From Academic Sociology to Radical Journalism: A Professor Learns to Write

From Academic Sociology to Radical Journalism:

A Professor Learns to Write


By Fred L. Pincus

(Pen in Hand: Literary Journal of the Maryland Writers’ Association, January 2017, pp. 51-58.

The political activism of the late 1970s competed with the scholarly writing that I was supposed to be doing as part of my job as a college professor. Although I taught sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, I lived with my girlfriend, Natalie, who taught sociology in New York City.  My weekly commuting left little time for activism in either Baltimore or New York and I felt something was missing from my life.

The Guardian: An Independent Radical Newsweekly, not to be confused with the better-known British Guardian, was beginning a New York bureau so I thought I’d try my hand at radical journalism. Founded in 1948, it had become the largest radical newspaper in the country that wasn’t affiliated with a left – wing political organization like the Communist Party USA. By 1967, The Guardian had a circulation of around 20,000 and was a major source of news and analysis for what was called the “new left” in America. I had been giving a monthly contribution to The Guardian for years and I traveled with them to China in 1972.

My first Guardian assignment was to photograph a New York City demonstration in support of Joann Little, a black woman who was imprisoned for killing a white corrections officer who raped her while she was incarcerated in North Carolina on another charge. Little had escaped from prison and relocated in New York where she was re-arrested as a fugitive. She was appealing North Carolina’s attempt to extradite her; William Kunstler, a movement hero at the time, was her attorney.

When I arrived at the courthouse on a cold February day, I saw about 50 people walking in a circle at the bottom of the steps. They carried signs and chanted “Free Joann Little” and “Free All Political prisoners.”

What am I supposed to do now? I thought. I wish I had taken Photo

Journalism 101 in college. Get your camera out, Fred, and take some pictures.

 Being New York City, the sidewalk was jammed with people trying to navigate around the demonstrators. Getting a clear shot of the demonstration in this crush of people seemed impossible, even with my wide – angle lens. Everyone was moving and I couldn’t ask them to pose for a picture. When I climbed the steps to get a better view, a police officer immediately rushed up to me and said, “You can’t stand here.”

“I’m a newspaper photographer,” I said, haltingly.

“Oh yah,” he said, “Let’s see your press pass.”

Oh, shit.

“I, I must have left it in the office,” I said.

“Right. Get off the steps,” he said, increasingly annoyed. I obeyed.

Somehow, I shot an entire roll of film [pre-digital camera] and returned to the Guardian office. I gave the film to Jack Smith, the editor.

“Why don’t you write a short article on Joann Little,” the he said after taking the film.

“What! I don’t really know that much about the case.”

“Here’s some articles,” he said, pushing a manila folder toward me. “Make it about 400 words, triple spaced.”

“Ok, I’ll take it home and get it to you in a few days.”

“Can you do it now?” he said. “Deadline is tomorrow. We have some typewriters that aren’t being used.”

“You want me to do it NOW?”

“Do you have the time?”

“Yes, but…”

“Great, give it a try.”

He led me to a large room with about a dozen beat – up desks, each with a typewriter. Personal computers would come ten years later. The large, noisy typesetting machine clinked and clanked as the individual letters fell into place. My desk showed numerous stains from spilled coffee and grease. The ribbon on my Royal manual typewriter needed replacing weeks earlier.

“Let me know if you have any questions,” he said.

After reading the material and making several unsuccessful attempts over the course of two hours, a two-page, triple-spaced article finally lay on my desk. I walked over to Jack and handed it to him.

“Thanks,” he said, “just put it on this pile” and returned to his work.

“Aren’t you going to look at it?” I asked, meekly.

“Can’t do it right now,” he said. “I have to finish the editorial for a meeting in 30 minutes. I’ll look at it later and let you know.”

“Okay,” I said, and left the office, a little bewildered.

That was weird, I thought to myself. I wonder if the article was any good. This journalism thing is certainly different than scholarly writing.

I never heard from him. The next week I eagerly opened The Guardian when it came in the mail and saw my first byline, along with a photograph. I never wrote something that was published so fast. This is great!

