The Pirate Code

I’m reading a wonderful book by Jake Silverstein, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, whose subtitle, “A chronicle in fact and fiction,” took on new meaning after reading about the author’s seemingly fact-based adventures as a reporter in Marfa, Texas, and competing to become The Greatest Poet in the World at a casino in Reno, when a chapter on hunting for the lost bounty of the Pirate Lafitte resolved with a sizable addition to Silverstein’s bank account.

I’m about half-way through, and curious as heck to see where this journey will take me.

From the book, it appears Silverstein was not sure reporting was all that it was cracked up to be and decided to leave his newspaper job for New Orleans. “Maybe I lacked the necessary professional ferocity,” he writes. “Maybe journalism required a piratical mind-set, like Lafitte’s, a willingness to pillage and deceive and do anything whatsoever to get the story.”

It’s an interesting idea, perhaps even a stereotype – this dogged pursuit of fact-based stories, depicted in books and films such as All the President’s MenFear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and “Absence of Malice.”

Back in the day when I was a reporter, there were times when a tough shell and a bag of tricks helped, whether it was reporting on the city’s blind spot when it came to the growing homeless population or dealing with nursing-home strike-breakers who felt no remorse at driving through a line of health-care workers attempting to blockade an entrance. But, these were small-town stories.

In the summer of 1980, I had the opportunity to cover the Democratic National Convention in New York City, along with reporters from all the major broadcast networks and print outlets. It was a boisterous free-for-all, made contentious by a three-day floor fight over delegates between Sen. Edward Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter, who was running for reelection.

As state delegations met, and interest groups convened, we reporters were like a rugby scrum elbowing for position – and first soundbytes – outside caucus rooms, waiting for the locked doors to open and a spokeperson to emerge. “Who’re you voting for?” was a constant refrain, hanging in the air over the delegates’ heads like the ever-present cigarette smoke. (You see, in those days, it was still legal to smoke indoors. In New York City, it’s possible it was required that you do so.)

Outside the women’s caucus, Bella Abzug took to kicking reporters in the shins to get them out of her way. And, as the African-American caucus ended, there was such a crush of reporters that a cameraman standing near me lost his balance and fell against another, bloodying him with his equipment. I’m not sure whether the ensuing fistfight was the result of the injury or a lost shot, but the person we were all wildly pursuing was Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a distinguished man who, at 62, required assistance to walk.

As the saying goes, It was one of those moments. Does reportorial ferocity in pursuit of a story outweigh the need to be respectful of a man walking with a cane and holding on to the arm of an assistant?

I don’t know if the same thought crossed the minds of my fellow reporters in that mosh pit, but they decided to press inward upon Mayor Young, while I stepped out of the ring and didn’t get the story.

Listening to the scheduled speakers for the rest of the evening, wandering about Madison Square Garden, I wrestled with my decision. After all, what was I here for if not to get the story?

Here’s where Jake Silverstein’s book – with it’s blend of fact and fiction – reminded me of that night. If this was fiction, a “Brady Bunch” episode or something, the senior politician would’ve parted the crowd, refusing to talk to the unruly reporters and whisked me off to a private caucus room for an exclusive on the vote. The nonfiction version? I go home without a story and become a hardened journalist, ready to fight for every lead, source and soundbyte.

What really happened?

I can tell you that in later years as a reporter, when I did something similar, there was no serendipity. I returned to the newsroom empty-handed and got chewed out by editors. But, on this night, as I headed for the exit, I ran into Mayor Young, alone with the young man assisting him, slowly making their way through the convention hall, unrecognized and unmolested. A polite request for an interview was accepted. Any chance of an exclusive on the caucus vote had long been lost, but I was allowed to ask a wide range of questions, enough to prepare a feature-length story that no one else got.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“The immense unpeopled grasslands flecked with ancient plants diminish notions of human community…I can confirm that it is not unusual, in such situations, for the curtain between the real and the imaginary to lift. Alone on the plain, a man tells himself stories about who he is that draw from both domains. Fact and fabrication are opposites only when there is a society to verify or deny; for a man in isolation – and who is not? – the two share a greater taxonomy.”
~ Jake Silverstein, Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction