People younger than I am and whom I knew in school are starting to check out. One of them died last weekend—at a hospital near Washington where, coincidentally, my daughter worked for two years. He was a journalist named Bart Reppert and he had been one since I first met him.
He was three years behind me at Cornell and wound up as a successor in my job as managing editor of The Cornell Daily Sun, which tends to be a high point in the lives of most of those who have been lucky enough to fill that post as undergraduates. Unlike me, he stayed a journalist, working for many years for the Associated Press, the AP, which is real, fact-driven journalism, wire service style.
The oft-told tale of how newspapers break your heart—and these days they break your bank account too, since they quickly disappear or their staffs disappear—probably applies to Bart. He was made for the wire service, a demanding trade that prefigured the 24-7 world journalism now inhabits, because that’s what working for the AP was even then.
Bart has been depicted as a conservative type as an undergrad—which in the late 60s meant you wore a tie. I suspect some of his conservatism was merely reactive against the tenor of his times, which were radical, especially on college campuses. Today, had he been a college editor, he might have drifted leftward in reaction to the successful revival of conservatism in politics. But mostly he was of the inclination that most of those of us who were managing editors were: stick-to-the-facts types, trying our best to be objective in an opinionated world.
Bart was better than most at that. He was always fascinated by science and made it his beat at the AP and thereafter. I’m sure he had his opinions as much as anyone else, but he did a better job than many at keeping them out of his product. If he went after the Russians for bugging U.S. operations when he was an AP correspondent in Moscow in the bad old Cold War days, that’s because he had investigated and found out just what they were doing. He probably didn’t like them politically either but that would not have gotten in the way of or advanced the story.
Can journalists really be objective? I was sympathetic to antiwar forces when in college but ended up being depicted as the candidate of the right when I was running for a top job on the newspaper because I was first and foremost firm in my aim to provide an objective report in the paper. To this day, I want to hear both sides and my back goes up when I hear someone say you only need to hear one.
Bart ended up having a hard time after he left the AP, which treated him as badly as it treated just about everyone else who ever worked there. He never quite found another niche and learned that working on your own putting out newsletters is a tough line of work. Like most journalists, he was not a salesman; he thought people naturally wanted the straight undiluted stuff and assumed that was worth something.
His marriage broke up; his mental health declined. People ended up ducking his calls because he was eventually looking for cash. I’m sure his siblings may tell a different side to the story (how ironic in Bart’s case!) but from the way he described his relations with them, it sounded like they made his last years harder than they should have been. In his case, there was no home as in the place where you go that they have to take you in.