Some Liberties Were Taken

What follows is a newspaper newsroom story. It took place before well-meaning women transformed every workplace into deadly obstacle courses for all men, unintentionally or not.

For nearly 30 years now I’ve been absent from any newsroom. During one magical time for too short a stretch, I filed copy for my hometown Quarropas newspaper. I’d grown up with that broadsheet. Besides informing, it helped me learn how to read. As a boy, I delivered it to neighbors and friends. I even stood in the press room and watched what had been composed run off the press and bundled.

And yes, ink fumes were inhaled.

Through my teens in Quarropas, the local newspaper was just that. Local. Housed, no, squeezed into midrise floors overlooking Main Street and within crawling distance of city hall, this hive hunched over the middle of town. From there it kept easy track of the city’s pulse because that Quarropas had yet to become the Gotham adjunct it has today. Then, the city remained a bedroom community.

It is not a sepia-tinted cliché to state degrees of separation were few. Multi-generations bearing the same surnames and likely residing at the same addresses once removed attended the public and parochial schools. Outside of these, we certainly mingled inside the same familiar on the way to doughty stores or movie emporiums. And later during high school, when lines between teen-age and adult blurred sufficiently for many of us to enter bars and enjoy cocktails – as long as imbibers didn’t get shitfaced and act stupid! We skipped any experimentation phase with alcohol and sped directly to next day hangovers.

Mustn’t imagine the last sentence has some readers gasping. Certainly many are parents. They can’t dream of the darlings they’ve either birthed or sired doing anything as contrary as defying authority in pursuit of poking parameters. Like nearly everybody has done at this period of life before responsibility inflicts amnesia.

Afterwards, after graduation, some spun off elsewhere, while others remained in Quarropas. After years away in Arizona and Connecticut, coming back to Quarropas and seeing former classmates follow their parents’ footsteps or other joining relatives’ in municipal government, the uniform services, or their advanced degrees compelling ampersands on professional shingles lent the scene a warm continuity.

That’s how tightknit Quarropas was.

Despite the rosy picture, our city was not idyllic. The civil rights movement came. Resistance was slight. Best result of all? The grammar school most black kids somehow attended lost its entire student body through busing. Until then racial demarcations, lightly enforced as these were, still established lines only substantially blurred in high school. The public high school.

The people who engineered the transition were our parents. Just one more reason to admire them. Practical people, they realized something was wrong and fixed it. No dithering. No tortured debates about whose sensitivities might’ve been bruised.

Too bad. Make way for the future. Now!

In the 1963 school year, Quarropas had a notable imbalance in its elementary schools. In 1964 that had been erased. Cut and dry.

Then, unlike an incident almost 10 years ago which still reverberates today, the city perked along with scant racial strife. Indeed, Quarropas’ character has changed.

Before cosmopolitan airs landed upon the city, and before I vacated the newsroom, Quarropas was far more bucolic suburbia than Gotham North. It was still easily possible, no, likely, to run across acquaintances in what passed for “downtown” whom one knew because of a lifetime of proximity. There were numerous articles of mine whose subjects were already known to me or me to them.

Thankfully few of these occasions resulted in, um, awkwardness. And if I suspected beforehand my byline atop the piece could create discomfort, didn’t that assignment get handed off?

I wonder how my journalism ethics prof might’ve seen that. In 1978, he gave our class a choice regarding final grades. Accept whatever grade already earned through classwork or likely fail the final, thereby his class. A Boston Brahmin, and worse, a Red Sox rooter – as he often loved bray-bragging – he had Professor Kingsfield’s gravitas and reaped none of eminent fictional educator’s respect.

Wouldn’t my journalism ethics professor have mistaken my prudence for “mercy”? Or worse, timidity? Somehow I know he would’ve resisted me telling him “A bird does not shit where it eats.”

Wouldn’t he have mistaken my prudence for “mercy”? Or worse, timidity? Somehow I know he would’ve resisted me telling him “A bird does not shit where it eats.”

