Journalism Lesson From a Dixie Editor
My mother didn't exactly cancel her subscription to The Mirror News.
What she did, she called me up -- collect -- from her flat in the Bronx just before Christmas last year with the hint that it would be "nice" if I got her something different as a present.
My custom, every Christmas since my first by-line, had been to send her a year's subscription so she could keep tabs on my progress in this dog-eat-dog world of journalism.
And I never, until the moment she broke the news to me on the phone, suspected that she was bored to death with it all -- completely disinterested in how I was doing or what I was writing.
"It's not that I don't enjoy your column," she explained gently, the way mothers explain those things to their sons. "It's just that I get the news here anyway."
At the time, the answer seemed logical enough, but lately, I've been thinking. If a struggling columnist's own mother won't read him, who will? And why won't they?
| I even started spending my coffee breaks going through old files, re-reading old columns. They sounded like good solid prose to me.|
The solution -- the crux of my problem -- evaded me until yesterday. Then, like a bolt, it struck me.
The answer is that I lack flair. No razzle-dazzle. Too stingy on the colorful adjectives. Too stodgy.
The solution came to me by way of an air mail letter from James M. Ward, editor, of the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News. Ward enclosed an editorial which ran in his newspaper last Wednesday, and, coincidentally, mentioned me a bit unfavorably.
But that's beside the point and I bear no grudge.
What impressed me -- and where I now know my lack lay -- is the man's ability to turn a colorful phrase.
I am described, for example, as a 'perverted poison-peddling journalistic jackal.'
Now, that's a catchy line. I never would have thought of it to describe myself. I don't even think my mother would have.
But let me, for benefit of other columnists in town who feel they're losing their touch, quote Mr. Ward's editorial further. It begins:
"Having been heaped with abuse and slander for, lo, many decades, one would think that the South deserves a vacation from the perverted poison peddling journalistic jackals who slither around looking for race-baiting articles. But no. The 'intelligent' editors of the big journals have an insatiable appetite for hate material and the word warriors keep pouring across the border.
"The latest smut maneuver is so asinine and ridiculous we're passing it along in case our readers are in the mood for a jelly-shaking belly laugh.
"In order to get what is advertised as the real 'scoop' on the Negro's feelings in the South, a gravel-brained gink named John Griffin from Los Angeles swallowed some queer pills, took ultraviolet ray treatments and used vegetable dyes to 'scorch' his torso so he could pass as a Negro.
"Then he headed South, natch, to dig up some dirt which he is going to peddle for cash to a magazine with a sepia-toned clientele.
"Griffin, his hair burred and wearing dark glasses, wandered into Mississippi, natch, where he says he was toned with rotten fruit within five minutes after arriving at Hattiesburg.
"Griffin also claims he uncovered a Mack C. Parker underground, with headquarters in Mobile, so the dyed beatnik galloped into Alabama.
"Although Griffin is a novelist, the Los Angeles Mirror gulped down his fantastic story and reported it as gospel truth. In an article by Paul Coates, Mirror columnist, Griffin reports the following experience . . ."
Another Lesson in Journalism Ahead
That's only the first one-third of the editorial, but the man's flashy, appealing style is obvious.
In the future, to pep things up around here, I'll try my best to initiate it. If, lo, I only knew someone I could call a "gravel-brained gink," natch.
It disturbs me that Mr. Ward would permit himself to indulge in an assortment of fibs, including the one that novelist Griffin is from Yankee-occupied Los Angeles, when in truth the man is a native-born southerner, living in a segregation-strong community in Texas.
But that's another lesson in journalism.