On Being A Journalist

This has been a painful time, while the old hegemonies have been massing together to try and suffocate what is inevitably coming to birth in our Republic, in the world. Yet the flip side has been that we’re living through a golden age of journalism. When the Executive branch of government was kidnapped, when the Judicial is endangered by being packed, and when half the Legislative seems silenced, we are still here, in fact still advancing, only because of investigative reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and others.

Because journalism is a human activity, sometimes guys who think they’re its bosses snore on in their corner office wet dreams of more advertisers via tabloid gossip and lazy republishing of government handouts, while reporters pace, drink, and start smoking again in wild frustration. Until stringers in far countries get murdered, and then in near countries get imprisoned, and then even at home get threatened with jail.Then, journalists get pissed off when the president of their own country calls them the enemy of the people, because of unflattering stories they do manage to tell since they happen to be the truth.

We are actually damned fortunate to live in a period like that.

I never thought I would be in any sense of the word a journalist. I never thought I even wanted to be. Oh, I knew I always loved words, in any shape or form, in any use, from a grocery list to an epic poem. I read about great journalists, but they all seemed to be tough-guy correspondents, like Ernie Pyle. Nobody ever taught me about the great Ida B. Wells. Then I saw Rosalind Russell in the movie His Girl Friday—and thought I’d die with longing to be a newspaperwoman, but where were they in real life? Once I discovered poetry, though, I knew why I’d been born in the first place. Worlds opened up. Fiction. Essays. Political polemic. Wow. And I was off–with what in the 1940s and 50s they called (redundantly) “creative writing.” As if, even in a grocery list, there was any other kind. Think about it.

But in order to sustain my love of words—especially poetry, stories, novels, and essays—I found myself, and I admit this to my shame, looking down on journalism. This got intensified because for me, as a young woman, any job in journalism at the time would have been covering fashion or flower shows at newspapers, or else at women’s magazines, which were considered second-class journalism, “cash cows” for advertisers, virtual catalogs of products telling women how to dress, cook, keep house and “please him.” It took years of feminism before I grasped how subversive women editors and writers at those magazines had really been producing “how to survive” manuals (womanuals?) on home economics, environment, child development, household maintenance, interior design, nutrition, domestic violence, family psychology, teen sexuality, hygenics and sanitation, food storage, double and triple tasking, and a hundred other skills social science hadn’t yet discovered, psychologists hadn’t yet studied, and gay men hadn’t yet popularized on TV.

Even in so-called “underground newspapers” men controlled content and women did the leftist equivalent of light features. Then women took over a leading radical paper, Rat, and I wrote an incendiary piece called “Goodbye To All That,” reprinted complete with footnotes in The Word of A Woman, and never turned back. In retrospect, I guess that was journalism.

That was before I would come to work as a book editor, first freelance and then in-house, then later as an editor at Ms. Magazine and finally as Ms. Editor-in-Chief in the early ‘90s. It was decades before I would be a co-founder of The Women’s Media Center, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in and through media, including all forms of the press. Today, to the extent that I can call myself a member of the press at all, it’s due to the tutelage of Suzanne Braun Levine, who was the founding Editor of Ms. and who for 18 years shaped that historic, still-ongoing magazine, then went on to become Editor In Chief of the distinguished Columbia Journalism Review, and subsequently author of numerous successful books.

I don’t want to mislead. My primary identification is as a poet: it’s why I remain interested in breathing at all. Still, in an age when facts are as hideously abused as women, journalism really comes into her own Amazonian warrior queen self, and I am humbly willing to fall in as a foot soldier in her ranks. I don’t know if the odd op-ed piece and this blog qualify me as worthy of the name, but I’m proud to call myself a journalist too, today.

Go back far enough and you’ll find that poets were the original reporters, anyway. They used rhyme because rhyme made what they had to say easier to remember. They gathered news while wandering from town to village to city, reporting stories they had heard and witnessed, passing news on, gathering more. It became important to them, in spreading what facts they had, to be discerning about which were accurate and which were not. So perhaps there’s not such a dichotomy between poet and press, after all.

Either way, words are all I have. I’d say that words are my weapons, except that there’s only one use for weapons: to kill. So, more accurately, words are my tools—because tools have many purposes: to attack, defend, teach, inform, clarify, signal, build, share, communicate, and so much more.

How lucky I am, how grateful, that all I have are words!

The Robin Morgan Blog will be on hiatus until September. If Robin decides to post on breaking news in the interim and if you subscribe to the blog you will receive the post as usual in your mail box. Have a great summer. . . .