BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Like my hero Christopher Hitchens, I have a thing for journalists. They get shamefully little credit for their efforts to elevate and improve public discourse, at least in America. This may be because great journalists’ deeper insights often come in book form, and, as Gore Vidal points out, only five percent of our republic reads books. Our illiteracy is a pity. We won’t even be so creative as to fiddle as our Rome burns; we will simply fidget spin in front of our streaming video devices.
But today my argument is not so glum as that. I’m not here to weep at America’s decline but to praise great men who have tried to stave it off by writing in newspapers about the forces abroad in the world.
Before I start clearing the room with pieties, though, you might well ask, why now–why cheer for good journalism on this day rather than any other? John Stuart Mill wrote as long ago as 1859, “The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.”
But history’s pendulum continues to swing, and it seems the press is once again in need of some defending. A large minority of our populace has recently moved beyond passively ignoring the work of journalists to actively militating against them, tarring them as “enemies of the people” and calling their reports “fake news.” It’s a rousing chorus–makes one feel part of the Volk.
A few months ago I blogged (very unoriginally) that we were coming to resemble the America of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Our open hostility to journalism takes us another step in this direction. We are not just contesting journalists’ ability to find and interpret particular facts; we are rebelling against their purpose and tone. By what right do they go on as if they know things? They clearly think they’re better than us.
Whenever Idiocracy‘s (modestly intelligent) hero deploys a complete sentence to express a clear thought, his fellows discredit him for “talking like a fag.” You can enjoy this jolly form of abuse here and here. If it appeals to you, you’re in for a real treat: our new, open war on journalism proceeds on the same ethos as does the insuprable cretinism of Idiocracy‘s braying class. You simply hoot louder than anyone who bothers to form a sentence. If you haven’t tried it, you don’t know what a winning formula feels like. Richard Hofstadter may have worried as far back as 1963 that anti-intellectualism was taking over American public life; I can only guess his head might explode today at the high artistic form it has achieved on the strength of Cheetos, energy drinks, and reality TV.
Before I present my case for respectable journalism, I would like to make it clear that I have no intention of setting up a fair fight. My purpose is to extol a handful of magnificent journalists and let their light expose the dark fraud of the “fake news” slur. I do not intend to referee the perfectly valid claims to be made against journalism that is rigged by special interests, deceptive, or just plain bad. That contest is its own topic. The only point I wish to make today is that the whole ship is not going down. Indeed it is buoyed up by some of the best journalists in American history.
For me, the marks of excellent journalism are excellent writing and breadth of imagination. I am captivated by the kind of journalist whose compulsion to observe the human condition overflows into (and sometimes has roots in) different kinds of writing, especially literture. Hitchens begins an impressive list of such writers in the essay I linked to above. Stung by a professor who denigrates a particular author’s style as “journalistic,” Hitchens recalls great literary artists who were also journalists:
Émile Zola – a journalist. Charles Dickens – a journalist. Thomas Paine – another journalist. Mark Twain. Rudyard Kipling. George Orwell – a journalist par excellence. Somewhere in my cortex was the idea to which Orwell himself once gave explicit shape: the idea that “mere” writing of this sort could aspire to become an art, and that the word “journalist” – like the ironic modern English usage of the word “hack” – could lose its association with the trivial and the evanescent.
Without going on too long, I could add some of my favorite writers to Hitchens’ list. Walt Whitman comes first to mind, a New York journalist. He called America the greatest poem, but he wrote of his country not just in verse but in fine, searching prose as well. Read Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and judge for yourself whether he accomplished anything less than the portrayal of the whole, clamorous American persona, caught between slavery and freedom. James Baldwin, possibly America’s greatest pure essayist, certainly one if its finest 20th-century novelists, kept body and soul together by writing film reviews for newspapers. Steven Jay Gould might have remained “just” an accomplished paleontologist had he not more or less invented the category of the science journalist in the late 20th century. He dedicated his best writing to the proposition that America’s political imagination should be informed by science.
At this juncture in our history, three journalists stand out to me as giants. You may dispute their perspective; you may reject their conclusions; you may weigh their work lightly against your own heroes’; but it is hard to read them and come away without the impression that they invest their lifeblood in writing the truth as they see it. They are beacons shining a light on America and what it means.
