By ROBERT RECTOR
IT'S fun being a journalist.
You get to chase after cops chasing robbers, expose crooked politicians, deflate bumbling city councils and school boards, ply sources with alcohol in the name of truth seeking and occasionally, but only occasionally, earn the grudging respect of your readers.
Trouble is, we journalists are becoming as rare as the Puerto Rican long-tongued bat (an actual member of the endangered species list, for which we can be thankful).
You don't need a Caltech degree to figure this one out. Just remember Rector's Imperative, calculated on a napkin at a downtown bar one night: As the number of jobs decrease, so do the number of people in them.
And those who work at journalism are getting older, according to the Poynter Institute, which is probably a good thing because our readers aren't exactly spring chickens.
All of this was summed up nicely by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten recently in a commencement speech.
"I want to congratulate you all upon your graduation from the University of Maryland College of Journalism, and wish you luck as you prepare to embark on exciting careers in telemarketing or large-appliance repair," he said.
"My point is, this is a challenging time for journalists. And because you are word people, you understand that `challenging time' is a euphemism often used to describe disasters of epic proportions. For example, Richard Pryor was facing a `challenging time' when he ran down the street half-naked and on fire."
"What are your challenges, specifically? Let us begin with, quote unquote, getting a job. Good jobs in journalism have become scarce as newspapers shrink and die, broadcast media fragment to smaller niche audiences and the public appears more and more willing to receive its `news' online from nincompoops ranting in their underpants."
Let me interrupt Weingarten for a moment to enthusiastically endorse his views on online `news.'
Before the Internet, bloggers were the people we used to see ranting on street corners. Now, they call them citizen journalists. Which is like being a citizen thoracic surgeon.
All you need to know about bloggers is that the insufferable billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is one and was recently fined during the 2006 NBA playoffs for criticizing officials.
I mean, are you really going to form your world view or decide how to vote on the recommendation of someone writing a blog under the name Dude With a 'Tude?
Meanwhile, back to Weingarten:
"The most recent job-approval rankings place journalists between `loan shark' and `ho'-bag skank.' We are not without blame for this. It seems as though every week we hear stories about some journalist somewhere who has gone bad - plagiarizing someone, making something up, extorting cash from sources, robbing a convenience store and pistol-whipping the clerk.
"As a columnist, I am particularly dismayed by the smug, self-congratulatory attitudes exhibited by some of my brethren. We columnists should know better, inasmuch as we are the only people in America intelligent and principled enough to tell people what to think and how to behave."
It goes without saying, Gene.
And finally, Weingarten leaves his graduates with these thoughts:
"Objectivity is a good thing to strive for in journalism, but not at the expense of failing to confront the obvious. My own newspaper, for example, has written extensively about Vice President Cheney without once pointing out the self-evident fact that he is - and I offer this as a trained professional observer - Satan...
"Our field is changing rapidly. Technology is overtaking us at an unheard-of pace. The journalists of tomorrow may not look anything like the journalists of today. I mean, literally. For all we know, they might have gills and three buttocks. That's how fast things are changing. But rest assured that, however dizzying the rate of change, when what's at stake is the sacred art of truth-telling, there is always one constant. One thing will always stay the same: Your editor is going to be an idiot."
Words to live by.