A young news reporter covers a dreadful fire in Chicago. His editor tells him to hunt down the chief, and find out how many trucks are there, and how the fire started. The chief, she says, will be wearing a white helmet. The reporter runs up to a man with white headgear and starts asking questions--before learning that he’s talking to the chaplain.
That’s Peter Copeland at work, on his first assignment, back when reporters still called in their stories and editors, the phone propped between ear and shoulder, typed the words, and made carbon copies. Over the following decades, Copeland would cover the border, Mexico, the Pentagon, and report on wars in Central America, Africa and the Middle East. Along the way, he stayed true to the orders he heard from that editor in Chicago: Get the facts--including middle initials--and don’t let other stuff get in the way.
He has written an excellent memoir, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter. I should mention that Peter is a great friend of mine. He had worked at the El Paso Herald-Post before I got there, and when I moved to Mexico, for BusinessWeek, in 1987, Peter was Scripps-Howard's Mexico correspondent. I counted on him as my cultural, culinary and journalistic guide. He and his wife Maru had a home in Colonia Roma, which for me was the warmest and most welcoming spot in all of Mesoamerica.
Now, back to the book. The fascinating tension in Peter’s memoir runs between his journalistic values--just the facts--and the confusion arising from the context surrounding those facts. Again and again, he finds himself in situations that he doesn’t at first understand. They’re foreign. And he has to make sense of them in order to find and describe the facts.
We see this from the get-go, when he is a foreigner to fire departments. Later, he’s a foreigner to Mexico. The place seems inscrutable. He learns Spanish, and yet Mexican sources hide their meaning under layers of hints and allusions. There’s a sense there that saying things clearly is not just simplistic, but also simple-minded, and even dangerous. Newspapers are puzzles and publish their stories in code. Peter is helped immensely in his assimilation by falling in love with Maru Montero, a dancer from Oaxaca. But that adds emotional complexity to the story he’s covering. He covers the deadly 1985 earthquake wondering the whole time where Maru is, and if she’s OK.
Later in his career, Peter finds himself covering another foreign and Byzantine culture: The Pentagon. Once again, he would have to stitch together a network of sources and interpreters, and use them to get to the facts and make sense of them.
Parts of this book seem to harken from a distant time. It’s not just the technology--the typewriters, telephones, telexes, and even newspapers--it’s the role of the journalist: the person we’re counting on to get the story. With the expansion of digital and social media, that reporter increasingly seems to be lost. Stories pop up on the screen, and it’s often up to the consumers themselves to decide whether to believe them.
Great reporters, needless to say, are still doing brave work. But their reporting swims on screens with a lot of crap. And often, for political expediency, it’s dismissed. At the same time, the business model for reporting is disintegrating. This reduces to a whisper the “share of voice” for diligent reporting.
I read an early draft of Peter’s book. My sole contribution was to push for more lessons throughout the narrative. Digging out stories and telling them well is central to our democracy. Here’s hoping that Peter Copeland’s vivid experiences inform the coming generation of reporters.