Sunday, June 18, 2006

Everything I needed to know about journalism, I learned by watching Superman

When I was 13, I heard a promise, repeated and repeated and repeated.

“You will believe a man can fly.”

Superman: The Movie, I know now, was being hyped and marketed and it had a catchphrase that stuck.

Unlike a lot of marketing moves, this one was 100 percent successful. When the movie came out, I saw it, and I believed a man could fly.

Flash forward a bit. It is 2003 or ‘04. Having just completed a round of tailgating with friends before a football, I get my sideline photo pass, grab up my cameras and head to Williams-Brice Stadium to cover a USC football game. As a graduate, but a journalist as well, I had to tread the line and not show any partiality. I had so many USC hats, I had to leave them all behind.

I grabbed a blue hat given me for Christmas or my birthday one year, from thorn-in-my-side oldest sister Anne.

I thought nothing about the hat that day, just that it was not a USC hat, so I’d be safely innocuous. If there was a too-loud cheer in the press box for a good play, suspicion would immediately fall on me if I wore the garnet and black of my beloved Gamecocks.

So it was, I thought, going to make me safe.

But it stood out in another way. It must have struck a chord with one of the Richland County deputies guarding the gates.

“Are you Superman?” he asked. I blinked, having forgotten what hat I was wearing. It was a blue hat, but with the stylized red and yellow 'S" shield of Superman.

“No,” I said. “But I am Clark Kent."

The beginning bit about the movie does lead to the latter bit about the football game. I write for a lot of reasons, but most were set well in stone when my main career goals were to be a Jedi Knight or at least a pilot.

Another movie put me on the road to being a writer.

But when the decision was made to be a writer, it was Superman: The Movie that set in stone for me what kind of writer I was going to be.

Everything I needed to know about journalism, I learned by watching Superman.

You quiz most journalists my age, and they’ll say All The President’s Men is their favorite journalism movie. More artsy types will throw Citizen Kane out there.

There was a movie way back in which Humphrey Bogart plays a reporter or an editor. Can’t remember. Just caught the tail end of it.

“This ain’t the oldest profession in the world, kid,” he tells a lacky. “But it’s the best.”

Still holds true today.

Superman: The Movie is about criminal masterminds and earthquakes and a certain son of Krypton. But you could pull out all the special effects and still have a GREAT newspaper movie. And any reporter around 40 years old who doesn't list Superman: The Movie as an influence is lying.

The fastest typist I’ve ever seen

When I “matriculated” to the University of South Carolina’s College of Journalism, the dean doing my advising was clear. I either had to pass a typing test registering me at 35 words per
minute, or I’d have to take a typing course.

Because something so mundane as a typing course was actually listed on our degree requirements, some dismiss journalism as a trade, a craft, not worthy of being taught like professions at colleges or universities.


It was a practical thing we needed. We had to make the choice.

In Superman, Editor-in-Chief Perry White hires Clark Kent on the spot, replacing Lois Lane on the “city beat” for a variety of reasons.

“Not only does he know how to treat his editor-in-chief with the proper respect, not only does he have a snappy, punchy pro-style, but he is in my 40 years in this business, the fastest typist I’ve ever seen.”

I tried the typing test, and with mistakes, couldn’t hit that minimal mark. So I took a course that included some shorthand lessons for taking notes. I remember about three of the shorthand notes, and have made my own shortcuts to be able to keep up.

But when computers began to come along, typing programs were early on one of the things they started out with.

I plugged along at about 40 words per minute when I was transcribing something. Probably a little faster, but they gig you a point here and there for misspellings and typos.

But I tried my hand at a Mac typing program, on a goof. It had a nice different test.

It had an open field and said, “Type whatever you want.”

Victory – 135 words per minute doing the kind of typing that I would really be doing. Not secretarial transcribing, but writing. I clocked a little bit faster about five years later when I bought my first computer, and it came with Mario Teaches Typing.

Speling, spealing, schpelling

“What are you writing, Miss Lane?” Jimmy Olsen asks the Daily Planet’s star reporter.

“An Ode to spring – how do you spell massacre?”

Later in the same exchange – “There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist,” Olsen says.

A later dig at the same piece she’s handing in comes from Perry White.

“There’s no ‘z’ in brasierre,” he says, looking at it for like two seconds and throwing it back at her.

What a fascinating Ode to Spring that piece must have been.

Just the facts, ma’am

Journalism has changed over the years. It once existed to tell people what was happening. But now newspapers, the bigger they are, have abandoned that as a principle and are more interested in talking about trends. Some try to make people FEEL things, some try to make people think a certain way about what is being covered.

I’ve never liked that approach, and I don’t do it in my paper.

Because of Perry White.

Did he read Lois’ piece on the East side murder, she asks. “This could be the basis of a whole series of articles, ‘Making Sense of Senseless Crimes’ by Lois Lane,” she says.

He wasn’t buying it.

“Lois, you’re pushing a bunch of rinky dink, tabloid garbage, and The Daily Planet …”

She’s not paying him much attention, however.

To me, Perry White is saying a newspaper should be about what is happening, not why it is happening. Sometimes why stuff needs to be done, but it must follow long after what has happened.

She still tries to push a story in that same conversation.

“It’s got everything,” she says. “It’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got the ethnic angle.”

“So’s a lady wrestler with a foreign accent,” he says, shutting her down.

Writers may think they have the elements to make a story rise above the average, but that is generally just the reporter trying to push a piece past what it is, at its essential level.

The readers won’t always get what you’re pushing.

“It’s too good to be true,” says Lex Luther, after going over Lois’ “I spent the night with Superman” story in which too much information is revealed. “It’s too good to be true.”

“It’s too good to be true,” says his gun moll, Eve Teschmacher. “He’s 6-foot-2, has black hair, blue eyes, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and TELLS the truth.”

