March 5, 2004

Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism
Lillian Ross

Precisely -- Jerry Thompson taught old-school journalism: Get the facts, check the facts, tell the truth, and raise a little hell. He was the perfect mentor for a left-leaning, college-age writer: a rogue with principles, a renegade who rejoiced in playing the devil's advocate, a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, thought-provoking conservative who inspired hundreds to love a good scoop and strive for clear writing. In more recent years, Jerry has done far less boozing and far more bicycling (and probably saved his life because of it!) but he has continued to encourage good reporting and good reporters. Over the years, I have been inspired by many others in addition to Jerry Thompson. Some have been friends. Others have been writers I have only known through their writing. Lillian Ross is a favorite from the latter group and her book has made me wonder what Jerry Thompson would make of her. I have long admired the sense of precision and objectivity that Ross brings to a page, but only now, after having read this collection of essay excerpts couched between gracious commentaries do I realize that her writing has been anything but objective. In fact, Lillian Ross has managed to employ her keen sense of precision -- at choosing details, at quoting conservations, at minimizing descriptions and motivations -- to capture a truthfulness that shames all of my college-years' lessons about "objectivity." Ross was friends, good friends, with many of the people she profiled, often over periods of several years. "Write what you know" are words one hears frequently in fiction workshops but rarely in sardonic newsrooms. Ross knew (and often liked) her subjects and, in so doing, managed a revolutionary act for several decades: she told the truth ... and even raised a little hell along the way.


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