As I read the article, I recognized about eighty percent of it as my writing, rearranged and shortened. Twenty percent was new, including the first paragraph which I learned was the lead.The accompanying picture, showing the entire picket line, was someone else’s. Guess my writing was mostly okay but I have to work on the photography. It’s really hard to take pictures of a demonstration. How did the photographer get all 50 people into the picture?

A few weeks later I wrote a second article about a protest about budget cuts at alocal community college, also from second-hand sources. Is this really journalism? I thought to myself. Shouldn’t I be going to things and interviewing people? When the article came out in the next issue, I recognized ninety-percent of the writing, including the lead. Progress, I thought.

I finally got my chance to cover a real event by attending the daylong conference “China: 1978: The New Long March” sponsored by the Philadelphia Chapter of the US-China People’s Friendship Association (USCPFA). Mao Zedong had died three years earlier and the Chinese government said that it was still following his revolutionary principals. Although the mainstream American press speculated that China was moving away from Mao Zedong Thought, the USCPFA agreed with the Chinese government.

I had a great lead: “‘China has not been de-Maoified; in fact, it is being re-Maoified.’ This comment by one of the speakers seemed to reflect the opinion of most of the participants who attended the day-long conference ….” I described some of the speakers, interviewed several of the organizers and wrote about the atmosphere at the conference:

“The audience reaction to most of the sessions was lively and the questions came from a wide range of political perspectives.” One of my main themes was the half-hearted attempt to have some controversy about China in a USCPFA event. Most participants seemed to have a vested interest in supporting whatever the Chinese government said. Because of this lack of controversy, I had quit the organization the previous year.

I can do this, I said to myself. Ninety-five percent of my writing was untouched by the editor. The people at the USCPFA will have to address some of my comments. Maybe I can be a real journalist.

A few months later, I went to San Francisco to cover the USCPFA national convention that was attended by 1100 people. I described it as “the largest and the stormiest [convention] ever” and discussed how different factions in the organization looked at the post-Mao leadership. I interviewed people from different sides and tried to accurately explain the different viewpoints. I concluded:

“How viable is this type of mass organization where the dominant attitudes seem to be promoting China and protecting China’s image?

How much can one really learn about China in the USCPFA?…How valuable is it to the U.S. left if ‘friendship at any cost’ becomes more important than political understanding and analysis?”

I was finally finding my political voice, combining reporting and analysis. Being a major participant in the national debate about China among those on the left felt wonderful! Thousands of people are reading my ideas. I get compliments from people I respect. I’m not a celebrity, but I’m finally being noticed.

Soon, I became The Guardian’s China-watcher and wrote several columns a month. In March 1979, I wrote a two part series on changes in China’s education policy based some of my own research on the same topic that also resulted in a scholarly paper. In August, I wrote a four-part series on larger political changes in China. These more in-depth articles were particularly gratifying since I was combining my academic and journalistic skills to reach a mostly non-academic audience.

I did this writing as a stringer; i.e., someone not on the full-time, paid staff. I refused any pay for my articles and continued to send a monthly check to support the paper. Although writing was my major political activity, I still had my academic job to pay the bills.

Things were going so well that I arranged to take an unpaid leave from UMBC to work full-time for The Guardian in the fall 1980. I would receive the same sub-minimum salary that all other Guardian workers received. I was finally a full-time political writer/activist, something I had always wanted to experience. I would also have a reprieve from commuting and get to be with Natalie, full-time.  It was also the first time I had a five-day-a-week, nine-to-five job without the flexibility of academia.

I took the subway to 23rd  Street and walked to the Guardian office.  Everyone welcomed me, enthusiastically. Since I was now on the full-time staff, I learned about my day-to-day activities that included editing other people’s articles and writing short pieces about a variety of issues. I would continue with my China-watcher responsibilities.

My first writing assignment was a small article about demonstrations in South Korea, another topic that I knew nothing about. The editor handed me yet another manila folder with some clippings and told me to have something ready later that day. After turning it in and going on to something else, the editor came up to me and said, “Good article, Fred, but it has to be a little shorter.”

“Ok,” I said. “How much do I have to cut?”

“Figure out how to cut five lines without having to do additional typesetting.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “It’s bad enough that I can’t use footnotes and that I am writing about something I’m not familiar with. How can I cut something without having it reset? Is this some kind of initiation prank?”