By the time my byline appeared the local paper had vacated its middle of everything premises. Between my departing and returning to Quarropas, the broadsheet had outgrown clearly cramped accommodations. Lured by suburban business park sprawl, modern facilities provided spacious offices and room for better presses. These transformed “our” newspaper into what eventually became a regional voice.

Progress shouldn’t have cost neighborliness. So it goes.

Only a few of the bylines from my boyhood and teens remained at the newspaper. They had enlightened readers for decades. I regret now not mining them for information. Or more information. The intimate kind regarding Quarropas. Not that those reporters and columnists had been privy to where any bodies had been buried. Just clearing up or clarifying incidents interesting to a curious local.

All that shadowy history forfeited.

My arrival occurred about a good decade into journalism making strenuous efforts to diversify newsrooms. For the longest white editors and reporters dominated newsrooms. They defined journalism. Too many bullpens had been crowded by guys who either disparaged people different than them or saw us as exotic even though we shared quite similar American experiences.

On one hand, it was beneficial to everybody that more women filled newsrooms and filed articles. Immaterial how empathetic a man is, there are some topics best observed and reported by women. Distaff eyes are likelier to also view and filter these from the inside as well the surface. Such insight awards heft to stories. Before social homogenization lessened distinctions between races, genders, the ethnicities, and veered into cultural appropriation, rare were the likes of Jacob Riis, William Allen White, Nelly Bly, Dorothea Lange, or James Agee in any newsrooms.

Instead the men screaming “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!” or “Hold the presses!” into phones were Ben Hecht caricatures who colored the nation’s image of “ink-stained wretches.”

On the other hand, a lot of women reporters reported directly from journalism schools.

Looking back let me attest J-school is ideal for being ingrained with the basics. But let’s not compare J-school to an apprenticeship. Who knows what function the inverted triangle factories serve now accelerated by technology? Then, stories only rested upon printed pages after being vetted. These days, e-press lets slap-dash serve as “news” no matter how unsubstantiated and speculative.

As manual typewriters have given way to electric versions, as those yielded to bulky monitors linked to mainframes, these ceding to laptops and camera-equipped handhelds so races journalism now. Occasionally heedlessly.

Fortunately, lazily, a few key strokes can retrieve and repair what had been discovered errant or fucking altogether wrong as in libelous. However, as the man once asked after being dragged through the mud then only much later completely exonerated, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”

Nothing circulates faster, farther than erroneous news. Nothing takes longer and leaves as shallow an aftermath as corrections. Online mistakes reaching the skimming public today are raging rivers compared to our less fleeting hard-copy times.

While I left university for the real world bearing quality journalism basics, I detoured for years involved in practical jobs with real people – the sort whom I’d later be covering and profiling. Trust me when I state nothing produces better journalism than first immersing prospective reporters among dissimilar people. It shakes notions. It improves sight. It goes far towards eliminating preconceptions.

Why, honest work could be the cure for a lot of frothing, know-nothing right-wingers polluting airwaves, as well as newsprint reactionaries who profess themselves as “conservative columnists.”

More of my contemporaneous female newsroom colleagues ought’ve taken my same diversion. A few did. But nowhere near enough. The ones who did have such backgrounds not only saw bigger pictures, but benefited from easier access into them.

The newer XX’s weren’t doctrinaire harridans. They weren’t wearing army boots while stomping the newsroom carpet. Nobody bore grudges intending to inflict them on those of us with XY chromosomes. But after getting the lay of the newsroom it’s impossible not to believe nebulous agendas started solidifying.

With them, “revenge” wasn’t the motive. Nor was it usurpation. Instead, wasn’t it co-option? They wanted more reflection of themselves on newsprint and less patrimony throughout the newsroom.

About the first, the product improved upon their entrance. Each was a diligent, competent reporter. They were professionals. The sort of colleagues who enhanced other professionals.

