Bill Conlin: Journalism 101 for 2008

Posted: June 24, 2008

COLLEGE AND high school students interested in sports-writing careers contact me from time to time seeking advice on how best to enter an industry in crisis.

My inclination is to update the one-word, wink-wink, "Plastics" advice Benjamin Braddock received in "The Graduate." Instead, I would substitute "Internet." Or "Blog." Or "Multimedia." Or "Enlist."

I usually wind up counseling them to inhale education, hope for a job, then be prepared to do podcasts, Web blogs, obituaries, live TV, editing, brew the newsroom coffee and learn to be digital in all things. Mere computer literacy is not enough these days. You've got to make that laptop sing. Learn to do online research in an hour - work that used to take a week in the days of real libraries and newspaper clip files.

Today, I offer bonus advice in the shadow of the passing of George Carlin, patron saint of political incorrectness and rampaging raunch.

Carlin's most famous TV standup gig was "The Seven Words You Can't Say on TV." He was busted when he performed it in Milwaukee. A Supreme Court ruling later upheld FCC standards violated when a New York radio station played Carlin's "Seven Words" bit during hours when children could have been listening.

I'm here to tell you there's a helluva (oops) lot more than seven words you can't say on TV. There are scads you can't write in a newspaper, either.

You will be held accountable for every syllable you utter, every analogy you write, every graceful phrase you turn. Just know whatever it is, no matter how innocuous or intensely personal, it will soon fly into cyberspace, open for review, censure, ridicule, insult, obscenity and complaint. It's the great national "Backatcha," the LOL revenge of a society held in voiceless thrall until Al Gore and Bill Gates set them free.

All Americans still have total freedom of speech, of course. However, all Americans but rappers and standup comics must also deal with the often dire consequences of free speech.

Let's start at the top with the dreaded "H" name. Don't even think about writing any line in any context, no matter how witty or historically trenchant, that involves the former Bavarian corporal. Let Mel Brooks and "The Producers" cast do the heavy lifting when it comes to the nutcase who helped ruin the world for 15 terrible years of the previous century. Also, eliminate the following related words from your reference bag: Wehrmacht, swastika, panzer, Stuka, blitzkrieg or anything with armor and guns painted gray.

I can feel for golf analyst Johnny Miller, who is under a fierce backlash by the Sons of Italy for remarks about U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate. As somebody who used to clean swimming pools for very little money, I would have been honored to service Tiger's pool.

I had my own run-in with the local chapter of the Sons of Italy. In 1971, I nicknamed Frank Lucchesi's last-place Phillies, "The Big Pizza Machine." The Sons demanded my head. Lucchesi loved it, however, figuring he must have been doing something right for a team that bad to earn a nickname.

All religious references are out, of course, from Anglican to Zoroastrianism. And never tell a joke that begins, "A Protestant, Catholic and Jew were . . . " Everybody will laugh but the guy who e-mails the editor.

Other individuals to avoid hooking up to snappy one-liners during your TV appearances include: Charles Manson, Charlie Starkweather, Ted Bundy, The Boston Strangler (unless the line involves a Boston team choking), Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam killings) and the Zodiac Killer. Hannibal Lecter is probably OK; he was only a movie.

Nor is it trendy or cool these vigilante days to toss any of these names into your copy and hope they slip past an editor: Genghis Khan, Attila The Hun, Tamerlane, Joseph Stalin, Pontius Pilate, Torquemada, Chairman Mao, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger or Jesse James.

It goes without saying that entendres are finis, both single and double. And be careful, very careful, when writing about any sporting event involving male figure skaters and female professional golfers or basketball players. Not that there's anything wrong with them. And pack a modicum of sensitivity next to your Dell. When I was covering the Tonya Harding Chronicles that engulfed the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, I described the figure skater whose minions had disabled rival ice princess Nancy Kerrigan as "The Belle of the Clackamas County Shopping Mall." After the famous first-meeting workout in a Hamar, Norway, practice rink, I described her costume as resembling a budget-motel "shower curtain." Today, the PC cops would sit me down for at least a month.

If you can't deal with any of these new realities, print and electronic journalists of the future, well . . . Somebody has to write the classified ads. *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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