Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half.
Well, another election has come and gone. Most of us are pretty happy about the “gone” part. I don’t know about you, but if I had seen one more damn TV ad with some overly mawkish candidate playing with their kids and their dog (there’s always a dog) in their bucolic backyard and earnestly intoning, “… and I approved this message,” I was going to throw my shoe at the screen.
As journalists, most of us enjoy election season (to a certain degree) because we are, at heart, policy wonks. We enjoy politics—it’s one of the reasons we got into the business to begin with. But it’s a double-edged sword. While we enjoy standing on the sidelines watching these dogmatic gladiators feint and parry themselves into mockery and derision, we often get tarnished by the collateral damage. Sometimes we just want to go home and shower with a wire brush, “Silkwood”-style.
I came of age during the dark times of the waning Nixon administration. As a young teen, I got to witness the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal up close and personal. They were on the front page of every paper, every day, and the lead stories at the top of the TV news every night, brought to you by Huntley & Brinkley, and, of course, Walter Cronkite. I was an impressionable teen when Woodward and Bernstein, with the help of Deep Throat, brought it all tumbling down.
I was fascinated by the power of words. I knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, but wasn’t sure exactly what. I considered becoming the next Stephen King (he was relatively new at the time), or perhaps a television comedy writer. Then Woodward and Bernstein came along, and then I knew. I wanted to take down governments!
Well, I never exactly took down a government, but I did take down the entire administration of a New York State agency.
My first job out of college was with the New York State’s Division for Youth (DFY)—a fancy term for Department of Corrections, but for kids. The old Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center up in Wingdale (Dutchess County) had been shut down and some of the buildings were being renovated to incarcerate teen felons. These weren’t kids who were caught stealing hubcaps—they were the real deal: robbers, assaulters and attempted murderers.
Anyway, I worked there for about a year and a half before the state and I decided we weren’t right for each other. I subsequently landed my first journalism job so I could begin my calling of taking down governments.
That first reporter gig was with the Pawling News-Chronicle. Within three years I went from staff reporter to managing editor. And it wasn’t long after that promotion that I started getting calls from my former DFY colleagues who were still working in that hellhole. They began telling me lurid stories. Counselors and administrators, they said, were collaborating with some of the “residents,” as they were called, in a drug-running enterprise between Wingdale and the Bronx. There were stories of sexual escapades between some of the female employees and the young men incarcerated there. It was also said that the administration knew about these exploits, but was turning a blind eye.
Anyway, they asked me to investigate and do an exposé. And since I knew from first-hand experience that most of the administrators who worked there were incompetent boobs with all the charm of a lanced boil, I was more than willing to give it a shot.
My contacts inside the Wingdale DFY began smuggling out Xeroxed documents and meeting me late at night at a local diner—my version of Deep Throat in the parking garage. They also surreptitiously recorded conversations and handed over the tapes. We conducted interviews of five or six employees and reached out to the administrators for comment. They stuttered and stammered like Ralph Kramden and quickly circled the wagons. At the paper, we fashioned a four-part series on the corruption going on there and before long the state attorney general began his own investigation. In the end, there were firings and arrests and the place eventually closed. It wasn’t exactly a government, but it was part of one, and I helped take it down.
I haven’t had anything quite that dramatic in my career happen since. We still cover the politics and the elections, of course, and the occasional story of a politician behaving badly, but no governments have been toppled. Yet.
The first election I covered was in 1984 for the same News-Chronicle. The presidential race was Reagan vs. Mondale. Now, as a community weekly paper, we didn’t write about presidential elections per se, so I use the word “cover” lightly. But my boss thought it would be fun to see how the specific towns we covered voted for president. Our papers went to bed on Tuesday nights, so we pre-wrote the story, just leaving out the numbers, and held the front page. There was no Internet back then, no cell phones. So, I had to drive out to the Board of Elections office in Poughkeepsie, hang out until the polls closed and the ballots were counted (close to midnight in those days), and then gather up the required info. Next, I had to hunt down a payphone (remember those?), call my editor and feed him the numbers.
Ahh, those were the days.
Fast-forward to 2012. I was working for the Daily Voice in Northern Westchester. Obama was seeking reelection and so was local Congresswoman Nan Hayworth, a Republican and Tea Party darling. She was facing former Clinton White House staff secretary Sean Patrick Maloney. On election night, we wanted to have a reporter at the various candidates’ headquarters—get quotes, take pictures—and post the results as breaking news. The problem was, we didn’t have enough reporters to send to every candidate headquarters, so we had to choose who we thought was going to win and go there. I was charged with covering the Hayworth/Maloney race. It was a tough one to call, but we figured Hayworth, the incumbent, had the edge, so I headed to her headquarters—a fancy high-end restaurant/banquet hall in Newburgh.
It was cool, because inside this ballroom they had set up a “media row” where we could all sit with our laptops and look important. When I got there, the mood in the room was party-like, raucous and optimistic. Fox News was being broadcast on a Jumbotron-sized TV. Drinks flowed copiously.
By 10 o’clock, it became abundantly clear that I had chosen the wrong candidate’s headquarters. In that big ballroom, it was like someone had thrown a switch. The mood went from rowdy to funereal in the blink of an eye. Fox News anchors delivered the information in grievous tones. Hayworth refused to take the stage or even concede the race. There would be no quotes, no pictures.
From my front seat on media row, I could hear the hushed murmurs of off-color invective emanating from the crowd. I had gotten a glimpse behind the curtain and it wasn’t pretty. It was one of those times when I needed to go home and shower with that wire brush.
I can’t wait for 2020.