How Reporters Work: But May Not Want to Talk About It

By Mike Feinsilber

Truth to tell, it isn’t easy to talk to reporters about how they get their stories. Some are secretive about what they do and some stare blankly when asked. I could write about how I worked in my reporting days for The Daily Stink (of which I was founder and editor in the 4th grade), The Ramsey Reporter (which my Ramsey Elementary School 5th grade teacher thought was a more appropriate name), the Daily Collegian (the Penn State paper to which I devoted four college years), the Lancaster Intelligencer-Journal (which employed me as a police reporter for two college summers), United Press International (in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York City, Saigon, and Washington) and the Associated Press (as reporter, editor, and writing coach in Washington).

The most dangerous event in my reporting career occurred not in Vietnam, where I was mostly chained to a desk in Saigon, but in Los Angeles. I had been assigned by UPI in 1968 to cover the presidential campaign of George C. (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) Wallace. The routine was this: Reporters would fly with the candidate in a chartered plane. A few reporters—two from the wires, AP and UPI, and one from a newspaper and one from a magazine—would constitute a pool which was honor bound to the rest of the press corps to keep the candidate in its sight at all times, no matter what, and to report back to the others if anything newsworthy happened on the trip to the next event. Sort of a deathwatch assignment.

In LA, when Wallace’s chartered plane landed, he got into his vehicle, and the lead cars roared away behind a motorcycle escort. I was reminded of this incident last year when the AP guy in the pool car, George Zucker, shared with me an excerpt of his memoirs. Let Zucker take up the story:

“As the lead cars roared away behind a motorcycle escort, we sat puzzled in the pool car without a driver. No one had bothered to tell us there would be none. The alert UPI reporter, Mike Feinsilber, moved behind the wheel. Feinsilber, based in Washington, had never driven on a California freeway. It was a ride not soon forgotten.

“En route to the Aerojet Corp. in Downey that day, the Wallace motorcade stopped twice to make difficult U-turns. This was embarrassing for the Secret Service, which usually had the candidate’s route well mapped out. I asked an agent doubling as a Wallace press aide about the confusion and he had ‘no comment!’ Wallace alluded to this when we finally got to the Aerojet Corp. ‘I want to thank the California Highway Patrol for their fine help,’ he told the workers. ‘If I’d been driving the lead car, we never would have got here.’”

Russell Baker, who covered the Senate for the New York Times before he became the paper’s wonderful humor columnist, wrote in one of his books that he quit reporting and took up column writing because he got tired of sitting on the marble floor of a Senate office building waiting for a senator to come out of a committee meeting and tell him lies.

What’s the point? Only that reporters roll their eyes and change the subject when their spouses ask over dinner what they did today because what they did—sitting on a marble Senate floor or racing along LA freeways—has such a tenuous relationship to what they put in the paper. It’s a funny business.

 Mike Feinsilber also sat on those hard marble Senate corridors between wild drives on California’s freeways, all contrary to what they taught him in journalism school.

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