So, at any rate, I have always believed. The Jayson Blair flap at the New York Times therefore left me neither shaken nor stirred. What do you expect from newspaper hacks? What surprised me about the whole thing was not that a smooth-talking charlatan should have risen so high in the Times’s reporting hierarchy, but that so many of my fellow citizens apparently take the Times as absurdly seriously as it takes itself.
The journalists-are-scum assumption has a long pedigree in the land of my birth. It is almost as if, since show business became respectable, British journalists have inherited the old prejudices about the acting profession — “vagabonds and strumpets.” When the London satirical magazine Private Eye
, back in the 1960s, wanted to invent an archetypal denizen of Fleet Street, they named him Lunchtime O’Booze. Forty years earlier Humbert Wolfe had written:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! The British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Un-bribed, there’s no occasion to.
Around the same time Evelyn Waugh wrote his wonderful satire on newspaper life, the novel Scoop.
Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know.
Wenlock Jakes is, of course, a star reporter. Interestingly, he is also an American. Waugh’s implication is that American journalists are just as great liars and rogues as their British colleagues.
I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I think newspaper people have generally been held in higher regard in this country than in Britain. The tone over here was set by George Washington Cutter:
Soul of the world! the Press! the Press!
What wonders hast thou wrought?
Thou rainbow realm of mental bliss;
Thou starry sky of thought!
There are good historical reasons for this. The modern newspaper was invented at about the same time as the United States, and several of the Founding Fathers knew the smell of fresh newsprint. The press had a respectable claim to being a part of the whole wonderful project — a true Fourth Estate. The newspapers, at least the big-city broadsheets, have never taken themselves less seriously than that. America was, I believe, the first country ever to have a school of journalism (at the University of Missouri, 1908).
When first radio, then TV, then the Internet successively robbed newspapers of their role as prime purveyors of news, some adjustments of attitude and image were inevitable. Here America’s newspapers went off in a different direction from Britain’s. Britain developed a lively and varied national press, with several heavy- or middle-weight titles. Here in America the big-city broadsheets — those that survived — wrapped themselves in the mantle of class, presenting themselves as oak paneling to the newer media’s plastic, Greece to their upstart Rome, wool worsted to their cheesy double-knit.
The professionalization and credentialization of American journalism soared to new heights, especially after the Watergate crisis allowed two mediocre Washington Post reporters to present themselves as national heroes. Bill Deedes, my old editor at the London Daily Telegraph, started working as a national-newspaper reporter in 1930 at age 17, after the Wall Street Crash wiped out his family’s finances. Nowadays you need several years’ worth of college degrees on your résumé before a big-city American newspaper will let you in the door. The main effect of all that education, of course, is to dull the mind and fill up its empty spaces with left-wing flapdoodle. Newspaper reporting isn’t difficult work; an intelligent person can pick up the essentials in a few weeks on the job. To say such things out loud, though, is of course gross heresy in this over-educated, over-credentialed age.
The older sensibility survives in Britain, where there are still four heavyweight national broadsheets and half a dozen lesser national titles. Each one has a carefully cultivated personality of its own, and growing up in Britain you get a strong impression of each, as if they are family members. I am giving my own character sketches here, and they are a couple of decades out of date, but the general idea still holds.
The Times was the majestic great uncle of impressive though indeterminate age, who had served as a High Court judge, or possibly an admiral. You were taken to visit him once, and had it whispered to you that the visit would be something to tell your own grandchildren about. (The Times dwelt in my school library. I recall being surprised to discover that you could actually buy it at a newsstand, like any other newspaper.)
The Daily Telegraph was one’s favorite maiden aunt, widow of a barrister, who lived in a thatched cottage with a garden full of lupins and hollyhocks, a short walk from an 13th-century church, and the ticking of whose grandfather clock (which you will still be able to hear in your mind’s ear until the day you die) was the signal that on passing through her door you were entering a place where time moved more slowly, more deliberately. The dark woody rooms of her cottage were rich with fascinating tchotchkes whose precise purpose was not always obvious — “Latest Wills,” “Masonic News.” It was known that her own will included a large bequest to the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Aid Association.
The Guardian — still the Manchester Guardian in my youth, as it remains today in the misconception of most Americans — was the slightly ridiculous town alderman, decked out in waistcoat, albert and fob (he was very likely named Albert) who showed up at school functions to speak of good works and the importance of the United Nations in a ripe local accent.
The Express was the florid uncle who had been with the Indian Army and had a tiger-skin rug whose replacement glass eyes used to haunt your nightmares, who ran the local chapter of the League of Empire Loyalists and thought Enoch Powell was the greatest Briton (he was the only person you ever knew that actually used the word “Briton”) since Churchill.
The Mirror was the cocky young fellow who was walking out with Cousin Maisie, who sometimes had to be reproved for his slightly off-color language in front of the children, and who was much too free with his opinions about everything — said opinions being, in every case, the exact opposite of the Express’s.
The Mail was for the wives of men who read the Times.
The Sketch was for people who found the Mirror too challenging — the cocky young fellow’s dimwitted friend.
And so on. All of these were — and except for the now-defunct Sketch, still are — very good newspapers, each of its own type. This was a very odd thing, because everybody agreed that the journalists who made them were little better than riff-raff.
Hence the contrast, which is very striking when you move from one country to the other. In Britain they have a fizzing variety of fascinating newspapers written by people whom everyone believes to be drunks, misfits, dropouts and lowlifes. In the United States we have vast gray broadsheets that are about as much fun to read as Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, but which are staffed and written by people generally believed to be credentialed experts of unimpeachable integrity, pillars of society, and tribunes of the people.
Personally, I shall hold on to the beliefs I grew up with. I refuse to take journalists seriously, and shall continue to believe that they all, like Wenlock Jakes, invent a good proportion of what they sell us. After all, journalists know what is expected of them.
I have just been reading a story in Long Island Newsday, a left-wing local paper whose Sunday edition my wife gets for the coupons. This particular story was about the 19 illegal immigrants who suffocated to death in a trailer in Texas last week after the trucker abandoned them. Newsday’s Latin America correspondent, one Letta Tayler, interviewed a Mexican lady whose son and grandson were among the dead.
“Asked what punishment the tractor-trailer driver should receive, Cristina León said: ‘God will decide. ‘But I don’t want the death penalty for him,’ she added. ‘That won’t return my son.’”
Reading this, I found myself wondering if it is true. Do impoverished Mexican provincials really talk like that? — Like, I mean, the left-liberal graduate of some journalism school, writing for a left-liberal newspaper that favors illegal immigration and sells to a readership of left-liberal suburban New Yorkers? My experience of poor Third World provincials, which is not inconsiderable, suggests to me that approximately 99.9 percent of them are keen supporters of the death penalty. But who knows? I have no reason to doubt Ms. Tayler’s veracity; I am only saying that if that quote, or any of the hundreds like it in any of our big, pompous, self-righteous broadsheet newspapers, were to turn out to have been made up, I should not be the least bit surprised. “Rainbow realm of mental bliss”? Please.