“What I Know for Sure”
Speech by Tad Bartimus
Syndicated Columnist & former Associated Press Bureau Chief
at the National Federation of Press Women Conference
Adam’s Mark Hotel, Denver, Colorado ~ Saturday, Sept. 9, 2006
I celebrated a birthday this week, always a good time to take stock, count blessings, make “to do” lists. Milestones prompt me, and probably most of you, to think about what’s been learned during the passage.
One certainty is that I am very pleased to be here with so many fine women who are also fine journalists, and also happy to be back in Denver, even if my hair isn’t! I want to thank Ann Lockhart for her persistence and patience in getting me here, she and Marilyn, Gwen, Gloria and Judy and all the other wonderful organizers are putting on a grand event.
Thanks to the Internet, Microsoft XP and high speed cable, I am now able to live what I call a “small life in sharp focus.” As some of you know, I live at the end of a one-lane road on a speck of rock called Maui in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My husband, Dean Wariner, used to be a newspaper editor but when my AP career ended because my health went bad I tossed him the ball and he caught it, earning two master’s degrees at age 56. He got a job teaching 6th graders in a mostly Hawaiian school in Hana, and I went along for what has been a roller-coaster ride in America’s Third World.
Although we were married there 29 years ago and visited often, we’ve been fulltime in Hana nearly 11 years now, part of a community of about 2,000 people who live along 100 miles of our isolated, rugged coastline. Our neighbors include Oprah Winfrey, who bought land a mile down the road, a small-time drug dealer who used to live a few doors away until he got sent to the slammer, a sprinkling of hard-working, middle class folks trying to get by in service jobs, and a whole lot of Polynesians whose families have been there for generations and who are barely eking out a living in what the tourists believe is paradise.
Days go by when my conversations are limited to my husband, a few neighbors, some third graders I tutor in reading, and the dog, who is a very good listener. On a scale of 1 to 10, my daily ambient noise level is a 3. My wardrobe has shrunk to one good pair of go-to-town pants, which I’m wearing today, and this pair of black Tevas which have to pass for dress-up shoes.
Everybody in Hana is always at least 30 minutes late to everything, including funerals, so time matters less to me than when I was rushing to report breaking stories as a national roving correspondent. I don’t own a watch.
This is a problem if I’m catching a plane, as I did Thursday morning in order to be here today. I enjoy the suspension of time and space while I’m airborne, but every time I arrive in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, Hawaii’s gateway cities to the mainland, I suffer from culture shock.
Yesterday, when the Blackberries, Blue Tooths, Verizon Wirelesses and Microsoft Mobiles clicked on the instant the jet’s wheels touched DIA’s runway, I wondered how anyone finds time anymore to think about where they’re going in their rush to get there faster.
Which brings me to the heart of what I came here to say. Being a journalist for 45 years has taught me a few things.
I know that writers never retire; I’ve learned to never skimp on presents, that driving a Porsche is more fun than driving a Ford, and that when the cat knocks the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor, it’s better to laugh than to cry.
I’ve learned that never being satisfied that the story is good enough, the floor is clean enough, or the dress size is small enough is a curse as well as a blessing.
At 59, I have one foot and most of my torso out the door of a career that started in 1962 in a cluttered main street office in Belton, Mo. That’s where WHAT my mother called “the weekly wonder” was printed from hot lead type when the journalism bug bit me at age 14. I talked my way into earning $5 every Saturday at the Star-Herald by sweeping its old quarter-sawn oak floors, taking classified ads from walk-in customers, and answering the black rotary phone. I loved the variety of news and the characters who brought it into in that old building that still had brass spittoons. I knew right then I wanted to be a reporter who traveled the world on somebody else’s nickel and had fun doing it.
The great thing about being 14 and 18 and 22 — and perhaps 59 — is that you don’t know what you can’t do, so you just go out and do it. I did everything I wanted to do. I got into the country’s best journalism school at the University of Missouri. I reported to work at The Associated Press two days out after graduation in January, 1969. Four years later, I got my dream of being sent to Vietnam to as a full-fledged foreign correspondent – the second AP woman to be assigned fulltime to the war in Indochina.
What I learned covering my first war holds true for me today: I trust my instincts, I fight for my stories, I cherish my professional colleagues, I stand my ground, and I don’t take anything at face value.
I also know that some life choices have permanent consequences. My decision to go to Vietnam exposed me to Agent Orange’s poison, which left me childless and still coping with a chronic auto immune condition.
It was also in Vietnam, and while reporting in Northern Ireland, Guatemala and Peru, that I discovered the power of my words to ease people’s suffering and influence public policy. My mother, following Thomas Jefferson’s credo to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” did the same thing when she gathered nine friends to buy the Star-Herald the year I went to college in order to keep it out of chain ownership.
With no previous experience, my mother became a newspaper reporter and editor who sold all the display ads, reported on the city council, school board and cop shop, wrote all obituaries and birth announcements, and interviewed everybody who ever came to town.
