A while ago, members and friends of what was the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society - now the Martha's Vineyard Museum - assembled to hear a talk on the history of The Martha's Vineyard Times and community newspapering.
I was reminded, as journalists are every day, that to be successful our work must be closely attuned to real life as it occurs outside the newspaper's pages. This was a chance to escape the office and set about straightening the record.
But first, a caution to the many of you who, sadly, did not attend. When you find yourself in the company of a journalist who talks pridefully about his newspaper as a paper of record, flee. There are a few thousand weekly and daily newspapers surviving nervously in the United States, some good, some bad, and none complete. There are too many of you, of us, doing too much each day - some of it naughty. No newspaper can keep track of it all. If you want a paper of record, you want something like the Congressional Record, which publishes every blessed word that passes for debate in Washington. A faithful reader is assured of a bored, blind, and stupid old age.
The paper of record is a hoax. What is wanted instead is the paper of insight, the paper of connection, of interpretive connection. That is what good newspapers try to be.
And our goals should have people in mind. John R. Stilgoe says it nicely in his wonderful, illustrated examination of the littoral, "Alongshore" (Yale University, 1994):
"Natural history has a place in this book, but only a very small one, and that fragile. So many writers follow the course set by Thoreau in Cape Cod, by Henry Beston in The Outermost House, by John and Mildred Teal in Life and Death of a Saltmarsh... that what is built, what is people-made strikes me as in danger of devaluation, of slipping away from sustained notice...." We like to think that a philosophy very much like this one distinguishes us from our longtime competitor.
And, then, whenever newspapering is the topic, there is the relentlessly troublesome notion of objectivity. Objectivity is what politicians who've taken a beating in the press, or readers whose views have experienced similar abuse, complain that journalists lack. What they mean is, leave it alone if you don't see it my way.
I like H.L. Mencken's objectivity. Mencken was a reporter and columnist who starred in the Baltimore Herald, and then the Baltimore Sun, for the first half of the last century. He was a linguist and a lexicographer as well as a newspaperman, and his prose was humming taut.
Joseph C. Goulden, who calls himself a Mencken buff, writes: "H.L. Mencken and American politics. He professed to detest the art - 'a carnival of buncombe' - and the men who practiced it, without even a passing nod at objectivity - 'I am completely neutral. I am against them all.'" Of course, it's hyperbolic and churlish, but it's fun, which is a big part of newspapering.
After Calvin Coolidge's victory in 1924, Mencken wrote: "The American people, having 35,717,342 native born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out the Hon. Mr. Coolidge to be the head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks, and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies."
Any thinking man or woman would appreciate Mencken. Mostly, of course, politicians did not, and in these sensitive modern times, the regard in which he is held has taken a nosedive. But, what marked Mencken for literary and journalistic distinction was not dispassionate neutrality. It was not erudition. It was not even high-mindedness, something of which he was rarely accused. Instead, when you read Mencken you knew you were hearing Mencken, not a point of view he trotted out for the audience, not some champion's disguise he'd put on to lead a campaign, not a circulation-building sham. No, the reader discovered a passionately held understanding of what he was reporting, an understanding achieved by connecting himself to, and by caring about, the people and events which were his subjects.
Here is a more typical relationship between a writer and his subject. It is John Updike speaking, about his adopted home, Ipswich, and a gathering there to conduct the town's business:
"I loved it all - its authentic depth of history, its great changing marshes and winding odd-named roads... its social and ethnic variety, its homely hodgepodge downtown, its casual acceptingness of me. I remember coming back to the town, early in our years there, from several days in New York, to which I still traveled laboriously, by train; tired from the seven-hour trip, I walked from the station with my suitcase, on a winter night, up to the high school where the annual town meeting was in progress. I gave my name, was checked off and admitted, and stood there in the doorway of the gymnasium-auditorium in my city suit, looking in at the brightly illuminated faces of my fellow citizens. They were agitated by some thoroughly local issue on the floor; my wife and the friends we had made were somewhere in this solemn, colorful, warm civic mass, and I felt a rush of wonder that I had come to be a part of this, this lively town meeting sequestered within the tall winter night, below the basketball nets...."
This is reminiscence, but Updike is a fiction writer. Even so, his view of his craft, I think, applies exactly to journalism. It "is a dirty business," he writes, "discretion and good taste play small part in it. Hardly a story appears in print without offending or wounding some living model who sees himself or herself reflected all too accurately and yet not accurately enough - without that deeping, mollifying element of endless pardon we bring to our own self. Parents, wives, children - the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up. So my art like my religion has a shabby side...."