‘Fun as Hell’ — an ardent reminder for journalists

D.C.-based journalist L.J. Kummer’s “Fun as Hell” is a humbled and huffy retelling of the 32-year-old’s past decade or so on the planet, mainly an account of his struggle as a freelance journalist on government affairs while waiting tables with a needle jammed in his foot. (No health insurance.)

In his Amazon Kindle Single that released earlier this month, you can tell the author gives way more than a fuck about his commitment to journalism and accuracy. He’s passionate, pompous and yet has no place among the in-crowd of NYC or Beltway media. Which is probably one of the reasons one could stomach the guy.

There’re a ton of different things to interpret from his 9,000-word memoir in a fill-in-the-blank/what-this-story-means-to-you sort of way, from his days as a clerk at the New York Times to a correspondent in a war-torn Middle East and the odd jobs in between.

For myself, it was an ardent reminder of just what the hell bloggers, reporters, editors, even whatever I am are all supposed to be doing in the first place. “Just as a surgeon chalks up countless surgeries,” Kummer writes, “all writers can do is practice. Find as many wires as they can, try to stretch them out, study them, work them and manipulate them with injured hands, because we want to understand the meaning and put it into words that will be meaningful to someone else.”

An excerpt from Kummer’s “Fun as Hell”:

On one of my first nights, a copy editor with a smashed-in nose walked me over to a towering figure who smelled of the cigarette he’d just sucked down in the stairwell.

He introduced me.

“I don’t give a shit,” baritoned the man in charge without looking up from the page proofs clenched in his enormous hands.

When the last ballgame would end and the final edition would go to bed, I’d lurch into the subway with enough newspapers tucked under my arm to papier-mâché a mastodon.

My fingers were leaden with ink by the time I arrived to my room, which was already junked with stacks of newsprint.

Back at work I’d follow the unpublished stories bouncing around in the computers. When a reporter filed copy, I’d watch it get rewritten, tweaked, checked and noted.

Newsrooms are Darwinian crucibles. More than a century of deadline pressures have forged highly adapted species. I studied them. Soon I too knew how to put together a news analysis, dispatch, column, trend piece, tick-tock, feature, brief, spot news.

People inside and outside the building loved discussing the Times. Judith Miller had recently supplanted Jayson Blair as the hot topic.

Every day the reporting Miller had done on Iraq looked hollower. It was reporting that had been used to justify the invasion.

The Bush administration had handed her a bogus story about Saddam’s nuclear program. She ran with it to the front page. This was one of many articles in which she’d cited unnamed sources to describe how Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction.

The people who wanted to go to war with Iraq, such as those in the White House, then pointed to Miller’s reporting on WMDs. They also said Saddam was tied to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.

But when American troops reached Baghdad, no one found evidence of either of these things. Even the White House began backing away from its claims.

Then everyone — the media, politicians, spooks, the public — started wondering how the hell all of this happened. How did what was said during the run-up to war receive such little scrutiny? Why was false information allowed to be repeated so many times without question?

Because every time what was untrue, even if it were ridiculous, got retold, it seemed more believable.

The Times was a strange place to be during this period. Miller would whisk through the building on 43rd Street like a ghost condemned to retracing its steps. Her colleagues spoke out against her in the very pages of the paper where she worked.

I started handling other tasks there, tracking numbers for the stocks pages, doing summaries for the TV guide, answering phones on news desks.

For a few weeks, I was cloistered in a mostly forgotten library on the 12th floor to reconcile the Times’ list of war dead with that of the Pentagon. I read accounts and documents and corrected a spreadsheet.

Gender, hometown, branch of service, rank, military unit, cause of death.

The paper was planning a foldout for when fatalities reached 1,000.

Even though I was following what people were saying about Miller, I always tried to avoid discussing her back then because I thought I didn’t know enough about journalism or the world yet.

After all, I had watched the run-up to the bombing while I was still waiting tables, pausing before a TV mounted near the bar with a tray of cocktails balanced on my fingertips. I remembered the channel showed a backdrop in which the faces of Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Saddam were airbrushed over a “Star Wars” movie poster. The network cut to a commercial before the shock and the awe began.

But though I stayed silent during most of these conversations, I suspected even then that what Miller had done made the world more jumbled instead of untangling it.

Read the rest of “Fun as Hell” at Kindle Singles here.