While I was off in foreign countries tilting at windmills my mom was back home in Belton, epitomizing what a great community journalist ought to be. A disapproving neighbor once said to my father, “Your wife and daughter seem to think they can save the world,” to which my dad replied, “Yes, and they’re doing a damned fine job of it, too.”
Finally, the chain offered so much money the other stockholders sold out and Mom retired. She died before I was forced in the past decade to reinvent myself from a print journalist into the living embodiment of the buzz word “convergence.” She would not have been pleased, because she believed newspapers are the bulwark of democracy, but she would have understood because she was a survivor, too.
As anyone in the news business knows, these are uncertain times and we all must be nimble. During a financially tough period a couple of years ago I was making ends meet as a contributor to MSNBC.com, a public radio commentator, a national columnist syndicated by United Features Syndicate, a writer for EMMY magazine, and working on a book for Random House. I was also teaching writing in my spare time.
Exhausted and burned out, I decided a year ago to live on less money in order to have more time. Today my only gigs are the United Features column, which I will put to bed at No. 500 in just 58 more weeks, and helping Hana’s elders and children with their personal writing, thanks to some welcome grant money. My long-term goal is to write the books I keep postponing.
What I know for sure is that my life has never been, and is not now, dull. I have remained true to my roots as a street reporter in search of the best truth I can find. I have done some good work, I have made a difference in some people’s lives, I have been lucky and I am privileged to be in our business.
I know for sure that the best way for me to tell the big picture is to keep the focus small, and that living and writing in an ethnically diverse community that has embraced me even though I am a newcomer, I’m white, and I don’t appear to be working has allowed me to see fundamental truths.
Because I worry about women in general, and women journalists in particular, I will also share with you my belief, arrived at first-hand, that we don’t honor, value, or take good enough care of ourselves.
Four years ago, an American Press Institute survey found that 50 percent of male journalists expected a promotion, while only 33 percent of women did.
A study last year by the Project for Excellence studied nearly 17,000 news stories from nearly 50 news outlets during 20 days selected randomly over nine months. The results revealed that more than three-fourths of all stories contained male sources, while just a third of the stories contained even one female source. Sometimes we don’t remember to ask our sisters what THEY think!
Until we start thinking differently, we won’t act differently and equal respect will remain elusive. One of the catalysts for change is knowledge of the past. That’s why I helped found and now enthusiastically support the Women and Media Collection at the University of Missouri. I want those who follow us to understand what we overcame to succeed at our jobs. I hope you are planning to contribute your personal papers to the Women and Media Collection’s growing archives. One of the best days of my life was when my mother saw my history on display.
Twenty-one years ago, when I founded the Journalism and Women Symposium, JAWS for short — I did it so that stressed-out, frustrated women journalists could get together to help one another. The first of these “Mom goes to camp” sessions was held in Estes Park, in a borrowed cabin where a few smart, ambitious women got together for a long weekend to figure out how to address the huge gender gap of power and pay in our business.
This weekend JAWS is holding its holds its 21st annual camp in Sun Valley, Idaho. To my knowledge, not one of the original dozen or so members is still working in daily journalism. Many were laid off or let go. Several died young, including Nancy Woodhull, the highest ranking female executive at Gannett, and Janet Chusmir, who started working for the Miami Herald as a secretary and was its editor when she died of an aneurism at age 62. Others retired early or were shoved upstairs before they quit; a few just walked away in disgust. For several reasons, none of us has ever achieved the power or salaries we believed, back in 1985, we women should wield. But the good news is, other women have — and JAWS now has nearly 800 members in news outlets around the country. They will make a difference, individually and collectively.
Among other things I know for sure is that women journalists still don’t value themselves or each other enough. We need to help one another more. We need to hire one another, promote one another, recommend one another. And we need to view our job as just that — a job. We need emotional and physical balance in our lives if we are to be effective communicators for the long haul. We need to pursue personal happiness as we would a Pulitzer-worthy story.
Above all, we must to take control of our own destiny. I tell young women entering our profession that if they find themselves working for somebody dumber and more frightened than they are, they need to find another job — preferably, invent their own, then go out and find somebody to fund it.
In this fluid era, when a blogger with a gimmick and a lot of chutzpah can come out of nowhere and become Washington bureau chief for Time magazine in just two years, anything is possible. And that’s not a bad thing.
The scariest, most exhilarating move I’ve ever made was to the middle of the Pacific, where I reinvented myself. As you can see, I survived. I have no regrets.
I leave you with my gratitude for inviting me, and with the certain knowledge that eating a dark-chocolate Dove bar is better than eating a granola bar, that success is possible anywhere, that whales really do sing, and that this room overflows with power, energy and talent.
Go home and use it. As you do, remember to be kinder and gentler to yourself. Value your real life as much, or more, than your work. And make your own list of things you know for sure. You’ll be amazed at how smart you are! Thank you.
To read more of Tad Bartimus, please visit her website at www.tadbartimus.com