How are we doing? We in the media are beginning to question ourselves these days, as we grapple with the new realities of the political world and as our own performance is being questioned by politicians and public minded citizens alike.
It’s a role we are not accustomed to. As reporters and writers we are very comfortable pointing out other people’s mistakes and shortcomings. And we have no problem suggesting ways everyone from the president of the United States to the principal of the local elementary school can improve their performance. But when the tables are turned, we are definitely outside our comfort zone.
It wasn’t always that way, as I was reminded earlier this year when I learned of the death of an old colleague of mine, Dave Rossie of the Binghamton Evening Press in upstate New York.
Rossie, who died December 29 at the age of 87, was from the old school, when reporters and editors took it as well as they gave it. I didn’t quite know what to make of Rossie when I showed up at the first job I ever had in professional journalism in the summer of 1965, fresh out of high school and hired as a $55 a week intern in the sports department. One of the first things I noticed was that, when the first edition of the afternoon paper was brought to our desks by the copy girls (the term of art in the 1960s), all the reporters immediately began reading it intently. At first I thought they were eager to consume the other stories in the paper. But I soon realized they were reading their own stories. Why? Simple, to see if a linotype operator had made an error, or — worse — if an editor had made a change that had screwed up their copy.
If that happened you would know it. From a guy like Rossie it might start with a low growl, transformed into a consonant. You realized it was going to become an actual word, usually starting with an F, or a G leading to a D, or a J to a C.
Rossie could be an intimidating character.
I survived the first week on that job and ended up doing three tours of summer internships with the press. At the end of that summer, preceding my junior year of college, I may have been a little cocky. A mistake, as it turned out.
On one of the last days of the summer, just minutes before the presses would roll on the paper’s first edition, I got a call from a breathless police officer in Endwell, the quiet little town where I lived. “There’s been a fatal shooting . . . a love triangle . . . Ralph Ingalls [the 80-something doddering president of the school board] and Jane Smith [the prim, family-values advocate on the board] . . . Her husband . . . a jealous rage . . . a gruesome scene . . .”
My heart began pounding as I heard these incredible details pour forth. I hollered over at the city editor who would need to tear up the entire front page of the paper to accommodate this story. If I didn’t say “stop the presses” the panic in my voice must have suggested it. The city editor looked skeptical and in the background, a few desks behind me, I heard a voice: “Hey, Rein. Better check your sources. Rein. [The voice rises in volume] Rein!”
I looked back. Dave Rossie was grinning ear to ear. Everyone else was breaking out in laughter. Rossie had just taught me a lesson.
Rossie was born and raised in Binghamton and graduated from the State College at Cortland. He started his journalism career as a sports writer with the morning Binghamton Sun, and then took a brief career detour to work as a PR man for a big insurance company in town. One of his colleagues there was a high school classmate of his, Nick Wilson, a Princeton alumnus who had returned to his hometown with his law degree to earn a living. (Another high school classmate was Dick Stack, who after high school started a sporting goods store known simply as Dick’s — yes, that Dick’s.)
Wilson, who now lives in Princeton, recalls that Rossie — whom all of us knew as a grumpy reporter — may have been miserable as a PR guy. “It was a most enjoyable time for me,” Wilson recalls, “but not for Dave, I’m afraid, due to his intense dislike of being a flack for anybody, much less an insurance company.”
After my time at the Press, Rossie became education editor of the Press. In that role he covered the Binghamton Board of Education. One of the board members was Wilson, the high school classmate and former colleague at the insurance company. Rossie “was not particularly impressed with my performance,” Wilson says.
When Rossie died, the obituary confirmed what Wilson had noted many years ago: As a daily columnist for the paper and a two-time winner of the H.L. Mencken writing award, Rossie was not shy about offering criticism. People wondered what choice words he would have had for our new president. As it turns out, Rossie did have some observations, published on August 14, 2015:
“The Amish, who inhabit my favorite place on the planet — Lancaster County, PA., have a word that may be the answer to our so-far inability to cope with the influence of Donald Trump: Shunning. . .
“Shunning as defined in conventional Amish terms amounts to social exclusion. In other words, if you are an obedient Amish person, you don’t eat at the same table with a shunned person or ride in the same vehicle with such a person. You don’t do business with a shunned person or accept gifts from him or her . . .
“Trump, as we have seen and heard, has proven immune to conventional disapproval far more severe than what the Amish might consider shun-worthy. In fact, he appears to have benefited from it in terms of poll ratings . . . Donald Trump wants to be president of the United States or at least he says he does. But he has never done anything to earn the job. He inherited a fortune which he has invested — sometimes wisely, sometimes not.”
Then Rossie the columnist finished his skewering of Trump with an artful damnation by faint praise: Trump, Rossie wrote, “has played a television role and as a result is famous by today’s standards — such as they are.”
In January, 1986, a little more than a year after I started U.S. 1, I was on the receiving end of a Dave Rossie column. I came across the yellowed clipping a few years ago, sorting out some papers in the basement, and set it aside. Given Rossie’s reputation for not suffering fools, I felt pretty chuffed when I revisited that column and read the headline:
“This kid was sure to make it”
I read on: “The first time I encountered Rich Rein he was a skinny kid just out of high school . . . I watched him struggle through that summer, and later, after he graduated from Princeton, I watched him soar as a journalist. First it was for Time, where he wrote out of the Chicago bureau, and later as a free-lancer, probably the toughest thing a writer can do.”
Wow, I thought, Rossie could also be pretty generous. I read deeper down into the column:
“Rich did it remarkably well, and as if to demonstrate his versatility, he even learned Pidgin English so he could accept assignments from People, a Time byproduct for readers who want to step up, but not too far, from the Enquirer.”
Ouch. I bit my lip and turned back to the column:
“U.S. 1 is what we call a throwaway. It is what Rich Rein used to call a throwaway. Until he began producing one. ‘Now I call it a controlled circulation publication,’ he said during a recent telephone conversation, sounding every inch the publisher. ‘This paper doesn’t get thrown in your driveway. We hand deliver it, free, to offices and businesses.’ ”
Rossie continued: “I’m tempted to say that U.S. 1 is pitched to a yuppie audience. I say that reluctantly, because Yuppie is a nitwit word. In fact, it was coined by one. What is more, stereotyping is not only risky, it is often unfair. Still, how else do you characterize a paper that devotes a large share of one issue to the recollections of a divorced male in his middle 30s who fell in love with the woman from whom he bought his personal computer?
“But I quibble. U.S. 1 is good reading. With Rich Rein putting it out, how could it be otherwise?”
I will think of it as praise by faint damnation.