One of the advantages of growing older is that you can read the same book and watch the same movie several times and it’s new every time.
So, when I grabbed Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen’s 2002 novel “Basket Case” off the shelf I figured I’d just read a couple of pages to refresh my memory. I’d recently given a grandson a copy of his book “Hoot,” which was written for a younger audience — I’d listened to it on audio while doing chores around the house and basically lollygagging — and wished to refresh my memory of his books for an older audience.
It is the story of a former investigative reporter demoted to the obituary page for tweaking the nose of the paper’s new owner in a public meeting. Firing him would have been bad PR and might’ve resulted in unseemly and tedious litigation, better to beat him down and humiliate him until he quit in frustration. The reporter is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of former rocker Jimmy Stoma, the lead singer for band called the Slut Puppies. It takes place in South Florida, of course, and reminds me of those graveyard shifts for the afternoon newspaper atop One Herald Plaza overlooking Biscayne Bay and the mangroves.
I just finished reading or rereading it, whatever the case may be. There were several passages that I clearly recall reading somewhere sometime. Like the newspaper company executive spending millions in shareholder funds to move his company headquarters from the frozen north to San Diego so he could drive his fancy sports cars — or maybe that actually happened. Like the weekly diversity committee meetings — or maybe that actually happened. Like the double entendre in the headline on an obituary — or maybe … Hiaasen also calls the newspaper archive by its proper name: the morgue.
The O. Henryesque ending was a most satisfying way of wrapping things up, though it seems vaguely familiar.
But the opening of Chapter 22 is eerily evocative of many newsrooms today as newspapers change owners and slash their budgets to make the bottom line look more attractive for the next buyer. For my friends still drawing a meager newspaper paycheck, look around and see if you spot the people Hiaasen describes:
Good newspapers don’t die easily. After three years in the bone-cold grip of Race Maggad III, the Union-Register still shows sparks of fire. This, in spite of being stripped and junk-heaped like a stolen car.
Only two types of journalists choose to stay at a paper that’s being gutted by Wall Street whorehoppers. One faction is comprised of editors and reporters whose skills are so marginal that they’re lucky to be employed, and they know it. Unencumbered by any sense of duty to the readers, they’re pleased to forgo the pursuit of actual news in order to cut expenses and score points with the suits. These fakers are easy to pick out in a bustling city newsroom — they’re at their best when arranging and attending pointless meetings, and at their skittish, indecisive worst under the heat of a looming deadline. Stylistically they strive for brevity and froth, shirking from stories that demand depth or deliberation, stories that might rattle a few cages and raise a little hell and ultimately change some poor citizen’s life for the better. This breed of editors and reporters is genetically unequipped to cope with the ranting phone call from the major, that wrath-of-God letter from the libel lawyer or that reproachful memo from the company bean counters. These are journalists who want peace and quiet and no surprises, thank you. They want their newsroom to be civil, smooth-humming and friendly as a bank lobby. They’re thrilled when the telephones don’t ring and their computers tell them they don’t have e-mail. The less there is to do, the slimmer the odds of them screwing up. And, like Race Maggad III, they dream of a day when the hard news is no longer allowed to interfere with putting out profitable newspapers.
The other journalists who remain at slow-strangling dailies such as the Union-Register are those too spiteful or stubborn to quit. Somehow their talent and resourcefulness continue to shine, no matter how desultory or beaten down they might appear. These are the canny, grind-it-out pros — Griffin is a good example — who give our deliquescing journal what pluck and dash it have left. They have no corporate ambitions, and hold a crusty, subversive loyalty to the notion that that newspapers exist to serve and inform, period.
Frankly, most of the latter have thrown in the towel and jumped ship. And isn’t “deliquescing” a most apropos term for the current state of many newspapers? It would make a good name for a rock band, as Dave Barry would say, the Deliquescing Ink-Stained Wretches.