Nine out of ten journalists land in journalism by accident, most often because they weren’t fit or good enough for anything else—a sad reality that gets exposed when they leave after a few years for PR or corporate communications. Or, worse, when do the latter using the former.
Not Howell Raines.
The former executive editor of the New York Times unabhashedly claims that journalism was his second love, second to writing. And in his just released memoirs The One That Got Away (Scribner), Raines proves why with breathtaking prose.
The One That Got Away is mostly about Raines’ real love, fly-fishing, an obsession ingrained in him by his black nanny reading Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea when he was a young boy. (Raines’ essay on the nanny, Grady Hitchinson, fetched him a Pulitzer.)
“The governing emotion of fishing is not one of attainment but one of anxiety about incipient loss. Every moment that a fish is on the line, we dread the sensation of being disconnected against our will, of being evaded, escaped from, of grabbing and missing. Every fish that slips the hook instructs us in the surgical indifference of fate. For, like fate, a fish only seems to be acting against us. It is, in fact, ignorant of us, profoundly indifferent, incapable of being moved by our desires, by our joy or sorrow.
“We regard the moment when the fish rises to a fly as a triumph of piscatorial artistry, and when the line breaks or the hook pulls out, we feel cheated, outfoxed, chagrined. We take it personally. But to the fish, such an encounter is simply an interruption, unremarkable and unremembered, in the instinctual, self-absorbed journey of fulfilling its fishhood. What we experience as an exercise of will and hope, the fish encounters as an accident, no more or less remarkable than meeting a shrimp.”
But Raines, whose last year NYT was clouded by the Jayson Blair controversy, also weighs in with thoughts on his second love, journalism:
“A newspaper is a daily miracle of birth through the agency of scores of midwives and great barns of tireless robots and thundering machines. As for the people, every newsroom is a ship of fools. Some are mad, some are funny, some brilliant, some priapic, a few tragic, and, of course, a good many drunk or stoned.
“The best of them are haunted by the knowledge that newspapers don’t create anything that lasts. In the next rank down, you find those capable of true enjoyment, riding the daily adrenaline rush and not caring a whit that the next day’s work will vanish into the maw of time before they have their next scrambled egg.”