Where have all the reporters gone?
I got my start in journalism at Paris Metro, the first city magazine in Paris.
The Metro was young, it was sassy – and it was a reporter’s weekly. Although it was written and published in English, more than 60% of its readers were French-speakers. Many of them were journalists hoping to learn how to escape the chains of the establishment media in France, which locked them into boxes on the left or the right.
For me, it was 1977, one year after the magazine began. I traveled to Prague to report on the Charter 77 protest movement and more generally, life behind the Iron Curtain.
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the launch, founding guru and publisher Joel Stratte-McClure organized a reunion in Paris this past weekend and beforehand invited former staff, free-lancers, and management to pen brief essays reflecting on Metro’s past.
This led to a remarkable book, available for download or as a paperback from Amazon. My contribution tells the humorous back story of my 1977 Prague reporting trip and the illusions I then had about politics and more generally about life. That brief piece is also the opening sequence of a memoir of my journey from the “mainstream” media to my current position as a political writer of the right.
Which brings me back to our amazing reunion in Paris last weekend.
As soon as Joel learned I was an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, the proverbial hand went to the proverbial forehead in dismay. He wasn’t wild about Hillary - after all, he had been a Bernie fan. But good Lord, how could anybody actually support Donald Trump?
That was a line I would hear a lot over the weekend. At least, until I and my immediate lunch or dinner companions got beyond the first bottle of wine.
That first evening, at a gala reception in the ground floor salons of the Tour d’Argent on the Quai de la Tournelle, Joel introduced me to someone “who thinks as you do,” Harry Stein.
I had not known Harry during the Metro days, nor did I know anything about his history. He had gone on to write an “ethics” column at Esquire magazine in the 1980s (yes, you read that right), and in 2000, published a book recounting his own political conversion: How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (and found inner peace).
A half hour and several glasses of champagne later later, Joel came up to me and my wife, Christina (who he understandably found much more interesting company than me) and stage-whispered: “Have you and Harry bonded yet?”
“Actually, we haven’t yet had a chance to talk,” I said.
“Well, you must!” he said, and moved on to greet more luminaries arriving at the party.
In the meantime, I was reconnecting with a friend from those early days in Paris, Ed Girodet. Eddie recently published a remarkable book about his experiences reporting from and about Afghanistan over the past thirty years, and is now launching a new English-language magazine in Geneva.
A few minutes after Joel left us for more attractive conversation partners, a tall grizzled man hauntingly familiar joined us with a glass of champagne.
“Do you remember me,” he said, with a hearty laugh.
For the briefest instant I couldn’t place him, and then the years came flooding back. Bill Dowell had introduced me to Time magazine, where he had been a free-lancer and later, a staff correspondent. We and our families had been friends for over fifteen years, visiting with each other in Paris, Cairo, and New York.
“We were just talking about Trump,” Eddy said.
“Why?” said Bill.
“Because he’s going to become the next president of the United States,” I explained.
“Good Lord, I don’t know anybody who thinks Donald Trump is capable of even reading a newspaper,” Bill said.
At our dinner table at Chez René’s on the Boulevard St. Germain that evening, Bill, Eddie, Christina and I were joined by Carolyn Pfaff and Ed Flaherty. As the four of us caught up on our lives and inevitably talked American politics, Carolyn related to Ed the short version of how her husband-to-be, William Pfaff, had wooed her and agreed to marry her, even though he was a devout Catholic and she was a divorcee.
Every now and then, Ed would interrupt our discussion to give us an update on Carolyn’s story, which went on for several hours.
The next afternoon at lunch at a revamped Alcazar on the rue Mazarine, Christina and I finally hooked up with Harry Stein and his wife, Priscilla. It was she, we soon learned, who helped bring Harry to his senses to abandon the politically-correct nonsense of the New York liberal journalist set. We became fast friends.
In 2009, Harry published a second book on the theme of political correctness, I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican. In a wonderful interview with Frontpage mag editor Jamie Glazov, he explained his conversion to conservative values and political views – and the survival mechanisms required to live in a place like New York.
“You should have heard Ed Flaherty,” Priscilla told us conspiratorily, indicating Ed at the next table. “He was telling everybody, “I can’t believe that guy is a Trump supporter. How can anybody talk to him?’”
We were waiting for the Steins’ daughter and her husband, who edits the Paris Review, to arrive. They had gotten stuck in a taxi crossing the river in a techo-music parade at Chatelet and the Pont Neuf, which Christina and I had walked past earlier on.
“Whatever you do,” Harry warned. “Don’t talk politics when they arrive.”
When it came time for brief speeches (and their daughter and her husband had gone off to speak with friends at another table), Priscilla asked me if I was going to talk about Trump.
“Joel asked the same thing,” Christina said. “I told him, no. Ken is going surprise us.”
By this point, we had gotten to chat with just about all of the sixty or so people at the reunion. A few I had never met, but – thanks to the stage whispering – everyone knew who I was: the notorious Trump supporter. I took Christina’s comment as a command: no fights.
One fellow I didn’t recognize had gone out of his way to avoid me. When he got up to speak, he introduced himself as Craig Unger, one of the four original horsemen who had founded the Paris Metro. All of us went on after the Metro to do so many things, he said. Many of us had become tremendously accomplished. He mentioned two of his books: House of Saud, and House of Bush.
And then it clicked: that Craig Unger, I thought. The Bush-hating, Karl Rove is Bush’s brain guy who believed – as did most of the media elite – that George W. Bush was a yahoo and Donald Trump was Hitler incarnate. Now I understood why he had avoided me.
When it came my turn to speak, I kept my promise and said not a word about Trump. I mentioned my trip to Prague and how it had given me a taste for people struggling for freedom in repressive societies, and that I had continued to pursue that for many years to come, creating the Foundation for Democracy in Iran with its Park Place website, iran.org.
After lunch, we hung out briefly down on the street and started chatting with Ed Flaherty – the guy who was telling people he was surprised that anyone would talk to me. We wound up going to a local café together for a drink and chatting for over an hour. Ed asked me to explain Trump’s appeal.
“Americans are fed up with the elites,” I said. “They are fed up with all the people in politics and in the media who think they are idiots. Trump speaks what they feel. And, by the way, they are not idiots. They have just had other things to do – like making a living – than to deal with politics.”
In the end, we parted as the best of friends. Ed truly didn’t have a clue about the phenomenon of Donald Trump or the movement he incarnated. But after a weekend of hearing about it on the sly, he was curious. I considered that real progress.
I never went to journalism school, as did many of the founders and writers for the Paris Metro. I learned about reporting on the streets of Paris and the battlefields of the Middle East. But one thing I learned early on was that my job was to report, to dig for facts, not pursue or promote a political point of view.
For several decades, I became part of what used to be called the “mainstream” media, working for CBS News, Newsweek, Time, USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and even the New York Times.
Once I started to report in the mid-1990s on stories the “mainstream” media didn’t want to hear – originally, the Clinton sell-off of military technology to Communist China – suddenly the “mainstream” didn’t want me around.
Today, I mainly write opinion columns, identified as such, and leave my reporting for books. The formerly “mainstream” media writes opinion columns as well, but places them on the front page and claims they are “news.”
Something happened to my profession about twenty years ago, from which it has yet to recover. When will we ever learn?