A good fire


WHEN I WAS a little girl I was enamored of the comic strip "Brenda Starr." Brenda was beautiful, a world traveler with masses of gracefully waving red hair and stars where her pupils ought to be.

She had a mysterious boyfriend with a black eye patch named Basil St. John, and she never wore the same gown twice.

Brenda was a reporter. This was my introduction to the newspaper business.

Well, my own hair stayed brown, reporter or no reporter. And impressionable young people are still being fooled by popular culture into thinking that newspaper reporting is a glamorous occupation, instead of a business in which the best you can hope for is steady work and all the stationery supplies you can fit in your purse. (That is at large newspapers. At some small ones I hear that you have to share a pen with the guy at the next desk.)

No teen-ager running a school newspaper should look at Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts, playing competing reporters in the new movie "I Love Trouble," and think to herself, now, that's what I want to do.

Contrary to what you'd imagine from this movie, newspaper reporting is not a cross between espionage and dating, and we female reporters rarely wear four-inch heels to a train wreck.

Contrary to what you'd imagine from this movie, after almost 25 years in the newspaper business I can tell you that:

* Never have I seen a newspaper columnist parked outside this building enthusiastically kissing a blond in a red convertible. I have, however, seen Russell Baker looking fondly at his wife.

* Never have I fallen from a catwalk under sniper fire and managed to grab the all-important microfilm right before TC plunged to what looks like certain death. I have more than once gotten nipped by the closing doors of the subway, and I've been known to lose my notes.

* Never has the subject of a story tried to mow me down in a death car outside a steakhouse. I was once spoken to sternly about a dinner bill on my expense account, but the encounter never included guns.

This would not be worth mentioning if many impressionable young people did not get their first impressions of the newspaper business from the movies. A generation ago the movie was "All The President's Men." It did not make reporting look unreasonably glamorous, except to the extent that putting Robert Redford in a role could make being a Trappist monk look glamorous.

But it did give the distinct impression that if you worked hard and were a tenacious reporter, you could bring down the president of the United States.

Thus it was a rude awakening when many of its young aficionados found themselves covering proposals for solid waste treatment plants at zoning board meetings.

The best movie ever made about being a newspaper reporter was in 1940. It's called "His Girl Friday" and it captures the kind of newsrooms we worked in before carpets and cubicles and computers.

The reporters yell "Gimme the desk" into the phone. When they file, one says a murderer put up a desperate struggle and another says he offered no resistance. It's not an action movie unless you count the smart mouths on Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns, played by Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.

The whole point of the movie is that Hildy is going to leave the newsroom for the straight life and is lured into one last assignment. By the end of the day the business, exhilarating and tedious, crummy and wonderful, has sucked her back in, and the pert little hat she has been wearing has been pushed forward, adjusted and mashed so it looks pretty much like a fedora.

"Because of you I remember how much I loved newspapering," says Nick Nolte, staring into Julia Roberts' eyes. Because of news, Hildy leaps to her feet when she hears bells, and not because of some big blond guy. "I just thought it might be a good fire, that's all," she says. No espionage. No car chases. Just a good fire.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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