Ernest Hemingway. Ernie Pyle. Jack London. Christopher Hitchens.
Whatever happened to journalism as a manly profession?
While newspapers and magazines have always attracted many types of writers, the most notable journalists often gained fame and recognition through their bravery in the face of extreme conditions. Hemingway and Pyle were war veterans. Hunter Thompson took on the Hell’s Angels and paid for it with a severe beating. Christopher Hitchens earned his scars through decades of dangerous stories and by challenging the orthodoxies of the culture.
Somehow names like Dana Milbank, Christopher Hayes, and Don Lemon don’t equally inspire.
My father was a writer and editor for National Geographic for thirty years, from roughly 1960 to 1990. From him I got my earliest impression of what a journalist did. A journalist—like a good male novelist—was a man who would go away for several months on a story assignment, usually to exotic-sounding places: Borneo, Australia, Thailand, the North Pole. He would have adventures and, if he was single, might even experience a James Bond-like liaison with a lady or two. Dad would return home tanned, sweaty, sometimes sick and disheveled. And the stories! Almost capsizing in the Caribbean while searching for the spot where Columbus landed in the New World; being chased by government censors for taking pictures in the old Soviet Union; contracting a life-threatening fever in Africa after being warned by a medicine man to not take anything out of the country.
There was an intense physicality to my father’s job; journalism was a job of grit and hard effort, like boxing. There was also a correlation between the roughness of the reporter’s life and the quality of his work. Being in danger, or even knowing that someone you wrote about might want to confront you physically, made you care about honor and accuracy. Jack London, author of Call of the Wild, was a hard-drinking oyster pirate and world traveler who risked his life reporting on the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Russell Baker knew the dirty Depression-era streets of New York. Eric Sevareid of CBS got his start reporting World War II from Europe, but that was only the beginning of his career of derring-do. As the New York Times obituary of Sevareid noted in 1992, “His was an adventurous life, which included a harrowing month among headhunters in the Burmese jungles. That was in 1943, after the plane in which he was riding developed engine trouble as it was flying over the Himalayas from India to China. Mr. Sevareid and 19 others had to bail out on the India-Burma border but made it out of the jungle on foot.”
Ernest Hemingway began as a journalist, and his experience in the First World War gave his work an introspective and poetic quality, as well as a hunger for pursuing the truth. There were no Twitter wars, with their childish resentment and petty back and forth of gotchas and ad hominem attacks. If two journalists had a beef with each other they dealt with it mano a mano.
My father died in 1996. One year earlier Bill Gates wrote a memo outlining “The Coming Internet Tidal Wave.” Increasingly journalism didn’t require street smarts or derring-do; it often didn’t require journalists to leave their desks at all. Anyone with a blog could set himself up as an authority. In many ways this has been a very good thing, an explosion of writing and commentary that has created an army of citizen journalists who can write about whatever they want and can instantly fact-check the mainstream media.
And yet, journalism hasn’t improved. In 2001 Slate, the liberal pioneer of digital journalism, published an article about “Monkeyfishing” by a man named Jay Forman. Forman wrote that monkeyfishing was a new sport popular in the Florida Keys, where people used fruit as bait and attempted to catch monkeys like fish. The story was instantly debunked, although in acknowledging the error, Jack Shafer, the Slate editor who published the story, argued that there was no way for an editor to beat a good liar.
Is that true? I can’t imagine my father, or Tom Wolfe, or Norman Mailer falling for “Monkeyfishing.” These were men who had common sense, and what Mailer called “a good BS detector.” They had been fishing for real, had been drunk and gotten into fights, had slept with women, hunted sources, and dodged soldiers in hostile countries. They knew the world. Dad would have laughed out loud if presented with a story about fishing for monkeys.
In 2015 the way to gain prominence as a reporter is to either embrace and reenforce the politically correct diktats of the mainstream media, or, if you’re a conservative, spend your time chewing over the news looking for mistakes and bias. Discipline, the ability to change one’s mind and learn, depth of research and reporting, a challenging period of apprenticeship—none of these skills are needed or valued anymore. A journalist just has to go to the right schools, and have the right opinions and he’s given a cubicle, a computer, and access to an audience.
Without old-fashioned street smarts, however, and without a little of the roughing up that makes him both hungry for the truth and humble, the budding journalist is more likely to embarrass himself than to break news.
In March 2012 the faculty at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, together with an Honorary Committee of alumni, selected the “100 Outstanding Journalists in the United States in the Last 100 Years.” Some of the notables:
James Agee, Russell Baker, James Baldwin, Ben Bradlee, David Halberstam, Pete Hamill, Ernest Hemingway, H.L. Mencken, Gordon Parks, Ernie Pyle
In April 2015, the social analytics firm Stat Social released a list of “the most influential journalists on Twitter.” Among the top thirty-five:
Anderson Cooper, George Stephanopoulos, Ben Smith, Chuck Todd, Brian Seltzer, Nate Silver, Christopher Hayes, Dave Weigel, Matt Yglesias, Don Lemon
The NYU list includes men who faced real danger and often spoke uncomfortable truths—even about themselves. As for the Twitter list—well, it’s not exactly the cast of 300, is it? Every year a small number of journalists will die trying to get to the story (in recent years few of those have been from the U.S) as Ernie Pyle did while covering the conflict in the Pacific during WWII. And while we still have war correspondent and The Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger, he is less representative of the whole and more like the nearly extinct white rhino of journalism.
“Never mistake motion for action,” Hemingway once said, and that advice is as compelling today as it was in his time. Furiously tapping out Twitter ripostes and predictable opinions from the comfort of their cubicles, most of today’s journalists are extremely careful to avoid any encounter that might threaten their physical wellbeing or promote an idea that might challenge mainstream orthodoxy. But they shouldn’t be. Because it is only in those encounters that deeper truths—and bravery and self-reliance—can emerge.