George Packer is possibly the most insightful, generous voice in American journalism today; he almost certainly has the most copious vision. His masterpiece (so far), The Unwinding, tells the story of how America’s sturdiest institutions since FDR began to dissolve in the 1970s, eventually hollowing out the American dream and ceding the government’s power to organized money. Although Packer strikes deeply conservative notes when he reflects on what we’ve lost–a congress that actually debates, an economy that produces useable things rather than tradeable paper, laws that bar banks from wheeling and dealing with your money in the stratosphere of risk–he writes with a progressive’s conviction that our salvation lies in a future reimagined, not in a past reclaimed.
To get an idea of Packer’s formidable range, see his New Yorker articles on the U.S. Senate, American influence in Burma, Muslim alienation in France, and the astonishing rise of Angela Merkel. Everything Packer writes will enhance your sense of what it means to be American or your understanding of America’s fit with the rest of the world.
A comet of a journalist, Ta Nehisi Coates is a modern-day prophet of African-American liberation, heir to James Baldwin. His lyrical voice and unsparing analysis make him the gadfly that won’t let America stand undisturbed in its moral self-image. As long as we fail to speak honestly of white supremacy, the original sin of our republic’s founding, Coates is there, prodding us with uncomfortable reminders that slavery’s heritage is still alive. Almost all Americans want to move on and not be dragged down by the past, generally a healthy attitude. In a landmark 2014 article, though, which I believe will stand out for a hundred years in American letters, matching Emerson, MLK, and James Baldwin at their best, Coates makes a devasting case that white America’s desire to move on masks a dark refusal to come clean about never having stopped repressing blacks. Despite its massive bloodshed, the Civil War proved only to be a comma in our history, not a period.
Coates’ 2014 article argues that the history of black-white relations since the War has been one of stealthily extending the denouement of the Civil War by repressive means other than slavery. The fact that Coates is not original in his message bears stunning testimony to the power of his writing. Coates lives and writes, I believe, to persuade America that it has a white problem, not a black problem–the same incendiary idea James Baldwin birthed. But if anything, Coates is a more agile writer than Baldwin. Where Baldwin kept himself at a literary remove from particular facts of sociology, economics, and policy, Coates uncovers them through methodical investigative journalism and weaves them directly into his writing. The acid test of reading Coates is to ask yourself, is he addressing a black audience or an all-American one? If you think he’s writing for a “special interest” group–a message you might conceivably take away from the title of his 2017 “My President Was Black“–you’re missing the point. Coates tells the story of America, and it is still one of tragedy, hypocrisy and unfulfilled promise.
Bob Woodward is the gray eminence of American journalism, and deservedly so. He gained fame by breaking Watergate and has never stopped using his pen to hold governing elites to account. Woodward has such a way of telling things the way they are and letting the audience draw their own conclusions that Christopher Hitchens once called him a mere scribe to the rich and powerful. Hitch got Woodward wrong, though.
Over the years, Woodward patiently built up two capabilities that would set him head and shoulders above other Washington reporters. First, he established such a large body of factual reportage in his early years as to blend in with the consensus-builders of Washington’s “loyal” corps of political reporters. So when he rose up to take down his first giant–Nixon–Woodward could in no way be accused of anti-establishment radicalism. He was part of the establishment. This is a large part of Woodward’s power.
The other part is his method. How does Woodward routinely gain access to the country’s most powerful decisionmakers and persuade them to speak openly? He uses a kind of political judo. Each time Woodward prepares a book on a presidential administration or a center of government power, he invites the principal camp to be extensively interviewed, with the tacit assurance that he will talk at the same length with their opponents. The incentive to have one’s case clearly on the record is highly motivating if the option is to leave one’s critics to tell the whole story. The Woodward method is not glamorous, but it provides a stately reminder that journalism still works; done well, it can compel the most powerful officials in the land to tell the uncomfortable truth about their acts and decisions.
Think of your own favorite journalists. Chances are, they excel at one of their profession’s three core missions–holding the powerful to account, improving informed democracy, or broadening the reader’s moral imagination. For me, Woodward towers above his peers in the first cause, Coates and Packer in the second and third. We are a better country for them.