The second, though, the paper’s male hierarchy felt so anxious they trembled when any workplace action no matter how innocent transpired that could’ve been misperceived as some kind of “insensitivity.” See, here’s where jobs outside of journalism before nesting in that cocoon would’ve helped them, everybody drawing a check from there.

In the real world, one must contend with shit. It’s contended with because life demands such. Rent. Food. Bills. Acquiring necessities which provide creature comforts. And what job doesn’t have its, um, impositions? None. In real life one learns to how weigh and deal with these. It also instructs how to deflect and dismiss.

One or two of my former female newspaper colleagues who took roundabout ways before landing in journalism possessed such nimble adeptness each could’ve been toreras.

J-school doesn’t impart those lessons.

Clearly the women reporters who’d worked in other fields before crushing deadlines handled shit with far greater aplomb than their sisters just freshly spit out clutching BA’s – or God help me, MA’s! In journalism! Awarded in certain fields, some advanced degrees are just shorthand for acknowledged uselessness.

The whole sexual minefield hazard course sharp people know and loathe today was just burgeoning back then. Its nascence didn’t bother my fellow male colleagues or any newsroom woman who had something on the ball as far as give and take. Give and take as in “You get shit, you return shit!” Besides, professionals as we respected them, most women reporters in that newsroom held themselves aloof if it didn’t concern content.

Chitchat seldom passed between us. If any flirting occurred, it was inadvertent; the stain quickly wiped from memory.

What spared us from getting embroiled then fighting like wildcats to retain our exalted positions as newspapermen was this dictum: “You don’t get your meat where you make your bread.”

That deserves being chiseled in stone somewhere.

Whether learned instinctively, outside newspaper office confines, or simply intuited, extremely few of us tried swyving our esteemed lady writers.

Strangely enough the one or two of us who broke etiquette wound up marrying a colleague. Go figure.

Nonetheless firmly established as the invisible lines were, tragedy did occur in that newsroom. Tragedy as the ancient Greeks understood it, not as modern screw-ups transform minor gaffes into derailed tank cars carrying noxious gas.

In fact what happened made and kept me gimlet-eyed afterwards about sexual malediction accusations long before the Duke men’s lacrosse rape case. Remember them? A travesty Rolling Stone magazine further fucked up every which way a non-crime story could be fucked.

Yes. We often refer to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, but not a peep about innocent men. About the Dookies two whores dragged the machinery of North Carolina justice against. My, how far we’ve come. Why, I say, why in the old days the charges would’ve been tossed without a la-de-da.

Luckily the alleged assailants being Blue Devils prompted a thorough investigation. That exposed the women’s lies as well as the magazine’s attempt at point-scoring cred-building. What an absolute misfire. Wonder if the men hadn’t been Dookies?

Wonder if under the same circumstances the accused had attended a less prestigious college, full of less fortunate sons?

To this day the Duke men’s lax squad and a much earlier imbroglio centered in that Quarropas newsroom have caused me to hang fire to all but the most clear sexual assault allegations. And until these are investigated, brought to a trial where a verdict is rendered, and sentencing pronounced, they remain just that. Allegations. I know that last made readers susceptible to knee-jerks aghast. Good. It allows me to remind that under our law system all accused must be presumed innocent and proven guilty.

Hashtags be damned.

The Red Queen ruled in Alice in Wonderland. She was a character in a psychedelic parable. Her insistence on verdict first then the trial certainly suits too many people in our times.

To them I proclaim “Feed your head.”

Back on planet earth of the early 90s, a reporter was on a fast track to being elevated into a masthead spot. Speed emanated from merit, not because he was black. His would’ve been a deserved rise none but the most narrow-minded could’ve argued against or denied.

No. It wasn’t me. My skills lay in writing, not office politics and diplomacy. A man must not only have limits, but know them, too.

Unlike me, the male victim was popular. Or, he was genial and inoffensive.

He was more charming than good-looking. That doubtlessly let him believe himself a ladies man. He let belief propel him. A lot of women in that newsroom certainly regarded him as such. At least one surely succumbed accordingly.

