The Former Journalists Who Helped Write History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes the best way to get the story out is to put yourself into circulation.
By Sean Braswell
As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar and other outsiders throw their hats into the news ring, here are nine of OZY’s favorite ex-journos who decided to move in the opposite direction, and who — far from being yesterday’s news, or newswriters — went on to even greater things outside the realm of print media.
1. Al Gore
The former U.S. vice president served for three years as an Army journalist in Vietnam, returning to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1971 to work as an investigative journalist and editor for the Tennessean before running for Congress in 1976. Gore’s investigative skills would no doubt come in handy when putting together An Inconvenient Truth and his case for addressing global climate change.
2. Ernest Hemingway
Another veteran of war turned reporter after driving ambulances during World War I, the young Hemingway worked for the Toronto Star from 1920 to 1924, first in Toronto and then in Paris as a foreign correspondent, which allowed him to travel extensively and experience postwar Europe like few others. But his first article, “A Free Shave,” was a clever and lighthearted chronicle of his trip to a barber college in search of a free shave — a visit, he quipped, that “requires the cold, naked valor of the man who walks clear-eyed to death.”
3. Michael Moritz
This former British journalist, and beknighted investor and philanthropist, wrote business and technology pieces for Time magazine prior to joining the Silicon Valley-based Sequoia Capital in 1986. Moritz later secured his reputation as one of the nation’s top venture capitalists when he pushed Sequoia into investing $12.5 million in a California-based startup that would one day return billions on that investment. The fledgling company: Google.
4. David Simon
Simon, also a multimillionaire and the creator of the critically acclaimed HBO show The Wire, used his experiences as a writer for the Baltimore Sun’s city desk for 12 years as an inspiration for the series. Initially drawn to enter the profession by the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, Simon became increasingly disenchanted with the business side of the industry and cynical about the ability of journalism to change society in a meaningful way. In a hearing before the U.S. Senate in 2009, he called for the newspaper industry to adopt a nonprofit model more befitting of its public mission.
5. Nora Ephron
Another übercreative individual who cut her teeth in journalism, Nora Ephron worked as an intern in JFK’s White House. She’d eventually be best known for penning the Oscar-nominated screenplays for When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, but earlier she worked as a reporter for the New York Post (after being told by Newsweek, she once said, that “they didn’t have women writers”). Ephron went on to write a popular column about women for Esquire and marry Carl Bernstein. After the legendary Washington Post journalist cheated on her, Ephron not only divorced him and wrote a scathing, tell-all novel/screenplay about his infidelities (Heartburn), but she also happily disclosed (to anyone who asked) her ex-husband’s most closely guarded secret — and journalism’s greatest mystery: the identity of Deep Throat.
6. Benjamin Franklin
You may have known that Franklin was an inventor, statesman, scientist and U.S. Founding Father, but he was also a journalist and publisher. Franklin’s older brother James founded the New-England Courant, one of the first independent American newspapers, when Ben was 15. After his brother repeatedly rejected his submissions, Franklin adopted the persona of a middle-aged widow named “Silence Dogood,” whose 14 letters on everything from petticoats to the evils of alcohol were published — and became the talk of the town (until Ben’s brother discovered the ruse). Franklin would later found his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, which would wield considerable influence in the young colonies.
7. Charles Dickens
Like Franklin, celebrated English novelist Charles Dickens got his start on a family-run newspaper — working as a parliamentary reporter for his uncle’s Mirror of Parliament during the 1830s. Dickens’ low regard for politicians was probably forged during the five years he spent sitting in the gallery of the House of Commons taking shorthand notes of the proceedings. As Dickens’ alter ego, David Copperfield, also a parliamentary reporter, observed in the eponymous novel about his Westminster experience, “Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.”
8. David Axelrod
One journalist who did not get turned off by what he saw in the corridors of power was David Axelrod. President Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist and former senior adviser got his start as a political reporter in Chicago, tagging along after local politicians. Axelrod would become the youngest chief political writer ever at the Chicago Tribune before leaving to serve as Illinois Sen. Paul Simon’s press secretary in 1984 and then start his own political consulting firm. In a 1987 profile, Chicago magazine described the 32-year-old mustached politico as looking “like some exotic rodent that might come out of the woods at night to topple your garbage.”
9. Mark Twain
An even more famous writer with a mustache, who, like Franklin, got his start working on his brother’s newspaper, was Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. From his contributions to the Hannibal Journal at age 16 to working as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nev. (after he failed as a silver prospector), to writing for Bret Harte’s Californian, Twain had a lengthy resumé as a journalist before his first hit story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” was published in 1865.
The list goes on: John Steinbeck (San Francisco News), Winston Churchill (Morning Post), Norman Mailer (Village Voice), Chrystia Freeland (Financial Times), Pat Buchanan (St. Louis Globe-Democrat) and even Sarah Palin (Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman).
And with so many dazzling writers to choose from, it’s hard to know who should get the final kicker. Certainly one of the most colorful snapshots of what it’s like to be a journalist was taken by the late Nora Ephron, who wrote in 1970:
“Working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy. I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side taking notes on it all.”
Ephron may not have entered the orgy after leaving journalism, but she did go on to write what is undoubtedly the most famous orgasm in history.
And how many journalists can say that?