Weeks ago I read a chilling, real-life story about a journalist – a star journalist no less--which any journalist born to the game would find frightening. Like a stake through the heart, the article describes an ordeal that ends with the chilling question, "What does the journalist who can't do journalism anymore do?"
Anita Busch, once a hard-charging reporter for Variety, among other high-profile jobs, loved journalism. In her words, "It was all I ever wanted to do." Breaking her silence on what has become of her since she herself "became part of the story" in a moving interview she gave to The New York Times before her testimony in the Anthony Pellicano racketeering and wiretap trial, Busch reveals that what began with a threat against her for her hard-charging reporting one June day six years ago has ended with the destruction of her career. After she was targeted, her enviable Hollywood contacts dried up. Many of them, confidential sources who feared being dragged into the spotlight, deserted her. Inside Hollywood was her love and her beat. No longer able to deliver the breaking news stories for which she was once famed, she stopped writing about the world she knew. In a downward spiral, as her sources dried up, so did her output, and eventually her job. Of late, she has been unable to find permanent employment.
"It was, literally, watching your career disappear in front of your eyes, and you can't do anything about it," Ms. Busch said.
Bad enough if your career ends because of something you did. Shoddy work. Poor relations with the boss. In this case, it all came undone because of somebody else's doing. Like some computers like to tell you, "It's not my fault." Which makes it even worse. And yet, the result is the same. One tough break. You're out of the game.
Of course, people get into the game for lots of reasons. Broadly speaking, the way some people say there are two kinds of people in the world --- those who love dogs and those who don't --- there are two kinds of journalists in the business. Those who, if things don't work out, could happily teach. Or go into public relations. Or sell insurance. Or open an inn in Vermont. And those who live it from the very depths of their being. Journalist is not just their occupation. Journalist is what they are. Inside and out. Whether they are holding a job that makes it "official" or not. Sad, then, to think someone else could take away from you the chance to live your work. Like taking away the air you breathe.
Anita Busch is not the only one to come to this fork in the road. There are lots of reasons a journalist may find he or she can "no longer do journalism." Layoffs. No jobs. Of late, The New York Times; reports ABC, NBC and CBS have plans for layoffs in their newsrooms in 2008. Under the banner of a headline, "What's Next for Newsmagazines: Fading Publications Try to Reinvent Themselves Yet Again," The Wall Street Journal tells us 111 employees at Newsweek, many of them longtime editors, have taken buyouts. Maybe they will find comparable work again. Maybe they won't. Or the reason may be personal. Married with children and family life means you "can't do that anymore." The need to make "real money" and "get a life."
Whether you did it yourself, took yourself out of the game, or someone else did it to you, however it happened, should you be one of those journalists for whom the work is "in the blood," the end of the game is a painful loss.
For the broader question, "What does a journalist who can't do journalism anymore do?" the answer seems written into the question. Nothing that's ever as thrilling.
Of course, you could write a book. Become a filmmaker.
The New York Times says Anita Busch is trying to find a new career she will love as much.
I hope she does.
For many who can no longer play the game I'm not sure that's possible.