures himself that Hemingway started this way. The end.”

Nailed it.

And speaking of Charley Stough, here is just a sample of his BONG newsletter from days of yore. This is one of my all-time favourites.

“With disaster dominating the front pages and diatribe in the politics section, we knew we would find this pair of anecdotes from decades ago. Jerry Crimmins of the Chicago Tribune told BONG that the following conversation took place between a reporter and a Trib rewrite man after a toxic fire in Indiana:
Reporter: “I’m at the gym where they took some of the evacuated people, and I got a lot of good quotes. Also, the wind has changed and they may have to evacuate this place, too.”
Rewrite: “Where are you?”
Reporter: “I don’t know. Don’t you know? It’s a school.”
Rewrite: “What’s the name of the school?”
Reporter: “You can find that out. I’ve got a lot of good quotes.”
Rewrite: “You are there. What’s the name of the school? Where is the accident from you? Which way is the wind blowing?”
Reporter: “I don’t know! Don’t you want my quotes?”
All the more tragic is that out of this exchange, beside very little news, there probably arose a reporter who goes around
complaining that the desk screwed up his opus.

HELLO REWRITE, GIMME A SWEETHEART. Different reporter, different story, same rewrite man. The fire is in an old South Side factory district near homes.
Reporter: “The fire is or seems to be spreading now to another building. It’s very windy.”
Rewrite: “What’s the address of the other building?”
Reporter: “I don’t know. Can’t get that close.”
Rewrite: “Which direction is the fire spreading?
Reporter: “I’m not very good with directions. Can’t you look on a map?”
Rewrite: “They don’t have fires on maps. Which way is downtown?”
Reporter: “I’m not sure.”
Rewrite: “Where is the sun?”
Reporter: “Oh, no. Nope. I’m not getting into that.”



  1. Hal Davis · · Reply

    The Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec 2012, had a brief piece on the Occult Hand Society with nary a mention of the late Charley Stough. Thanks for keeping the flame lit.

    1. Hal, thanks for the head’s up. People, you can check the CJR story here: http://www.cjr.org/currents/talk_to_the_hand.php

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