Sometimes I wonder where we would be without a crisis to manage. Nothing but trouble comes the easy way,” said the great Chicago poet, Oscar Brown Jr. Some people look for trouble. Why bother? “You’re not going say anything gloomy again, are you, Bruce?” someone sighed to me the other day. “You are such a crepehanger.” What a great word that is, “crepehanger,” even if it does mean that people cross to the other side of the street when they see me coming.
Years ago (don’t let me use that expression again), during my news radio days, I got a call from a pleasant-sounding woman who wondered if I’d contribute to her new enterprise, The Good News Network. She wanted me to report on brave firefighters, medical miracles — that sort of thing, in general, things that turn out well. Her network was out of business in six months. She couldn’t find any stations that were interested in airing “good news.” It’s not that people want to hear bad news all the time. They just tend to be attracted to bad news as long as it happens to other people most of the time. Charles Osgood, the veteran CBS broadcaster, wrote a book about this topic: Nothing Could Be Finer Than a Crisis That Is Minor in the Morning. That’s right. We survived this disaster; let someone else clean it up, and we’ll move on to the next calamity.
Who picks up the pieces after the “breaking news” has broken? A recent trend in news, though much of the news isn’t really gathered. It’s disseminated by a relatively few sources. For example, last month the New York Times described President Obama’s State of the Union Address as “defiant.” Suddenly all the networks were calling Obama’s demeanor “defiant.” I didn’t think it was all that defiant. If he were really defiant, the president would have stripped off his jacket in the hallowed halls of Congress, and challenged the GOP leadership to an arm-wrestling contest. That’s what “Abe the Rail Splitter” would have done. But no, the whole issue was reduced to a pedantic frenzy about “executive privilege.” Huh? We’ve come a long way — from splitting rails to splitting hairs. Meanwhile, we’re “still waist deep in the big muddy.” Where’s Pete Seeger now that we need him?
Enough crepehanging. And opining. Jody Powell once told me the definition of a columnist is someone who hides in the hills during a battle, and when it’s all over, comes down to finish off the wounded. And enough namedropping, too. Well, maybe not just yet.
On newsgathering, someone asked me about how Herb Caen collected his items for “The Column.” In the old days, before people clamored to get into the column, Herb walked all over town, yes, with a notebook and pen, the best type of newsgathering. Seems so quaint today. Herb loved names. He was particularly delighted when he discovered a barber in the Sunset named Joe Stalin. “Oh, that Joe Stalin!” Herb would write gleefully from time to time. He never stopped walking around San Francisco, the best walking town in the world, even when he was sick, and even when he owned a Jaguar, which he called The White Rat. At the end of his life, Herb said ruefully that he wished he had covered more neighborhoods in the city. He did refer to the Marina as a “bigoted little village.” Marina people are a proud lot, and the old-timers did not like that at all.
San Francisco is still obsessed with neighborhoods. It’s our version of the class system. How many times have you heard “Lower Nob Hill” or the “TenderNob” or “Upper Tenderloin,” as if there is such a thing. Or “Nopa,” because the Western Addition has the wrong connotation? In days of yore, the Chinese could not leave Chinatown or they’d face arrest. Vernon Alley, the great bassist, took umbrage at Frank Jordan’s nostalgia for the “good old days” in the city. “Good old days?” Vernon sniped, “I guess he meant the good old days was when black people could not cross east of Van Ness Avenue.”
Where would we be without scapegoats or people to deride? That will never be answered on The Good News Network.