Brevity is something to be desired in the industry, and it’s a goal I fail at miserably. But also, sometimes, you can boil something down too far.

The article explains why Superman is Superman, and reveals a weakness. (He can’t see through lead.)

Only Luther picks up on that. Teschmacher was just looking at what was a hunky Boy Scout she was probably thinking of tempting if the opportunity presented itself.

She missed what Lois was saying with her article.

“Some people can read ‘War and Peace,’ and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story, while others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper, and unlock the secrets of the universe,” Luther tells her.

She still doesn’t get it. “Lex, what has chewing gum got to do with the secrets of the universe?”

He just rolls his eyes and tells her she’s right.

But he says, “Voila,” moments later. Somehow, by reading Lois’ piece, he’s figured out that a certain meteorite that landed in Africa was from Krypton, and it’s radiation to Superman. How? I guess I’m one of those who thinks War and Peace is just a simple advernture story.

But he was right. With the revelation about kryptonite and the lead weakness, it’s also clear that while some people will not get what you’re trying to say, others will get a WHOLE lot more out of it than you can imagine.

Get the story

During a corral of his reporters after Superman’s first appearance, Perry White shows a good insight into papers.

One day, the paper can be about one thing or a million regular things. But sooner or later, something so big is going to come along that all other considerations are put aside.

Trying to fire up his troops, Perry White says, “Whichever one of you gets it out of him, is going to end up with the single most important interview since … God talked to Moses.”

Don’t be naïve

When Superman allows Lois to interview him, he says he’s here “to fight for truth, justice and the American way.”

“You’re going to end up fighting every elected official in this country,” she says.

“I’m sure you don’t mean that, Lois,” he says. Then he tells her he never lies.

Except for that whole secret idenity thing. Sources withhold important information to protect themselves. Even the invulnerable ones have something to protect. (Clark can withstand an H-bomb, but Ma Kent? Not so much.

Even the best dump their notebook

Sometimes everything you hear shouldn’t be included in your article. I’m REAL bad about this.

But that whole, “Can’t see through lead” thing ought to give Lois pause.

She doesn’t know all the ramifications, because of the "going back in time" thing Superman did. But because she told the world that Superman can’t see through lead, Superman almost died, Lois almost died, the West Coast almost slid off into the sea, and that kid with the bad skin condition almost fell off the Golden Gate Bridge with his classmates in the school bus.

If it wasn't for Miss Teschmacher's mom living in Hackensack, who knows how many millions would have died?

We’ve got a couple of phrases for using everything. Notebook dumping is a nicer one.
Diarrhea of the typewriter is an old-style version.

Even Lois Lane does it.

The pay sucks

After her big interview/date with Superman, Lois hears the knocking at her door.

Clark shows up for the “real” date on her book.

Lois has a really nice penthouse apartment, but it’s impossible to believe that she affords it on a reporter’s salary.

Evidence Clark’s words to her as they leave.

“I was a little nervous about this, but then I decided, gosh darn it, I’ll show her the time of her life,” he says.

The good bit is fading away as the door closes behind them.

“I was figuring maybe we could go for a hamburger or whatever you like,”

The pay sucks.

There’s a whole lot more. Some bits are in Superman II.

When they find out about a nuclear bomb in Paris, Lois is sent to cover the story, not Clark.

“If Paris is going to go kablooey, I want my best reporter in the middle of it,” Perry White tells Clark.

Management appreciates your abilities, but not your life, apparently.

Also, a big story can be sitting in front of your nose and you miss it.

It takes the trip to Niagara Falls for Lois to see past the glasses at what ought to be pretty obvious.

Some reporters are willing to risk their lives for a story. Lois jumps into the Niagara River, headed to the falls. Clark does some impromptu saving without stripping down to the cape and tights.

I don’t think the potential payoff on that story is worth the risk, myself.

But the most important bit came from two characters -- the quintessential journalists in the movie. Lois and Perry both end on the same note.

"Gosh, how do you get all the great stories," Jimmy Olsen asks.

"A good reporter doesn't get great stories, Jimmy. A good reporter," she says as she walks into White's office, who's saying the same thing to Clark.

A good reporter makes them great.

I’ve gotten a nice life out of this profession, even though the pay sucks. When you get up to the editorial level, you do OK.

When you marry a beautiful publisher of the best large weekly in the state, who’s pulling down some serious bread, you find it’s much easier to have what is called “a real life." But the other rewards of the job are still the reason to do it.

There’s nothing more rewarding than a scoop, that’s for sure. Except maybe another scoop. But even if you don’t get the scoop, being allowed past police lines some of the times, looking at murder scene photos, standing next to a fire truck while a mill burns, spewing acid residue into the air, getting whipped in the face by hurricane force winds, it’s just all fun.

And come to think of it, when I cover stories like that, I can actually get hurt if something else comes along. Unlike a certain Last Son of Krypton.

But anyway, in honor of Superman starting up in a few days, I figured I’d finally get around to penning this.

I’m not Superman, but I am Clark Kent.

I’m almost 6-foot, have black hair, blue eyes, I seldom drink and never smoke, and I tell the truth.

I fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

With a pen.

Best weapon available.

More later, maybe.

P.S. This is 2,167 words long, and it was done in 20 minutes. That’s
108 WPM. Must be some kryptonite nearby slowing me down.


Rick said...

The only thing worse than a Guilfoyle column, which is ALWAYS too long, is a blog that blogs on forever.

The beginning bit about the move does lead to the latter bit about the football game. I write for a lot of reasons,

I'll bet you meant "movie"
You need an editor as badly as I do.

SGuilfoyle said...

It is now edited.

I help you out, you help me out.

One of these four posts is actually short, though.