Fit to Print
Jules Witcover Wittily Recalls His Five-Decade Newsman Career In The Making Of An Ink-Stained Wretch
Jules Witcover is a reminder of that more civilized age. “A lot of the talking heads aren’t held to the highest standards of journalism,” the longtime political journalist explains, speaking by phone from his home in Georgetown. “It’s obvious that television has impacted newspapers’ circulation. And it’s not just television—it’s radio, cell phones . . . there are just so many little gadgets. People, especially the younger people, are reading less. There are too many things that demand their time that don’t require any intellectual effort, and I think it’s really sad.”
It’s the sort of sadness only a 51-year veteran of print journalism can recognize, a storied career Witcover mulls over in his new memoir, The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch (Johns Hopkins University Press). In fact, Witcover himself is a casualty of newspaper’s shrinking circulation. After 24 years with The Sun, Witcover bid adieu to the Calvert Street institution Aug. 19 after the contract for his thrice-weekly column wasn’t renewed. No Cal Ripken farewell party came with his departure.
Witcover emphasizes that his memoir has nothing to do with his departure from The Sun. “I just reached a point in my life to reminisce,” the 78 year-old says about his 16th book. “To look back and reflect.”
He has plenty to reflect upon. His journalism career began when he stumbled into it: Like any other blue-blooded American guy, young Witcover longed to cover sports in New York after finishing up his college career at Columbia University. Politics just happened to be the next best thing.
After graduating from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, Witcover landed himself a job at the Providence, R.I., Journal, slaving away at grunt work until he got his shot to work the sports copy desk, copy-editing and writing headlines. His writing career began only after he decided to take a job in 1954 covering politics in Washington—a “game much like sports,” he says.
During the half-century that Witcover spent covering regional and national politics, many things have changed, and much of it is documented in Ink-Stained Wretch, including the rise of those pesky talking heads: “The advent of radio and television shriekers and Internet bloggers given chiefly to rumormongering have made the commitment of print reporters to basic news-gathering guidelines more essential than ever before.”
It’s hard to argue with the claim in an era when Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh carry just as much—if not more—weight than the Washington Post’s David Broder, who Witcover considers the standard-bearer of today’s print journalists. Witcover writes: “Opinion mongers often were thrown in on panels with politicians and the new breed of airwave polemicists masquerading as journalists, to the degree that viewers had trouble distinguishing one from the other.”
Witcover never espoused a particular position, not even after he partnered with Jack Germond for the “Politics Today” column in 1977 after 23 years of straight reporting. “Many [editorial page editors] looked only for conservative or liberal columns, and others sought religiously to balance their pages with equal numbers of each,” he says. “We might come down on one side of the spectrum on one issue and the other on another one.”
It wasn’t until fairly recently that Witcover abandoned the reportorial tone of his column, leading to a Sun editorial decision to alleviate Witcover of his reporting responsibilities. As he notes in Ink-Stained Wretch: “Since early 2002, I had been expressing, for me, unusually strong opinions in the column about what I saw as President Bush’s blatant abuse of presidential power in planning for and launching his war of choice. The tenor of the column, and the voter reaction to it, made the decision to keep me out of straight reporting more understandable.”
Witcover didn’t understand the Sun’s decision at first, writing that he “felt that [his] long experience in political reporting was being wasted.” The man is certainly long on experience, having covered 12 presidential campaigns. In Ink-Stained, he provides commentary on all of them, from the 1968 campaign that featured Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and Robert Kennedy to the 2004 campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush.
Of course, Witcover’s time on the campaign trail wasn’t always about reporting. Good times were had—not the good times of Witcover’s late colleague Hunter S. Thompson, replete with hallucinogens and narcotics, but with plenty of booze and hijinks. Witcover writes that he was once “one of the hard-drinking, carousing boys” in his day, reserving permanent seats at “the bar in the Sheraton Wayfarer” when covering the New Hampshire presidential primary.
He writes of a prank perpetrated by former partner Germond, who arranged for “perhaps the ugliest and most repulsive hooker in all Texas” to come knocking at Witcover’s door while the pair were covering a campaign event in 1980. The hooker ended up stealing money from Witcover, and after reporting the crime to the local authorities, he feared the incident would appear in the Austin American-Statesman.
With simple and often witty prose, Witcover gives life to these memories and observations. The wily vet, whose syndicated column continues to be distributed three times a week by Tribune Media Services, says he hopes his memoir can be “an inspiration for young people pursuing a career in print journalism.”
Hopefully it will be. In the memoir’s final pages, Witcover expresses more concern about the “corruption, or even hijacking, of the news business by a new generation of television and radio entertainers, especially those with a hard ideological bias, who pay little or no homage to journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness.” He concedes that radio, television, and internet rabble-rousing is here to stay, reminding current and future journalists that they are “challenges for the next generation.”
In his farewell Sun column, “Goodbye, Baltimore,” Witcover listed his personal e-mail address, prompting a response from this article’s writer prior to this interview. Despite all of the shenanigans going on at The Sun at the time, Witcover offered good-luck wishes, something any young writer ought to accumulate in lieu of any actual talent, and a few words of simple advice: Read, nonfiction and fiction, have a romance with the language, and, of course, write. News reporting is worth it after all.
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