Therefore, Mr. Charm he becomes.

At that time, the paper had hired some recent female J-school grad whose clippings and recommendations must’ve been beyond sterling. She’d arrived bearing a degree from a backup choice school. Otherwise hers the kind of hire which might’ve lent flesh to conservative conspiracy theory bones about “quotas.”

Marketers designated Quarropas within the Metropolitan Area. Meaning our bylines appeared in the nation’s No. 1 market. That’s cachet. The sort of shine that plumps resumes.

After all these years, I have no recollection of her. She didn’t leave any kind of impression. Nor was her presence long. Her legacy? The wreckage she left behind.

Whether Mr. Charm looked upon the fresh fish as fresh meat only he’ll ever know. In any case, they quickly struck up an amenable relationship. That two-stepped into after work drinks.

In getting over, no need to ponder whether he behaved attentively, spoke in conciliatory manner, or emoted understanding, all attributes which can be filed under the rubric “sweet-talking.”

Talk led to action. Consenting adults, they enjoyed relations. More than once, less than infinitesimal times. Knowing going in whatever they’d exchange would be casual, she clearly assented. However, she hadn’t made a complete transition from the women’s dorm or sorority house or apartment she’d shared with fellow students at the University of No Credit. Rather than keep those horizontal repetitions to herself, or at least practice excruciating judiciousness in who she revealed them, she confided in a female colleague.

Or two.

Since what story isn’t in the telling, maybe her audience found the details annoying. Or infuriating. Either way perhaps vicariousness instilled anger. A number of reasons, among them learning of another’s guiltless frolic and aware that same bus wouldn’t stop for her listeners might’ve been the ignition. Or maybe genuine indignation. Taken to extremes, the newbie could’ve been judged a subordinate who believed her position jeopardized if she hadn’t submitted.

Of course only suspecting who ratted out both, the righteousness eventually dispensed emerged from those sorts of people envious and upset strangers elsewhere had a good time. Must be brutal living a life whose default state is agony.

Events made rounds among the newsroom’s likeminded. Through bits and pieces, then assembling them, one gathered an informal Star Chamber convened. By its steady processes what truly happened was transformed.

What had been entered unambiguously gradually took on ambivalence. Revised then related in contrasting light, seen from bizarro angles, told in a harsh manner, what had been agreeable romps became sinister exertions.

Just the sort of changing horses in midstream that got the broadsheet’s upper management involved. The “complaint” received an inquiry. Maybe stronger leaders would’ve seen the piñata for what it was and swung mightily. But times being what they were, changing, the workplace no longer a boys-will-be-boys charnel house in regards to treating women, circumstances forced a decisive, meaningful, bullshit gesture.

That broadsheet prided itself in ferreting out man-upon-woman misdeeds in the suburban corporate landscape surrounding Quarropas. As a matter of fact, didn’t it issue a statement of principles promising to expose such malefactors without fear or favor?

Give the old daily credit. It did devote resources and effort towards improving workplace conditions for women who’d been beset by bosses who saw them with droit du seigneur. In that respect, it stood atop the crest of the curve.

Therefore, wouldn’t it have done to have been clear-eyed and methodical in-house? No. The high road can’t be exited if it leads to possible accusations of insider favoritism. Justice cannot interdict outside perceptions.

Mr. Charm had to go. So he went. It was jarring. It was unfair. It was one of life’s situations demanding rallying and righting. Yes. It was all that. This too: really, who of us wanted to defend Mr. Charm? Was he worth the enmity that surely would’ve smothered us in that newsroom if we exercised solidarity on his behalf? Making deadline was hard enough.

So adieu, Mr. Charm. We should’ve been better comrades. Instead we remained dedicated professionals.

In a strange appendage, his “accomplice” also got canned. Being a probie, what reason wouldn’t have sufficed for her detachment?

Many saw her departure as proper symmetry. That we kept among ourselves.

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