He sat down on my desk and explained how the deadline was approaching and there was no time for more typesetting. He showed me how to take a few words off of the ends of a few different sentences. The rest of the article would then be re-pasted so it would fit in the desired space. After successfully carrying out this task, everything else seemed easy. Ironically, I soon became the go-to guy for short articles on South Korea.

Working at The Guardian was wonderful and I felt like a full-time radical. I learned how to write good “leads” and to get the important material in at the beginning of the article, quite the opposite of scholarly writing where you gradually lead up to the conclusion.

Proofreading, in spite of my poor spelling, and editing other people’s writing took up a few hours every day. My most valuable lesson – no words were so precious that they couldn’t be edited. This also helped my scholarly writing.

Tuesday nights the paper went to the printer, a  30-minute subway ride away. The Guardian provided pizza and soda for everyone since the last-minute work proceeded far into the night. I got home at midnight that first Tuesday, exhausted from a full day’s work. I had put in 12 hours that day and I didn’t want to think about what that meant in terms of an hourly wage. But, the paper got out and we began the cycle for the next week.

After a few additional late Tuesday nights, Natalie convinced me to talk to the editor about not having to work so late each week. We agreed that 8:00PM would be quitting time for me; still a 10-hour day.

Soon, I had both the education and China ‘beats’ and was thrilled to write about what I knew. I did a series on the growing influence of what was then called “the new right” [conservatism, 1980s style] in the area of American education. The Heritage Foundation was the new kid on the block. Toward the end of my stay at The Guardian, I wrote a 4-part serieson the state of the American student movement that was based solely on telephone interviews with activists around the country.

I think I know what I am doing, finally, and I’m really making a difference. Activists depend on me to know what’s happening on campuses around the country. I am part of a larger movement for social change.

I even contemplated a career change. Although I couldn’t financially afford to work at The Guardian for very long, maybe a journalism degree along with my PhD would open some doors. I made an appointment with the admissions office at the Columbia University School of Journalism, one of the best in the country. I brought my vitae and some of my Guardian articles and explained what I was thinking.

The J-School admissions officer, a woman in her thirties, dressed in a grey suit, was initially impressed when I mentioned writing for The Guardian. Her expression soured when she found out that my Guardian was not the well-respected English publication.

“If I got a master’s degree in journalism, along with my PhD,” I asked, “would I be able to get a job at one of the major newspapers or magazines?”

She smiled, looked at me and said: “You would have to start out at a small newspaper somewhere and work your way up. Journalism is a very competitive field these days.”

“I thought my PhD might make some difference.”

“You would need to use your personal connections to break into some of the major publications,” she said.“If you have these connections, you don’t really need a journalism degree.”

Great. I can’t see myself as a cub reporter in some small town, and I certainly don’t have any of the high-level connections that she was describing. Academia isn’t such a bad place after all.

Before leaving The Guardian, I was selected to lead one of their tours to Cuba in December 1980, almost two years after my first trip. Even though we were there during Christmas, there was no commercialism and very little evidence of the holiday. This was such a contrast to all the hoopla in New York. We literally missed Christmas.

The highlight of the trip was hearing Fidel Castro speak at one of those huge rallies at Revolution Square in Havana. Over 1 million people attended, about 10% of the entire country. The festivities began with representatives from elementary school student groups giving small talks and worked it’s way up to more high ranking political representatives. People around us paid varying degrees of attention to the initial speakers. One of our guides stood behind Natalie and me and offered a simultaneous translation.

When Fidel was introduced, everything changed. The people around us were quite engrossed in what he was saying. He had this “call and response” style and virtually everyone around us responded to him. Fidel would say something like “Will we let the American imperialists defeat us?” and the crowd would respond with a thunderous “No.” From everything that I was able to see and experience, the people around us held Fidel in high esteem.

My article on the rally contained the phrase “Special from Havana” under my byline. Far out! Me reporting from Havana! Just like all those bylines that I see in the New York Times and Baltimore Sun. Who would have thought!  This was my only article as an on-site foreign correspondent.

Several weeks after returning from Cuba, I boarded a train in New York and headed south to begin the spring 1981 semester teaching sociology in Baltimore. I continued writing as a Guardian stringer for several more years