"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen," says the man wearing the cocked hat and the sharp blue slacks. "You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery — all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts."
Those words are uttered night after night in New York. They never get old.
And why should they? Murder, sex, corruption — we can never get enough of them, at least in books and movies and plays.
In my final post for the week, I'm going to do the unthinkable: plug my own book! It's called The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired "Chicago", and seeing as it makes the ideal Labor Day gift, I recommend you stock up on it before the holiday rush.
But while making the sales pitch, I have a broader topic to explore — the decrepit state of journalism today and how to rebuild it.
The words that lead off this post are, of course, from the introduction to the musical Chicago. The revival has been on Broadway since 1996, and this year marks the 35th anniversary of the original production's debut. Even seven years after the Oscar-winning movie version pulled in more than $100 million, the stage show marches on, filling seats on Broadway and across the world.
It's not difficult to figure out the show's allure: Sex, a sense of humor, and memorable songs always sell tickets — just ask Lady Gaga. But there's more to it than that. This Broadway musical, about beautiful women who become celebrities after murdering their boyfriends, is true. To be more accurate: it's journalism. If you took a close look at your Chicago playbill — failing that, you can, hint-hint, check out my new book — you know that the very real Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner inspired the characters of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.
More than inspired, in fact. Maurine Watkins, who wrote the original play on which Chicago: The Musical is based, covered Annan and Gaertner's 1924 murder trials as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Two years later, she transferred big chunks of her journalism directly into a stage play, including exact dialogue and descriptions of places and events. The play was entertaining, raucous, hilarious — just like the news stories that preceded it. This is leading to my point, I promise.
James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, blogged during his recent book tour about people's enthusiastic response to his anecdotes of "a lost world of journalism where the word reigned supreme and the medium was not the message; the message was." That's a serious writer's way of saying the message was fun. Pulitzer told his reporters at the New York World that "the question, 'Did you see that in the World?' should be asked every day, and something should be designed to cause this."
In Pulitzer's time, before the rise of journalism schools, reporters were entertainers. Like movie stars, they transformed themselves into bigger, brighter personalities than they actually were. Patricia Dougherty, for example, took the byline Princess Pat and became Chicago's most popular "sob sister" — the Second City's Lady Gaga.
Maurine Watkins was hardly breaking new ground by using her journalism experience to launch a literary career. Newspapers from their beginnings were the training ground for America's writers. Theodore Dreiser, Damon Runyon, Ernest Hemingway, and many other novelists got their start in journalism. It was the failed novelists and the guys who never quite got around to writing their Great American Novel who stayed in the newspaper racket throughout their careers — and created that "Golden Era" of newspapers we see romanticized in classic movies like The Front Page and Libeled Lady (the latter co-written by Watkins).
Pete Hamill, who began his newspaper career in the early '60s, remembers the last remnants of that Golden Age generation. "Reporters in those days were not as well educated as they are now," he wrote. "Some were degenerate gamblers. Some had left wives and children in distant towns, or told husbands they were going for a bottle of milk and ended up back on night rewrite on a different coast....But all of them were serious about the craft. And oh, Lord — were they fun."
Professionalism is supposed to make things better. In the years after World War II, journalism-school graduates did make American newspapers more accurate, but they also sucked the life out of them. Newspapers started to hire trained reporters, not wannabe writers, and the difference showed on front pages across the country. (Woodward and Bernstein may have brought down a president, but let's face it, the movie version of All the President's Men isn't nearly as entertaining as Chicago.)
Now, very late in the game, news companies have discovered that they put their money on the wrong horse. Academic training was not the answer — or at least not the entire answer. Many journalists have charged the Internet with devaluing the work they do. There's no doubt that the Internet presents business-model challenges for 21st century newspapers and news magazines. But the fact is, journalism had lost its way before the World Wide Web arrived. It had bogged down in pointless attempts at ideological "balance," in lazy he-said/she-said stories, in reliance on facts at the expense of truth, in coverage that editors thought readers should read rather than what they actually wanted to read.
Journalism always has been a business as well as a public service, a diversion for the casual reader as well as a duty for the civic-minded. Too many journalists have forgotten this.
Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery. Americans still hold those things near and dear to their hearts. And they want to be told a story.