Why booze and cigarettes are essential for good journalism.

Media criticism.
Jan. 2 2008 6:37 PM

The Whiskey Rebellion

In praise of booze in the newsroom.

Beer. Click image to expand.
Booze and smokes: part of the "occupational myth" of the journalist

Who would throw a wake without offering the mourners a sip of booze—or at least letting them bring their own bottle?

Cincinnati Post Editor Mike Philipps did just that this week as he supervised the shuttering of his 126-year-old paper. In a Dec. 26 memo, reproduced by the Daily Bellwether, Philipps forbade consumption of alcohol in the newsroom on the Post's final day, Dec. 31. Wrote Philipps:

… please do not bring any alcoholic beverages into the newsroom. Let's go out like the professionals we have been these last, difficult weeks.

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Philipps' memo brings a couple of questions to mind: 1) Since when is it considered unprofessional for a journalist to take a drink? and 2) If Post staffers, who were all scheduled for dismissal, did bring flasks to work, what was Philipps going to do if he caught them? Fire them?

It's easy to reduce all of what is wrong with American journalism to the near industrywide ban on booze in the newsroom. So I will.

Every profession needs what academics call an "occupational mythology" to sustain it, a set of personal and social dramas, arrangements, and devices, as sociologist Everett Hughes put it, "by which men make their work tolerable, or even make it glorious to themselves and others." As hard drugs are to the hard-rocker and tattoos are to the NBA player, so booze is to the journalist—even if he doesn't drink.

The journalist likes to think of himself as living close to the edge, whether he's covering real estate or Iraq. He (and she) shouts and curses and cracks wise at most every opportunity, considers divorce an occupational hazard, and loves telling ripping yarns about his greatest stories. If he likes sex, he has too much of it. Ditto for food. If he drinks, he considers booze his muse. If he smokes, he smokes to excess, and if he attempts to quit, he uses Nicorette and the patch.

As Meryl Aldridge notes in her 1998 article titled "The Tentative Hell-Raisers" (from which I cherry-picked the Everett Hughes quotation above), journalists identify with larger-than-life personalities, because that's how they see themselves. Deny the journalist his self-image as a rule-bending individualist and you might as well replace him with a typist. Wherever you encounter bland writing and gutless reporting, thank the Mike Philippses of the industry.

I don't claim to have uncovered a conspiracy to neuter rebellion in the top flights of newspaper management, but I do sense a pattern. The humiliation of urine tests, now endured by most new hires at dailies, surely does more injury to the psyches of journalists who fill the beakers than it does good for newspapers.

It wasn't that long ago that alcoholics were celebrated or at least regaled in newsrooms for their heroic immoderation. Today, praise goes to the "courageous" newsroom alcoholic or druggie who enters a company-financed rehab program. Today's newspaper will fire you for taking mood-altering drugs in the workplace unless, of course, they're prescription antidepressants paid for by the company health plan. And in the old days, great status was bestowed upon the foulest mouth in the newsroom. Today, that sort of talk will earn you a write-up from HR for creating a climate of sexual harassment. Paradoxically, the language and subjects now banned as inappropriate inside the newsroom are routinely found inside the pages of the newspaper.

In issuing his dictum, Philipps surely inspired Post staffers to tote firewater to work that last day. I keep a bottle at my office for the same reason—not to drink but to symbolically cast off the petty rules and restrictions that I imagine thwart me from doing my job. If my job is to kick authority in the shins, how can I resist doing the same to the powers that cut me a paycheck twice a month?

Wise editors know when and how to encourage newsroom insubordination, as opposed to squelching it, because they appreciate Bob Woodward's aphorism, "All good work is done in defiance of management." By giving the newsroom the opportunity to stand up to him, the wise editor instructs his reporters in the advanced techniques of standing up to CEOs and politicians. The wise editor understands that quality journalism requires a bad attitude, foul words, a brawl, and sometimes a drink afterward.

So if any Cincinnati Post staffers were pointlessly slapped on the wrists for imbibing on their paper's last day, the next round's on me.

******

To the HR police: It's an unopened bottle of Chivas Regal. Come and get me! Or confiscate it via e-mail: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Top of the world! (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.