War & Politics
By Other Means
A Journalist's Memoir
(University of Washington)Shelby Scates came out of the journalistic world of the 50s --- holding jobs with the old International News Service and United Press International. He moved to Washington State in 1962, and ended up with Hearst's Post-Intelligencer where he worked off and on for the next thirty years. His beat was the Washington State legislature, although he spent some time as reporter in Israel (he was there for the Six-Day War) and in Cambodia. In later years, he has taken to mountain climbing, and the last part of his book is devoted to his scaling of K2 and Mount McKinley.
When I lived in Seattle, he was the reporter for the inside scoop of what was going on in the state capital, Olympia. He was respected and honored for his honesty and incorruptibility. This is what he says about being a good reporter:
It is a complicated mix of curiosity and zeal of the hunt based on a will to try to do good for the less powerful in our democratic society by keeping them informed of the forces that would do them ill. The good reporter has a calling, not a profession, and conducts himself within the severest structures of fairness and factual accuracy. Otherwise, he is a stenographer or, worse, a propagandist. He must develop sources and, to do so, he must be trusted and he must be fair. It is no place for an ideologue or a back-stabber.
Scates points out the scandal of present day news reporting is the failure of newspapers and television and radio to let people know what is going on in their own state legislatures. He says,
The relationship between reporter and statehouse workers and politicians is symbiotic: They have stories they want to place in print; the reporter seeks news to inform his readers, the democracy. He must care about the democracy and he must work hard. Given these "musts," sources will gravitate to his confidence. Tricky as this relationship may be, a reporter without sources is at the mercy of handouts and press conferences, the apparatus of a self-serving politician or special interest.
Every present-day college journalism student should be laid on a table and force-fed this chapter by mouth (or any other available orifice).
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War and Politics by Other Means is a graceful book. We would expect one who has been writing news (and in some cases, making it) for so many years to be able to tell a story, and tell it well. But what is most wonderful about Scates is that he cares. Any reporter who has lived with what he calls the "rough mixture of altruism, venality, petty feuds" of state government either has to go under, turn cynical and calloused, become a boozer, or have something special called Hope. Obviously, Scates has the latter (although he is not adverse to a bottle of good Kentucky bourbon from time to time.)
It is his hope --- or better, idealism --- that makes him despair at what has happened to the news machines over the last few years. It has to do not only with the triviality of television reporting, but the uglification of all but a few newspapers in the Sex Scandal Sweepstakes --- as if what a politician does with his weenie is as important as what he does with his legislative or executive ability.
Scates is, thus, a reporter of the old school. He is honest and he is driven --- and he is, too, more than a little courageous. We know this from his off-hand descriptions of his war reporting. During the Six-Day War, he and Bill Maudlin drove themselves --- in a rented car, no less --- to where they thought the next action would be taking place. They were usually right. This meant they got there before the bombings started, which meant they were right in the middle, had to duck when it actually happened. During his visit to Cambodia in 1984, there were not only bombings to deal with, there were the ever-present snakes and land-mines, and a military that was very suspicious of him.
Why did he do it? In a chapter that tells about his own divorce, he reports the words of his sister:
You are too given to adventure, too restless, too enthralled with your work, wretched as it may seem to some, for domesticity --- never mind domestic tranquility. Marriage would not be fair to your wife.
He then says,
She was correct, alas, and much of the time I was gone from home or planning to be gone. Yet I cannot have regrets, given the issue of this marriage --- my two magnificent daughters, whom I not only love but like.
When he was "in the throes of readjustment," he reports, a Seattle poobah by the name of John Haydon said, "Why the hell don't you get out of the way and leave those Arabs and jews alone to kill each other. Why have you made their killing each other your business?"
Taken aback, I wanted to strike him. Frustrated, I couldn't even mutter a rational response about the conflict's role in the Cold War. And I was helpless to explain how one could become a captive witness to a human tragedy, and, to a lesser extent, remain so to this day --- the tragedy being unresolved, blood still flowing.
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I once met Scates, when I was living in Seattle. I had been given a once-weekly column with the Post-Intelligencer. It was 1969; they thought noisy hippies should have a representative on the editorial page. When I look back on what I wrote, I am surprised that they would permit such juvenile rants --- even pay me for them. Mostly it was over-intellectual musings about ugly freeways and the provincial attitude of the people of the Pacific Northwest.
Every now and again, though, I would get in an high dudgeon, and strike out against The Forces of Evil. One of these concerned the right to legal abortions. The Judiciary Committee of the Washington State Senate had bottled up a bill --- the first in the country --- that would permit women to have their own choice in the matter. The legislative committee was dominated by Catholics. It seemed grossly unfair to me that such a popular bill should be held thrall to legislators who were listening to their gods rather than the will of the people. I was hot to write something strong about the whole terrible situation.
For once, I wanted to get my facts straight, so I went to Scates' office at the P-I and asked him for the straight skinny on what was going on --- who was bottling up the bill, how it was being done, who was being obstructive. (If I had gotten my facts wrong, the point of my article might have been ignored.) He spent a fair amount of time with me, gave me all the names, explained the process whereby the Senate was holding this particular bill hostage.
His information turned out to be sound, and I used it all to write a steamy column on the subject, most of the details of which I have forgotten but, in which, I recall, I referred to the Pope, in his "dress," "with all his fine jewelry." I said that his faith had become "a curse" to the rest of us.
Most of the editorial staff were on vacation that weekend, so no one screened the column. It got dutifully printed. The next week, I found myself being roundly excoriated in every Catholic parish from Billings, Montana to Bend, Oregon, and the Canadian border. The newspaper was widely chastised for publishing "such a crude caricature." My telephone calls got so scary that I had to change my number. Newsweek wrote a long piece about it, and the San Francisco Chronicle compared the attacks on me to those on Martin Luther.
I was delighted. Isn't this what journalism is all about? Well, maybe. A couple of months later, the Post-Intelligencer quietly canned me. They cited the "negative" slant to my columns. It took another year for the bill to get out of the legislature. There was little left for me in the northwest, so I moved to California, onto another very different life.
What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with War & Politics By Other Means? Actually, very little. It is, to me, an interesting story, and all these years I've been trying to figure out where the hell I could stick it --- some sort of a hook, if you know what I mean. Which does not gainsay that Scates is a great guy, a gutsy reporter of the old school, and, on top of that, a fine writer. You should go out get his book at once.--- Lorenzo W. Milam