April 29, 2020

I was getting ready for a Zoom writing workshop when my wife asked me “Uh, are you going to wear that T-shirt?” It is my favorite shirt, dark green with the brand name Converse across the chest. I had worn it the day before, worn it to bed, and was still wearing it after breakfast.

I stepped into our closet and picked out a stylish aqua golf shirt, one I could wear almost anywhere in Florida under a sports coat. “How’s this?” I asked. “What about down there?” She stared down at my gray gym shorts. “It won’t matter. They can’t see it.”

Hey, it’s a pandemic.

We are living in a Zoom world, a world divided by two zones. Up Here — or above the equator if you prefer. And, south of the border, Down There.

This illusion — that you are fully dressed when only half-dressed — is as old as broadcast journalism itself. As more and more journalists report to us from the quarantine of their homes, there is a greater temptation than ever, not just to dress casually, but to tidy up above as then relax down below.

I have lived my life, not always easily, as a Roman Catholic, and we have patron saints for everything. St. Lucy is the patron of good eyesight. St. Blaise, the patron of a healthy throat. For years, we Catholics wore St. Christopher medals. He was the patron saint of safe travel.

I propose that we Zoomers declare that the patron saint of the split-level dress code is Robert Pierpoint, one of the great broadcast journalists of the 20th century. (He was also the first bigshot journalist I met in 1979 when the Poynter Institute was still called the Modern Media Institute.)

Not only should Pierpoint become our patron saint, but he should lend his name to this thing we are doing. Yes, friends, we are doing it, doing it, doing it. But not always well. We are doing it from our basements, our dens, our back porches, even our bedrooms, even while sitting in the lotus position from the comfort of our beds — as long as there is a nice background behind us.

An early candidate for this year’s Pierpoint Half and Half award is ABC News reporter Will Reeve, who appeared on a recent edition of “Good Morning America,” well-dressed Up Top, but when the camera pulled back, quite bare-legged Down Below. (Hey, Will, the 1980s just called. They want their shorts back.)

From a discipline of actuality and factuality, we journalists are creating an illusion. It is a duality inherent in the word “cleave” — which can mean, at the same time, sticking together or splitting apart.

From the early days of CBS television news, Bob Pierpoint worked with giants of American journalism from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Cronkite. He covered the biggest stories, from the Korean War to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. From 1957 he served as the CBS White House correspondent, covering every president from Eisenhower to Carter.

According to his 2011 obituary in The New York Times, it was from the front lawn of the White House that Pierpoint dared to work his craft half-dressed-up:

Mr. Pierpoint was an avid tennis player, something that made for a mixed fashion statement one Saturday in the early 1970s when he reported from the White House lawn.

Mr. Pierpoint wore a suit jacket, dress shirt and tie but, as the New York Times later reported in an article on men’s fashion in Washington, what the television camera did not reveal was that Mr. Pierpoint’s proper attire topped a pair of tennis shorts, tennis sneakers and bare legs.

This is not an urban legend, readers. We’ve seen the photo! In his memoir, Pierpoint explained that “he had hurriedly received a story assignment but was about to play tennis with Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s communications aide. He changed into a tennis outfit he kept in his locker at the White House in anticipation of the match, while keeping the suit jacket on.”

According to the obituary, “He wrote that when a photo of his full frame later appeared in a book and newspapers, ‘my superiors were far from pleased, apparently feeling that tennis shorts, a jacket and tie did not provide a dignified image.’”

But wait, there’s more!

His daughter Marta Pierpoint said “her father relished that episode and would be buried in a suit jacket and tennis shorts.”

Buried in a suit jacket and tennis shorts.

The other day I met in a Zoom course a young man from Vanderbilt University who had successfully defended his senior thesis. When he showed up before his teachers on the video screen, he was dressed nicely in jacket and tie. One professor wondered whether he was Pierpointing. He stood up to reveal that the Up Here was in perfect coordination with the Down There.

He passed with matching colors — and fabrics.

Ok, journalists and Zoomers, it’s your turn. Please send us your photos of how you look on the computer screen — that is, how others see you — and then what you look standing up. Let’s see you in the Full Pierpoint.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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