WASHINGTON -- As I look upon the chaos that has been our nation's capital lately, I find myself playing a game about what we could do without. We could do without many congressmen. We could do without Internet programs that don't work. We could do without hedge fund owners who think they own the world -- and who often, in fact, do.
But there is one thing I know from the deepest depths of my heart that we cannot do without. We cannot do without reporters!
You look at me with a curious, confused expression, wondering why this should come up now. You tilt your head as some cute dogs do, pretending misunderstanding. Frankly, you'd rather not think about the whole business, and I understand that perfectly.
But me? I awake in the night from a recurrent nightmare: I am in a city square, probably on State Street in my hometown of Chicago. Bedlam ensues. Some men with guns are murdering others. One policeman cries out over and over, "Call the press! Call the press!" But the chaos never stops (not until I wake up, at least) because there are no longer any reporters.
In reality, there are a small number of reporters at the few remaining big-city papers and community presses -- they prefer now to call themselves "local correspondents." The staffs of local radio and television bureaus, as well as the old, now-diminished magazines like Time, were long ago savaged. As we would say in the old neighborhood on the South Side about the once-thriving press of Chicago, "Nobody's home."
There are also Internet sites and blogs that pretend to have reporters. Many who write for these sites are not even paid, an indication of the respect given to their work. The problem for society with all these different "social media" is that they just don't connect.
In days of yore, there were one or two newspapers in every city of any size that were so good, so dependable and so brilliant in their reportage -- in Chicago, usually the Tribune and the Daily News -- that everyone knew where to check, not for big truths like the Gospels, but for the little truths that are news.
Today, there is no organization or media company that has that cachet. And there is no system of on-the-job training for real reporters, of sending them to every corner of the city to make somebodies out of the nobodies and to say to the reader as he opened his newspaper: "Sir, THIS is your city!"
Reporters used to be funny people. The ones I knew in those olden days were generally guys without a college education. But they had a kind of natural grace, granted from up there, that allowed them to intuit the structures and systems of the city, the personalities of the pols and the truth of what a person was saying. They cared, although they would hate my saying it.
They had lots of fun on the job, acknowledging no law that forbade jollity in the City Room. To the contrary, the Internet people I've seen at media functions rarely seem even to laugh. Perhaps they have different laws.
I was always amazed, from the time I became a reporter in the 1960s, by how few of these seemingly regular people it took to keep a big, bruising city like Chicago even halfway in line. They could go out into the city, have a few drinks, talk to almost anybody, have a few drinks and then write a series that would clean up the water department. And they just loved it, although not everyone loved them.
Later in my career, I was equally, or even more amazed by the foreign correspondents who emerged from that local reporters' coven. These international reporters went out into worlds upon worlds they did not know, spent the necessary time to hang around and develop a feel for them (and have a few drinks) and send back virtually all the information the American people would or could know about the world.
About Iraq. About Vietnam. About Paraguay and Panama and El Salvador. Funny, you know, the reason we went into Afghanistan with so little knowledge and so tragically little preparation in 2001 is because there had been virtually no American reporters there during the 1990s reporting on al-Qaida and the boys as they were forming and preparing.
You may think I am exaggerating about the reporters. Unfortunately, no. As newspapers shrink their coverage, their reporters necessarily go elsewhere. The Internet and citizen journalists cannot fill their place because not enough people read any one source so that a new authority on news can be created.
In fact, why on Earth do we call it "social media"? It is far more "anti-social media," dividing our society still further.
So, please, think about it. That is really all I ask. Every time you decline to buy a newspaper, think twice before you refuse to spend the dollar. And if someone asks you what you are buying, your answer is easy. Just smile knowingly and say, "The world."
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)