Promised and delivered: blue-Blood journalism
Gannett, Bloomberg, Murdoch, Huffington, AP, The New York Times, Florida Weekly. NPR, PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox.
Publishers, editors, reporters, photographers, artists, anchors, advertising executives.
What, exactly, is good journalism in America?
None of that, really.
Instead, it boils down to 6-feet 1-inch of blueeyed Bean Town ball-buster named Richard Blood.
Although he quit breathing last week in New York City at the age of 83, introductions are now in order. Professor Blood was and is journalism done right — the engine in the rocket, the seed in the garden.
I learned the craft from Blood two decades ago by running all over his classroom, which started in a cramped, second-floor office above “The World Room” at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
From there, beginning in the morning and ending late afternoon or evening or in the small hours of the following day, his classroom extended to the five boroughs of New York City.
I will now convey my education to you in a single column at no extra charge, since I already paid the bill.
For $30,000, I got a cute little master’s diploma and this, delivered from an immaculately dressed pit bull — his shoes shined, his trousers and shirt lightly starched, his tie knotted formally under a square jaw, his storm-cloud brows banked over smoldering blue eyes, and all of it crowned in a disciplined cumulus of white hair: “Williams, you can write. But good writing is only as good as the reporting. THE REPORTING, Williams. Work on THE REPORTING.”
Work on the details. Know the facts, the events, the public records, the private behavior, the voices — especially the voices. Listen to what they say, study what they do.
It was worth every penny.
Here is blue-Blood journalism stripped down, equipped for any technology, every era and all terrain: Employ good storytelling to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (as Finley Peter Dunne once said).
Do it accurately, fairly and stylishly, too, pal. In a timely fashion, please.
By 5 p.m.
Blood championed that notion. He’d been a hard-drinking probably hot-tempered city editor for the New York Daily News for years, even editing Jimmy Breslin (gently, he was fond of noting, which didn’t quite square with the evidence at hand). But he’d quit all that to marry a former nun and psychologist who saved him, he once told me. Carol. He had three children.
I remember this, too: Born and raised in Boston, Blood had boxed in the Navy or the Merchant Marines. But the term is weak.
He was a brawler by instinct and temperament with an Irish-Catholic conscience, the compulsion to make things better, a fondness for bright, vibrant women, a respect for tough men with humility, and an appreciation for fine language, fine cuisine and the New York Giants. He also harbored an explosive dislike of bullies, liars and con artists.
Always, Blood insisted on doing the right thing, a phrase that only later assumed fashionable gravity. He picked about 15 students each semester and showed them what that meant.
Columbia offered a variety of good classes taught by a variety of exceptional professors. I had a class with Anthony Lewis in First Amendment law. I had a class with Roger Rosenblatt in magazine writing. “Roger, this is perfect. There is nothing I can add,” Mr. Rosenblatt once wrote on one of my fancy-schmancy little magazine features.
Professor Blood, teaching RW1 (Reporting and Writing), never put something that silly on a story. But he did put festive red marks all over it.
At the heart of his class, you wrote eight or so sizzlers from the street, and then you worked with him and a few hand-chosen former students, his assistants, to make the stories better.
You wandered around Harlem — and called in to update Blood. You wandered around the Bronx or Crown Heights during a riot. You wandered around the U.N. during a gabfest. You found a pay phone (remember those?) and you called Blood.
One assignment required you to sit around night court at 100 Centre Street talking to prostitutes, cops, drunks, public defenders, prosecutors, bail bondsmen, bedraggled families. Another put you on a night shift with a couple of New York’s finest. When they found a ripe body in a fifth-floor walk-up, they called their shift sergeant. You called Blood.
He wanted detail — what they wore and carried, what they said, what it looked and smelled like, what happened. He wanted the drama up high, he wanted the language to ring like bells. And he wanted it by deadline.
If you didn’t meet Blood’s deadline or his storytelling par, you got a second chance. Blow that, you were out. That’s what he promised.
On the last night of his class in the late fall of 1992, a few students were still working feverishly in the newsroom to meet his 8 a.m. deadline.
One of his favorites, a cheerful, frecklefaced Boston kid with a Harvard degree, was three stories down at the beginning of the evening.
By dawn he’d completed two. But the third remained a mess of notes, a few starts and stops, and a hell of a long way from a salvageable Blood story. I know, because I tried to help him tie it off, all night long. Even together we failed to pin down that final story. We failed to meet the standard of the class.
At 9 a.m., Professor Blood called Matt into his office. The young man entered at a near shuffle, pale as a ghost, thin-lipped as a recruit. The rest of us stood in the hallway, mostly mute.
Twenty wrenching minutes crawled by. Matt finally opened the door and stepped out. Speechlessly he turned away from us and disappeared down the hall. We were never to see him again.
It broke everybody’s heart, including Professor Blood’s. And it characterized an unwavering Blood principle that outraged some administrators, those eyeballing future alumni gifts, no doubt: Stick to the standard.
He did. And he did the right thing by all of us. It’s called blue-Blood journalism.
Promised and delivered. ¦