Journo Listless

‘The image of the newspaperman as a suave but ballsy individual who, whisky in hand, wires copy to a smoke-filled newsroom is now incredibly remote’

This is the end of a summer that reminded the US media of its power to strike fear into the hearts of those in charge of safeguarding sensitive data. First came the enforced resignation of General Stanley McChrystal and the kerfuffle over WikiLeaks publishing 91,000 classified documents; then the Washington Post broke Top Secret America, Dana Priest’s and William Arkin’s two-year investigation into government-hired private intelligence agencies that seem to make the country less safe rather than more.

Soon, the media discussed the need for whistleblowers to keep an eye on government, and what the new challenges and possibilities of investigative reporting meant for the old credo that every news organisation had only its credibility and reputation on which to rely. Such debates are an important part of media self-reflection, if only because they offer a welcome excuse to leave day-to-day reporting for a more introspective mode. However, while the resignation of a top military officer and the leaking of documents on the internet raise all kind of ethical questions, the real question remains unanswered: is this really what journalism should be about — that people with something to hide had better watch out? 

Perhaps it wasn’t just a coincidence that the Financial Times printed an obituary of Dan Schorr beneath an article on online leaks and open-source information in its Analysis section. The headline read: “Veteran American newsman who helped shape a golden age.” Investigative reporting has a long tradition, particularly in America, where Watergate is still seen as a political and journalistic highpoint. The obituary said that Schorr proved in his writing that he was a “gentleman liberal”, who could be a “street fighter when what he perceived as journalistic principles were at stake”. 

The image of the newspaperman as a suave but ballsy figure, whisky in hand, wiring information that only he could obtain to a smoke-filled newsroom is now incredibly remote. It may or may not have been a golden era, but it is as far away now as the portrait which the television series Mad Men — a hit on both sides of the pond — provides of the advertising industry in the early 1960s. 

What this indicates, however, is not that our idea of information and how we distribute it has changed, but that there is a distinct, almost moral, difference between providing information and telling a good story. 

For somebody like me, who is, at least stylistically, more at home in the impressionistic European feuilleton-style than the crisp commentary of the Anglo-Saxon kind (although you need only to read Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America radio broadcasts to find that these aren’t mutually exclusive) it always seemed an easy claim to make. Perhaps too easy.

If the press is truly fulfilling an important function in a democracy — public enlightenment — isn’t what is needed in a time of declining newspaper sales a more “literary” approach to journalism? Inventive, fresh writing would surely top the dullness that is — at least in some American newspapers — known as the arts and culture pages, which sometimes resemble a grab-bag of reviews written according to the same standardised stale formula. It is true that we need publications that are bold enough to denounce, decry and dethrone myths others only tiptoe around. It is equally true that there are various shapes of journalistic expression, each with its purpose and merit, and that in any decent newspaper there should be room for a broad range of stories and styles. There is, however, some truth in the old lesson that literature teaches us: the message is often the least interesting part of a story; it’s how you tell it that counts. 

While this may seem like an outrageous idea to most British and American readers (no matter how they take Oscar Wilde’s credo that “all art is quite useless”), it would seem equally peculiar to most on the Continent to claim the exact opposite. Now, imagine my dilemma when the story broke — was it a story? — of the battle over the mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. None of the reports I read in newspapers or saw on TV seemed able to lay out all the facts, despite reporters vigorously trying to do so. How is anybody going to be able to form a clear opinion on a matter that could define American cultural memory and also prove to be an ideological turning point? 

Walking past a deserted newspaper stand off Fifth Avenue, I felt that the debate around information, leaks, whistleblowing and the dwindling influence of newspapers teaches us predominantly this lesson: in addition to our old journalistic values of truthfulness, objectivity, accuracy, impartiality and fairness, we may need to remind ourselves of another, bolder one: courage. 

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