A proud member of The Fourth Estate

The quiet amid the storm. An Israeli soldier guards a young boy at the prayer wall in the old city of Jerusalem. (Photo by Doug Thompson)
The quiet amid the storm. An Israeli soldier guards a young boy at the prayer wall in the old city of Jerusalem. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

For the second time in two weeks, an email brought back memories of the past.

In one sentence, Dave Butler, editor of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, asked:  “If that you, Doug?”

The message came in to my email address as editor and owner of Capitol Hill Blue, the oldest political news web site on the Internet, and one that I started on Oct. 1, 1994 — 21 and a half years ago.

David was a fellow reporter and friend during my days as a reporter at The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois.  He worked, at the time, for the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale and we both covered Southern Illinois University, with a main campus in Carbondale, and a second growing one in Edwardsville, the county seat of Madison, the county in Metro East St. Louis where Alton was located.

I participated in his wedding in Owensboro, Kentucky, and we kept in touch over the years as he moved to other papers and up the ranks to become editor of papers in Florida, the West and Northeast.  We lost touch in the 90s until he came across a column I wrote earlier this week about the carnival also known as the 2016 Presidential election.

He decided against retirement last year to take up the challenge of trying to restore The Providence Journal to its previous role as a prominent newspaper in Rhode Island and New England.  From all reports, he’s doing a hell of a job.

“I’m delighted to hear your are still raising hell,” he wrote in a followup email.  “So am I. We shouldn’t be surprised, now should we?”

No, we shouldn’t.  We’re newspapermen.  No, not journalists:  Newspapermen.  The late Chicago columnist and friend Mike Royko once told me that “A newspaperman is an honest profession.  Being a ‘journalist’ means you’re unemployed.'”

Dave’s wife is also in the business and his wife is an executive for the Associated Press, the national news service that I have worked for as a free-lancer at times in the past.

I came home Wednesday night to find his first email after shooting news photos for the Floyd Press.

It came at the end of a long day writing and taking photos for various assignments for various publications, some produced on processed wood pulp, otherwise known as paper, and others electronically on the World Wide Web.

Another email last week came from an reporter in Los Angeles about an interview of me in MacWorld Magazine in the 1980s.  He’s working on a story about the early days of Apple Macintosh computers and I owned one of the first Macs in Washington in those days and served as an unofficial “Mac guru” on Capitol Hill.

Ah, the past.  As Dave’s email reminds me, we have reached the time of “retirement” for some, but not for us.  He works to rebuild a great paper in Rhode Island.  I work covering news and producing photos for print in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia but we do the same thing:  Try to serve our circulation areas by providing news as members of “The Fourth Estate,”

In 1787, Scottish philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle credited British-Irish statesman Edmund Burke with calling press reporting “The Fourth Estate” in parliamentary debate on opening up debate in the House of Commons to the media.

In his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, Carlyle noted: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament: but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Oscar Wilde took the role of newspaper reporters, the only actual “media” at the time, even further:

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.

Discussion of the role of the Press during debate on creation of the Constitution in America brought this observation by Thomas Jefferson: “The ‘fourth estate’ is used to emphasize the independence of the press.”

As a newspaperman, I have always tried to be independent.  I’ve never registered as a member of any political party, never belonged to any philosophical group.  Legendary newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne said “it is the role of a newspaperman to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

God knows I have tried to do that.

In my first daily newspaper job at The Roanoke Times in 1965, the city editor told me that I must approach every story as a skeptic who needs at least two sources to confirm any and all facts.

“If your mother says she loves you, confirm it with a second source,” he said.

In times when I have gotten something wrong in a story, it usually happened because I forget that piece of advice.  Newspapermen are not infallible.  We make mistakes.  When we do, we must correct those mistakes and apologize.

Remembering: A son and a grandson visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Their father and grandfather's name is on the wall. (Photo by Doug Thompson)
Remembering: A son and a grandson visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Their father and grandfather’s name is on the wall. (Photo by Doug Thompson)

I’ve been fortunate to cover stories large and small around the world in more than half century as a newspaperman.  I shot news photos at the Pentagon at the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  I interviewed the cab driver who saw the plane scream low over his car, knocking a light pole down onto it, and slam into the side of the massive structure that houses the military might of America.  Another driver sat on the grass alongside Columbia Pike and held his head in his hands.  He could not talk for a long time to describe the horror of what he saw.

Violent conflicts around the world have unfolded in front of my camera lenses.  So have actions of the powerful and others who have fallen from grace or broken the law.  Even when we left the Washington area after 23 years and moved to what we thought would be the quiet of the mountains of Southwestern Virginia, the phone jarred me awake one April morning with a call from an assignment editor back in the nation’s capital asked me to head for Blacksburg to cover the mass killings at Virginia Tech.  I didn’t return home for three days and nights.

When covering news is in one’s blood, retirement is not an option.  Wanda Combs, editor of The Floyd Press, asked me to shoot a high school football game right after we moved here in 2004.  Now I shoot school athletic events for her and sometimes others yearround.

Another request came to cover courts where the news is dominated by a methamphetamine epidemic.  Next came a continuing assignment to concentrate on county government, particularly the actions of the board of supervisors.

This week started with shooting photos of guitarist Bernie Coveney, who once toured with Emmylou Harris and now helps veteran cope with PTSD and other problems by teaching them to play the guitar.

Other assignments through the week included coverage of the the board of supervisors approving a preliminary budget for the next fiscal year, softball — interrupted by lightning — at a local field and will end Saturday with shooting a photo spread for the WORX benefit concert at Lineberry Park.

In the mix too were three political columns for national news web sites and help on several other stories for use locally and elsewhere.  Floyd’s paper is now owned by BH Media, which also owns dailies in Roanoke, Richmond, Lynchburg and other locations in Virginia and nationwide.  Some of my work appears in their papers elsewhere.

At 68, my joints, muscles and bones hurt from both age and a serious motorcycle crash in 2012.  That crash came as I was returning from photo coverage of a state football tournament game in Staunton.

As Dave’s email reminded me this week, we are newspapermen.  As a youngster in the 1950s, I read a book where an editor, whose name I cannot remember, wrote that being a newspaperman is “a job for people who cannot do anything else.”

He was right.  I took a sabbatical from newspaper reporting for little more than a decade and worked as a political operative. I hated it.

I’m a newspaperman.  It’s what I do.  It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I’m a member of The Fourth Estate and I’m damn proud to be one.

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