Drunkards, deadbeats and bummers

“Drunkards, deadbeats and bummers”

This was how Harvard president Charles W. Eliot described reporters as he rejected Joseph Pulitzer’s offer to endow a journalism school at that university.

Eliot’s disdainful comment reflects a common stereotype that writers are alcoholics, but there’s a lot of truth to that image. The creative urge often comes from a troubled or depressed mind that the posessor tries to numb with alcohol. Other writers, when faced with a deadline and writer’s block, turn to alcohol or drugs to silence their internal critic and encourage the words to flow. Some writers find that alcohol has become such a crutch that they are afraid to try to write without it.

And while reporters are more consistently paid than many of their freelancing bretheren, most are not by any means well-paid. Newspaper journalism has been described as being “a young person’s profession” because single people in their early-to-mid 20s are better able to deal with the long hours, low pay, and crushing deadlines that come with the job. Most reporters either switch to editing or burn out and leave the profession entirely after they get into their 30s. Of the die-hards who stick to their typewriters into their 40s and 50s, a fair number of them will be recovering or functional alcoholics.

And then there’s the issue of lifestyle. Some hard-nosed, old-school newspaper reporters seem to style themselves as the writer’s equivalent of detectives or private investigators, and the PI’s legendary hard drinking becomes part of their style. And gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thomson served as the role model for many reporters. Thompson’s drinking and drugging were the stuff of legend; he turned Eliot’s “drunkards, deadbeats, and bummers” slur inside-out and vulcanized it into a battle flag under which he invited all the young turks of modern journalism to rally.

But many reporters, particularly those on crime beats, have more than an image to maintain or deadline and financial stresses to deal with — they may be trying to forget the horrors they’ve seen in the course of doing their jobs.

There are certainly journalists who drink little or not at all. But I have to say that I’ve never seen a group of people drink quite as enthusiatically as the working journalists I’ve seen. They’ve out-drunk even goths and jazz musicians.

When I was in journalism school, I interned at a Society for Environmental Journalism conference. At the Saturday night gala at the North Carolina Museum of Life & Science (a really neat interactive museum), all these professional journalists, who’d been arguing over ethics and integrity the entire weekend, descended on the cash bar like locusts. About a third of the guests were staggering drunk at the end of the evening (I still remember our coordinator slurring to me, “You guys are such great interns. Get me another Rolling Rock, wouldja?”) The the drunkest of the drunk stumbled off to hit the bars after the party was over.

Alcohol seems firmly entrenched in the journalistic culture, at least in the U.S. One of my j-school professors told me that, during his newspaper days, he’d gotten promoted off the police beat and into the desk editor’s chair. His buddies took him out to the bars to celebrate, and one of them bought him a bottle of Night Train as a symbol of all the transients he’d seen the police pull from alleyways and gutters, victims of murder or overdose.

The professor still has that bottle of Night Train, unopened, sitting on the bookshelf in his office.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.