So I'm sitting in my favorite bar last Tuesday. It's a slow night. Just a couple of other regulars and our usual bartender, a bright, young fellow who seems to enjoy his customers' company, despite our tendency to bloviate. On the television above the back-bar, All the President's Men is playing silently, the dialogue running across the bottom of the screen. For a veteran journalist such as myself, it is a bloviation opportunity not to be missed. This movie is the journalism version of a Marvel superhero flick.
You know the story: The impossibly pretty Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) and his shaggy sidekick, Dustin Hoffman (Carl Bernstein), play Washington Post reporters who are on the hunt for evidence that will expose the nefarious deeds of President Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate scandal.
The intrepid reporters meet with their editor to discuss leads and tips and procedures. They smoke in his office. They go out to interview a source, and they smoke in the source's house. They meet a tipster in dark parking garage, and smoke. They smoke in the newsroom as they pound out copy on their Remington typewriters. Newspapering used to be a smoky damn lifestyle, I tell you what.
I've been writing an editor's column for one publication or another since the mid-1980s, so I remember pounding out copy on a typewriter. I remember when everyone had an ashtray on their desk. I have become that guy — as one does when one reaches a certain age — a maestro of memories, a dealer of anecdotes, a chronicler of ancient customs, and no doubt a bore.
But bartenders get paid to get bored. So.
“I remember when writing a column would take me all day,” I say, warming up. “Now, I can knock one out in a couple hours.”
"Huh," says the bartender, helpfully. "Why's that?"
"Why is that? Why, you young whippersnapper ... you have no idea what it was like back in the 1980s. You'd come up with an idea for a column, then you'd have to verify the facts to make sure you could defend your opinion. You can't just make shit up. You have to research stuff, and in those days, that was hard work. Why, back then, I had a whole shelf of books in my office for research — thesauruses, dictionaries, atlases, anthologies, encyclopedias, and Bartlett's Quotations — just in case I needed a pithy quote. Here's a tip, by the way: Quotes make you sound smart.
"Anyway, sometimes, we even had to get in our primitive vehicles and drive across town to a library! When we got there, we'd have to look up book titles in card catalogues and then go search through long aisles of bookshelves with weird Dewey Decimal System numbers on the end. And then — get this — sometimes, the book we wanted was checked out! Do you even know what the Dewey Decimal System is, young fella? Well, do you? I didn't think so. And don't even get me started on phone booths."
"That's really interesting," says the bartender, helpfully.
"I'll have another glass of the red, please."
"You got it."
"Thanks. Anyway, the point is, now I don't have to do any of that because the entire panoply of human knowledge is at my fingertips — on my computer and my phone. On my phone! Think of it, man! I have the greatest library humankind has ever created, and it's right here on the bar. I don't have to go anywhere. I don't have to turn and pull a book off the shelf. Hell, I don't even have books in my office any more. I just google. If I need a pithy quote about, say, the newspaper business, I type in 'quotes about newspapers,' and I got more quotes than I can ever use."
"That's wild," says the bartender, as he pours a drink for another customer.
"That's why this movie is so important," I say. "The Fourth Estate is under attack like never before. We need newspapers more than ever. You should watch this with the sound on, sometime."
"I'll do that," the bartender says.
"After all, as Napoleon once noted, 'Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than 1,000 bayonets.'"
"You just googled that on your phone, didn't you?"