McGuire on Media

Chris Jones story on Roger Ebert should bring us back to the journalistic ramparts

For weeks I have had notes for a blog entry on why I am having increased concerns about newspapers and journalism. I’m going to save those notes because I had a transformational morning. that forced me to give a hard Ash Wednesday rethink to journalism and life. 

Mid-morning I called my dearest friend, Gregory Favre. We had been playing telephone tag and we needed to catch up. It was one of our typical wide-ranging conversations touching on family, friends, fixing the newspaper industry and gambling. His tone switched to somber when he asked me “Did you read the Roger Ebert profile in Esquire? It was referenced on Romenesko yesterday.” 

Dutifully I went to the Esquire piece by Chris Jones because Gregory told me to do that and Gregory never steers me wrong. The piece is long and daunting.  You probably saw it on Romenesko’s blog and told yourself you’d read it later. Read it right now.

After three or four pages journalism became something lofty and aspirational again. The raw power of the printed word to describe the human struggle punched me in the gut. The ability of a great writer like Jones to make us deeply feel another person’s pain is a gift that no business model, no electronic contraption and no corporate moronic behavior can ever squelch. As the battle to preserve journalism rages, it is pieces like Jones’ story on Roger Ebert that should bring us all back to the ramparts to fight to preserve the irreplaceable. 

I have read stories before about Ebert’s difficult medical struggle, but the picture has never been painted like this. Jones is a master of creating intimacy without being maudlin. His piece is like a great musical score that rides the rails of emotion from one extreme to another. I cried, I laughed and I shook my head at the enormous resiliency of the human spirit.

Clearly, Jones’ brilliant piece of writing gets a huge boost from the literary skills and the realistic strength of his subject, Roger Ebert. I have never met Ebert, but I feel like I know him now.  Gregory worked with Ebert many years ago in Chicago and has always been an enthusiastic admirer, so I have heard stories and glowing tributes over the years. After reading that piece I consider Roger Ebert a friend.

This amazing piece could almost be viewed as a collaboration between Jones and Ebert.  Jones was obviously afforded amazing access, but the powerful dynamic of this story transcends access.  Jones’ brilliant writing teams with the dramatic and traumatic Ebert tale to generate a piece of journalism that forces the reader to live Ebert’s phenomenal struggle.

That struggle is a bitter, disillusioning one but the story never becomes bitter or depressing. Several times in my life I have encountered people who by their own struggles drive home to me just how blessed I really am. Only rarely is a piece of journalism able to accomplish that trick. Jones’ piece on Ebert does that and more. The story grabbed me and demanded that I appreciate the common joys of my life. The story demanded that I recognize that every step, every laugh, every swear word I utter are profound gifts. 

Journalism in the hands of an expert practitioner like Jones transports us, manhandles our soul and wrings emotion from every pore.

I was moved to write about this story, but I worry that I do it an injustice if I under-emphasize Jones’ stunning wordsmithing. His words are absolutely remarkable. A couple of examples:

“In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn’t exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.”

Or this:

“In his dreams, his voice has never left. In his dreams, he can get out everything he didn’t get out during his waking hours: the thoughts that get trapped in paperless corners, the jokes he wanted to tell, the nuanced stories he can’t quite relate. In his dreams, he yells and chatters and whispers and exclaims. In his dreams, he’s never had cancer. In his dreams, he is whole.”

There is just as big a risk if I underemphasize the role in this story of Ebert’s show-stopping courage and his magnificent sense of self-discovery.

For example: “There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.”

Or this one, the passage where I finally broke down.

Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

The lessons of life in this piece are palpable. The journalistic lessons pale in comparison, but they are worth considering.

At  a time when nattering negative voices decry tough media realities and denigrate so many efforts to reconstruct media, it is immensely valuable to celebrate sensational work which leads us to bigger truths about the time we spend on this blue marble.