One of the books I read that made me want to be a reporter was Ben Hecht's great autobiography, A Child of the Century. I think that book could convince even kids who thought they wanted to be astronauts, surgeons or nuns that reporting — a word like journalism was too grand — could be captivating, wacky and rewarding.
In the pressrooms of Ben Hecht's memoir, Chicago reporters impersonated coroners, police desk sergeants and Salvation Army captains. They ran after firetrucks and clambered up telephone polls. They napped on spare racks in the morgue and held the hands of dying bank robbers to hear their stories.
"I haunted streets ... police stations, courtrooms, theater stages," Ben Hecht wrote, "jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls and bookshops. I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fit belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me."
Ben Hecht was already working on the plays and novels that would make him famous. But as he delicately noted, "They were not my first works of fiction." Hecht and other roustabout reporters would slip comical names into dense, indecipherable columns of stock quotations, hoping someone would find it, gasp and laugh. They would take the halting, often mundane words of someone who figured in a story — or dull stories — and work them over until they sparkled. Or at least sold newspapers.
Ben Hecht doesn't confide his hijinks and apologize. He boasts of them. And indeed, there are quite a few people who still speak of that time of Hecht's 1928 play, The Front Page, as some kind of Golden Age in journalism, when headlines blared, ink smeared, and people read newspapers, like they drank beer, for refreshment and entertainment.
Before he appeared before parliament this week, Rupert Murdoch apologized to the family of Milly Dowler. She was the 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002. When her voice mail messages were hacked by News of the World reporters, it gave her parents hope that she was alive.
The public, who had bought newspapers to be entertained by scandalous stories about movie stars or royals, was finally outraged when it learned that the same low methods had been used to hack the phone of an innocent young girl.
Ben Hecht and his fellow stew-bums, as he called reporters in The Front Page, committed many excesses and outrages. The reporters, editors and executives who may be found responsible in the News Corp. hacking scandal hurt innocent people when they were most vulnerable. They may not have only violated laws and ethics, but also simple human decency. As Ben Hecht once said, "A newspaper shouldn't be a mean dog, snapping at your heels."