Prez Column – Mike Argento

By Mike Argento, NSNC President
York (PA) Daily Record

Mike ArgentoA couple of episodes ago on “The Wire,” a terrific TV show created by former ink-stained wretch David Simon, there was a scene that may be of particular interest to columnists. 

To digress, each season of the show has dealt with a different institution that has failed us. The first season dealt with the criminal justice system; the second, the erosion of unions and discounting of labor; the third, the political system.

This season,the fifth and final one of this HBO series,Simon is taking on the press.

The Baltimore Sun plays a prominent role in the events of this season. It’s a fictional newspaper, based on a real one, and many journalists are convinced that Simon’s version of the Sun is filtered by his animus toward certain people he believes are responsible for the downfall of a once-great newspaper.

I won’t get into that, nor will I get into the details of the newspaper subplot and such. Lots of other commentators have weighed in on that.

What interested me was a scene early on.

Gus Haynes,the city editor of the Sun, was walking past a conference room. Inside the conference room, two of his staffers are watching a large plume of smoke rise from somewhere in East Baltimore. The two staffers were portrayed by former Sun columnist Mike Olesker and former feature writer and now novelist Laura Lippmann (Mrs. David Simon).

Gus asks, what’s up?

And Olesker responds, “Something’s on fire.”

And Gus says, “You think you should tell somebody about that?”

And Olesker shrugs and walks to the phone.

Gus turns to Lippman and says, “He’s a columnist. He’s paid to sit on his ass. What’s your excuse?”

It was amusing.

And kind of disturbing.

Columnists aren’t paid to sit on their asses.

They’re paid to — OK, I’m not sure what they’re paid to do.

Certainly, a lot of columnists just sit on their asses and share their thoughts with their readers. And some of them are pretty good. Others, not so much.

The thing is, everybody has a different way of approaching the job of writing a column. For some, sitting on their asses and pontificating about the events of the day or sharing personal stories or offering advice works.

Yet, at least to me, the most memorable columnists come from the old-fashioned newspaper tradition of getting out and reporting.

The late, great Mike Royko was a genius when it came to finding stories and telling them in a way that made them iconic and memorable. Baltimore’s own H.L. Mencken’s columns about political conventions and the Scopes “Monkey Trial” are works of reportorial art.

The woefully underrated Murray Kempton’s greatest work came from him sitting on his ass in courtrooms and city hall chambers and the seat of his bicycle as he pedaled around New York. (If you can find the book, “Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events,” a collection of Kempton’s best work, get it.)

Among those still alive, the Los Angeles Times‘Steve Lopez is first and foremost a reporter. He can write poignantly about the homeless and mentally ill and he canwrite hysterically funny about the public performances of his city’s political leaders. Lopez was the 2004 recipient of the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

The point is, I guess, is that no matter what kind of column you write, it can benefit from venturing out into the world and finding stories. Whether you’re aiming to be funny or serious, you can find material that will work.

A recent example: I had read a short piece in the newspaper about a study that found that one in four homeless people in this country are veterans. That kind of irritated me and I wanted to write something about it.

So I went to a local rescue mission and the first guy I talked to turned out to be a vet. (Skeptic that I am, I did confirm it with the intake people at the mission.)

He was nice enough to share his story with me and I shared it with readers. That story said a lot more than me complaining for 900 words about how poorly veterans are treated in this country, which, for a variety of reasons, is a pretty simplistic way of looking at it.

The story of the veteran was complicated and replete with shades of gray. There was no villain and he refused to be seen as a victim as he acknowledged that he had made some bad decisions in his bout with his personal demons.

And that brings us back to “The Wire.”

What makes that show so great is that its depiction of the ills of urban life is not painted in black and white. The good guys are sometimes bad and the bad guys are sometimes honorable.

The creator of the show is a journalist and his creation has been lauded as a great work of fiction.

In a way, though, the show is a series of columns, depicting life on the streets and in the halls of power and in our newsrooms in all of its ambiguous glory.

And Simon and his fellow writers on the show didn’t create that by sitting on their asses.

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Mike Argento, whose column appears Mondays and Fridays in Living and Sundays in Viewpoints, can be reached at 771-2046 or at mike@ydr.com. Read more Argento columns at www.ydr.com/mike or at his blog, Argento’s Front Stoop at www.mikeargento.com.

2/4/08

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