Once upon a time, being a newspaperman (or woman) was something to stand up and shout about. Journalism was a noble occupation. Reporters and critics worked for peanuts but fought the good fight. The public loved us, believed us, hung on to every word of our investigative stories and critical analyses. We were in the trenches, dodging threats and insults from criminals, corrupt politicians (and cranky rock stars), ferreting out Truth for the sake of Justice and the American Way.
That was a long time ago.
By the time I became a reporter in the early ‘80s, the superjournalist had become more of a newsroom legend than reality. Since then, our collective reputation has taken a nose dive, tarnished by the rise of the clever sound bite, the lazy rewriting of press releases and the kowtowing to corporate interests. Conservatives call us the Liberal Media Elite. Liberals say we’re in bed with the conservative agenda.
If only we had the power to be either. Today, journalism is a skeleton of its once-authoritative self. Newspapers have laid off all but a few copy-pushers, and overworked editors want complex information reduced to concise (and don’t forget, entertaining!) capsules. And the “reading” public doesn’t ask for more than that. Americans seem blissfully content getting their information from the pundits—those TV talking heads who shout angry diatribes and smirk out witty one-liners in lieu of facts—or from Internet pseudo-journalists who offer up wild conspiracy fantasies on websites run by potential Unibombers.
In reality, print journalism wasn’t ever entirely noble. In the early days, plenty of ink from Bill O’Reilly-like blowhards clogged the print blocks. But there really was a golden age of journalism. It peaked with Woodward and Bernstein and began its steady decline with emergence of CNN. Today, the newspaper is crumbling faster than week-old bread. Gone are print versions of The Christian Science Monitor, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and now, it appears, The Boston Globe. And music magazines aren’t faring much better; Blender is history, and even this magazine is struggling.
So, with great hope for a reinvigorated Paste, fond memories of a once-dynamic newspaper industry, and big props to Phil Ochs’ great, album-long newspaper of 1965, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, I offer up my top 10 songs about newspapers and journalism (in chronological order):
In this early Seeger track, the folk legend both honors the work of the journalist and mocks the pomposity of the reporter who spins exaggerated tales of all the colorful characters he encounters. “I’ve met Capone and Hoover, and lots of other fakes,” he sings in the banjo ballad written by real-life journalist Vern Partlow. “I’ve even met a genius who swallows rattlesnakes.”
I’ve always loved this A.P. Carter standard about a paperboy who toils to support his poor, alcohol-ravaged family, whether the original sung by the Carter Family or the more contemporary version from Texas moaner Jimmie Dale Gilmore. But Lester Flatt’s tender, bittersweet lilt on this take is what brings real poignancy to lines like, “You can hear me yelling ‘Morning Star,’ running along the street / Got no hat upon my head, no shoes upon my feet.”
Years before my old Rolling Stone colleague Eric Boehlert wrote Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled over for Bush (an eye-opening account of the sorry state of Iraq War-era journalism), folksingers were chiding the press for withholding the whole truth. In this song, Greenwich Village balladeer Paxton sings, “Pick up a copy any time you choose. / Seven little pennies in the newsboy’s hand / And you ride right along to never, never land.”
Master Bob, as he was wont to do, penned what’s perhaps the most scathing indictment of the arrogant journalist in lines like, “You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand” and “You have many contacts … / But nobody has any respect / Anyway, they already expect you / To just give a check / To tax-deductible charity organizations.” And then there’s that memorable refrain: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”
This psychedelic-tinged nugget from the Stones sleeper Between the Buttons is more a lovelorn pop ballad than a statement on the news business, but its lyrics reflect the centrality of the daily paper in our lives at the time: “Every day means the turn of a page / Yesterday’s papers are such bad news / Same thing applies to me and you.”
By the late ‘70s, kids in London had cut their hippie locks and become angry young punk rockers. Anybody who was in power—whether Maggie Thatcher or the stuffy, know-if-all journalist—was fair game. Over a hurricane of Who-like power pop in this monster UK single, The Jam sang of “little men tapping things out—points of view,” adding, “Remember their views are not the gospel truth.”
A year after The Jam excoriated the editorialists in their single, newcomer Joe Jackson released his power-pop debut with this ska-flavored tune taking on the gossip columnists. “I got nothing against the press / they wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true,” Jackson deadpanned, while listing off all the useful stuff you could learn by reading the paper: “If you want to know about the bishop and the actress… If you want to know about the stains on the mattress… If you want to know about the gay politician… If you want to know about the new sex position / you can read it in the Sunday papers.”
In this early Bragg song, the punk-inspired protest folksinger went to the source of journalism’s problems, attacking those who own papers. “It says here that the unions will never learn / It says here that the economy is on the upturn / And it says here, we should be proud that we are free / And our free press reflects our democracy,” he sings, and then later, “If this does not reflect your view, you should understand / That those who own the papers also own this land.”
On Stan Ridgway’s brilliant but little-known solo album Mosquitos, the ex-Wall of Voodoo singer paints a much more compassionate picture of the journalist: “Lately I’ve been thinking / What would the world do without the news / You wouldn’t know when wars were started / Or when they ended, win or lose.” And then, in perhaps the best lyrics ever written about a reporter’s struggle for the right words, he sings, “Sometimes late at night / I can see the streets like no one else can / There’s a lot of things going on here / That even newspapers don’t understand.”
Public Enemy was at the top of its game in the early ‘90s, when the group recorded this searing indictment of New York City’s sleaziest newspaper over the glorious noise of the P.E. Bomb Squad production team. Prior to this, the group had been hailed by the music press as saviors of rap and then summarily attacked for anti-Semitic statements made by one its members. Mad as hell about it, Chuck D and Flavor Flav took “on the record” to a new level: “Here’s a letter to the New York Post / The worst piece of paper on the East Coast … America’s oldest continuously published daily piece of bullshit … Founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton / That is 190 years, continuous, of fucked-up news.”