Open Letter To WJR's New Editor, Rem Rieder  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM    
From AJR,   January/February 1992

Open Letter To WJR's New Editor, Rem Rieder   

You will soak up confidence from the most important ingredient of journalism, the journalists.

By Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe is a former editor of AJR.     


Dear Rem,

Whenever I buy a new gadget, I can't wait to open up the owner's manual and have it greet me in a rich announcer's voice, "Congratulations. You have just bought the finest gadget ever invented."

So while you're unwrapping your new job, let me congratulate you heartily. You have just sat down to the most memorable job you'll ever have.

Not that it's all raspberry yogurt.

You should know that your computer hates Vibram soles. If you're shod in those, better approach it in stocking feet. Otherwise it will throw a fit.

Your telephone hates coffee. Spill a mere teaspoonful on it and it will fix you up with wrong numbers the rest of the day. But the next day it will report for duty all cheerful again.

There's a 7-Eleven a block away. I mention that because the staff, which plays a tough editorial game, will forgive you your crotchets if you arrive Friday morning bearing doughnuts.

Your boss, Reese Cleghorn, has a serious defect: He knows a great deal about graphics. But he compensates by being a journalist to the marrow and a boss who lets the editor be editor.

After two weeks as editor, Rem, you will receive a manuscript from a friend. He or she will want it published. Unfortunately, it will not be an example of your friend's best work. A good way to get in practice for rejecting the manuscript of a friend is to try disowning your mother.

The job has rewards, among them views of oaks, maples, apple trees, squirrels, blue jays and woodpeckers, including flickers and pileateds.

But the rewards do not include respect. One day a disc sprang loose in my back, rendering me hors de combat . I was working prone, flat on the floor – telephone, notes, manuscripts, pencils beside me. For editing purposes I'd clip a text to a magazine to give it firmness. An observant intern told a staffer, "He's in there lying on the floor reading a magazine."

Of course, the job is serious at core. But I sense that, like me, you love the energy, the spectacle, the mission of American journalism. And if you love something, you can find ways to criticize it, watchdog it, laugh at it and enjoy it that will ring true. The readers of WJR care about the future of journalism. They'll be depending on the writers you assemble to say what needs saying about arrogance or sleaze or whatever offends a journalist's faith in today's facts and tomorrow's truth.

In my own case, despite four-and-a-half years of editing a magazine that deals with the pressures on journalism, I wind up an optimist. With any luck, you will, too. You will soak up confidence, for example, from the most important ingredient of American journalism, the journalists. There is nothing I've liked better about the pages of WJR than the journalists who have shown up in them, from Izzy Stone and Elmer Davis to Geneva Overholser and Peter Jennings, from Jane Schorer and Bill Salisbury to John Camp and Marty Haag.

Engaging, go-to-hell reporters, editors and news directors kept busting out of various paragraphs larger than life:

Izzy Stone told an interviewer how he had single-handedly knocked down an Atomic Energy Commission pronouncement that underground testing could not be detected at a distance. His research began with an obscure paragraph inside the New York Times that "piqued my curiosity." "The AEC," Stone said, "was just the worst agency. They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there."

Meredith Vieira talked to Judy Flander about the glamour problem of a female correspondent for "60 Minutes." "I think Don [Hewitt] is glad I cut my hair...but I don't know how much I can do to dress this person up...I am what I am, the girl next door. But they put on makeup with a trowel and gaboom! I'm the whore of 43rd Street. I haven't that middle ground."

And there was this summary by writer Mike Harden of the typical contents of the Budget, a national weekly put out in Sugarcreek, Ohio, for Amish and Mennonites: "In Chouteau, Oklahoma, a power line has fallen near Ora Yoder's pasture and three of his good working horses are now dead...In Amelia, Virginia, the rafters have been set for Levi Kramer's new house. In Narvon, Pennsylvania, Brother Ephraim was bitten by a horse and 'has been to the hospital for repair of the horse bite, as the horse had a good grip and was slow in releasing.' "

Journalists have always had to battle for the soul of journalism. I have no doubt whatsoever that today's journalists can handle their phase of the struggle. They seem exactly as human, feisty and rambunctious as the news types of 50 years ago – stand-up characters straight out of the First Amendment. You're in good company, Rem.

Probably the only advice you need is this: When you go to buy a horse, make sure it's a fast releaser. – Bill

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