Paul Lynde the prophet, the New Tower of Babel, and more fun with journalism in the 21st century

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Much of our century reminds me of a show I used to watch as a kid when I was home sick. It came on around lunchtime. I never watched it except when I was vomiting or running a fever, and was grateful for the distraction. It was called Hollywood Squares.

A topic would come up, and it would be presented as if it were a serious question.

A contestant would name a name, and a familiar face would fill the screen.

Charlie Weaver was the crusty old man who knew about American history. Vincent Price had a pencil-thin mustache and sounded refined. Wally Cox was the nerdy intellectual. Rose Marie was reasonable and unassuming. George Gobel was good-natured but often confused. Foster Brooks was drunk. And of course Paul Lynde was always in the middle.

They were all our friends. None of them ever said more than a couple dozen words, and the idea was that the best responses were “zingers.” A zinger was a quip that was so funny it would end the short conversation. Paul Lynde’s zingers were so funny he laughed at them, himself. He wobbled his head as he did so.

As soon as the laugh came, they’d be, very efficiently, on to the next subject.

It was all, more or less, Facebook. Even though it seemed dumb, I always watched it to the end. Paul Lynde was a prophet.

I’m told that Facebook is what we have instead of journalism.

If we need in-depth journalism, maybe it will come back. If we don’t, maybe we’ll settle for zingers. We’ll elect the stars who keep the zingers coming.

***

Maybe, lacking the option of print, I’ll start working on some zingers myself.

For the last few years, I’ve been spending 10-12 hours a day in front of a computer. I answer emails, a couple dozen a day, on average; work on stories or drafts for exhibits or books; do lots of historical research, especially lately via the library’s From Papers to Pixels—still incredible, after more than a year—and, my favorite lately, I review spread sheets and tax forms.

I’m looking forward to the day that I can get away from the computer long enough to find it charming again. Maybe, then, I’ll get interested in Facebook.

***

Journalism’s been getting tougher, though, in ways that I suspect are a challenge even for Tweeters. The work of researching a story has gotten more complicated. When I started in local journalism, about 35 years ago, it was much easier to get in touch with people. Especially people I didn’t know.

That may seem ironic, given our amazing advances in communications technology, which do offer several advantages to journalists.

Part of it has to do with the fact that in recent years, many businesses deflect all reporters’ calls to their communications department, whose friendly representatives tend to know less about the subject than you do. Some even forward all journalists’ queries to external PR firms. After some time, often transgressing your deadline, they’ll cheerfully generate a statement that carefully avoids your question.

But there’s a bigger problem that distances reporters from the people they need to talk to. In 1983, when I researched my first story for a Knoxville publication, nearly everybody I ever needed to talk to had a telephone number, and that number was usually handy in a thick resource rarely seen on desks today. It was a phone book, and you got a new one free every year. It was alphabetical, and you could find almost anybody’s name in there. If you called anybody in that long list, even if he or she were a mayor or a priest or a reggae guitarist or a bank president, there was a good chance you might get through to the person you neeed to talk to on the first call. If not, he or she would call you back, often with something interesting or relevant to say.

It’s different today. More people use cell phones than land lines, and most cell phones aren’t listed in phone books or other public sources. Then, if you do find a number, chances are no human will answer.

We have more telephones per capita than ever before in the history of the planet Earth—and that we spend much more, even adjusted for inflation, to communicate than ever before. But we’re harder to reach than we were half a century ago.

Today I know people who answer a text immediately but let their email stack up for weeks. People who Tweet but steer clear of LinkedIn. People who are proud of their Facebook zingers, but who don’t answer their phones.

It’s our exciting new Tower of Babel. Everybody’s enjoying their freedom to speak their own new, different languages. Some find it exhilarating.

But there’s a problem here, folks. We’re more available to our friends who know our favorite languages, but we’re sometimes less available to others.

I’ve been preoccupied with historical projects in recent years, and do less reporting than I used to, but I still have problems I often had as a reporter. In writing articles and books about Knoxville history, I hear about a witness or relative, and want to talk to them about their grandfather who was a policeman or baker or a poet. I hear, thirdhand, that relatives who might know something about them are still in town, and am thrilled to be able to find a phone number for them. But more and more, the phone numbers I find, often with assistance from the Internet, are disconnected.

Maybe these folks are on Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter or something else. Or maybe they just have unlisted cell phones. They’re content with their circle of friends. I gather from experience that those circles rarely includes reporters or historians.

Remember “unlisted numbers”? A few decades ago, they were the mysterious possessions of a wily, secretive, and misanthropic minority. As kids, we whispered about people with unlisted numbers. There were so few of them, that status got around like a rumor. “Old man Kleinhopper has an Unlisted Number!” We sometimes snuck onto their lawns and peered in their windows, wondering what it was they were up to. Communism? Slavery? Rabies? We always assumed they were either very important or very dangerous.

Now Mr. Kleinhopper is the norm. He’s the majority.

Helpful friends have sternly advised me to screen my calls. If I don’t recognize the number, they say, I better not answer. But I’m an old reporter. That might be me on the line, with a number this network doesn’t recognize. And maybe a very good question.

Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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