What’s Missing from Journalism: Journalists

The otherwise insipid Peggy Noonan has diagnosed the problem with journalism today. It doesn’t have any journalists.

It’s a problem for both the left and the right.

“Newsrooms have grown detached from their mission,” Noonan writes in her column at The Wall Street Journal.

The journalistic product now being offered has become something vaguer than it was, more boring, less swashbuckling, more labored, as if being written by frightened people. There’s an emphasis on giving the story ‘context,’ but the story doesn’t feel alive, and the context seems skewed. Also, major stories go unreported … because they don’t relate to the personal obsessions of the editors and reporters, or to their political priors.

Referencing one of those semi-regular and boring reports about the state of journalism, Noonan concludes with this:

What was really striking was there was no mention, not one, of the thrill of the chase, of getting the story—of journalism itself. It was all about the guck and mess, not the mission, and made them look like news bureaucrats, joyless grinds, self-infatuated bores.

Growing up with a father who was an editor at National Geographic, as well as with older brothers who introduced me to Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, to me journalism always meant that someone went out and found something cool to write about. Yes, there were columnists like George F. Will and Maureen Dowd who formulated opinions from their armchairs, but the main thrill of journalism was entering the world of a writer who had pursued and delivered a story. Even the movie critics and cultural writers found stories by exploring their subjects, and filled their reviews with insights and wisdom that came from long years of experience.

On the same day Noonan’s essay appeared at the Journal, movie critic Ty Burr published a beautiful eulogy for Donald Sutherland in The Washington Post. “I’ve always said that a movie critic who only knows about movies isn’t going to be very useful,” Burr once said,” that critics should know about life, because you’re really writing about life through the lens of the movies.” 

It’s a long way down from that to Taylor Lorenz.

Knowledgeable and wise, Burr’s piece could not have been written by a younger journalist. It reveals a writer who learned his craft through experience and earned his place by virtue of merit, not nepotism or politics. Burr was a movie programmer for HBO in the 1980s, so he became an expert in his subject through immersion. In his great book Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, Burr wrote:

Here, in the end, is the revelation that all of stardom works to deny, the dirtiest and most unfathomable secret … It’s that identity itself is the grandest illusion of all. What if the sum of who we are is not a magical inner seed that only fame or self-actualization can cause to bloom? What if we’re not all the things we wish for or blog or project, but simply the actions we take for ourselves and for others—our marks upon the waking world? What if we are what we do, not the other way around? Stardom is the best dream we’ve yet invented, a luxurious fantasy of the fixed self. The question we need to ask ourselves is how long we want to keep sleeping, and what we’ll dare to do when we finally wake up.

Those words were written by someone who has lived life and has something to say that is worth listening to.

A major influence on me as a kid had been the short stories of a man named Julian Mazor, whose work appeared in The New Yorker. Mazor’s stories were about race relations in Washington in the early 1960s. They were beautiful and conscientious and devoid of preaching or cloying sentimentality. The characters were treated with great humanity. One story, “The Boy Who Used Foul Language,” was about a kid, about my age at the time I read it, who was always getting into trouble at school. He has a conscience, however, and finally gets expelled for defending his black maid from a racist at his school. The boy who used foul language was actually a warrior, one who was ahead of his time.

One thing perplexed me about Mazor, however. He wrote his stories, then disappeared. Not literally—he lived in Washington. He was just a very private person and did not like publicity. I tried to contact him several times, and each time was turned away. My fifth effort was finally productive, and Mazor agreed to meet for dinner. We had a great conversation, where he revealed he had been friends with “Jerry Salinger”—also known as J.D. Salinger. I then called William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, to get a quote about Mazor.  That also took a few tries, but he eventually called me back. I got a great quote: “Julian Mazor’s voice was like nobody else.”

My efforts resulted in my first published article, a profile, titled “Looking for Mr. Mazor.” Noonan would have been proud. I got the story—and I was still in college. After that, I got sent to do stories about people I had never met and things I knew little about—the great black sportswriter Sam Lacy, a swing band, a radical schoolteacher. It was our job to go out and get stories and make them interesting.

In 2023, James Bennett, a former editor at The New York Times, wrote an in-depth and incisive piece about what had gone wrong at the paper. Yes, it was true that leftist elites had taken over, but an important and missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that few of them had learned how to chase stories.

As a cub reporter, Bennett was assigned to cover the elderly. He expected to be bored but was surprised:

As I began studying the city’s elderly and interviewing experts and actual old people, I began to discover the rewards granted any serious reporter: that when you acknowledge how little you know, looking in at a world from the outside brings a special clarity.

He went on:

The subject was more complicated and richer than I imagined, and every person had stories to tell. I wrote about hunger, AIDS and romance among the elderly, about old comedians telling old jokes to old people in senior centers. As I reported on Jews who had fled Germany to settle in Washington Heights or black Americans who had left the Jim Crow south to settle in Bushwick, Brooklyn, it dawned on me that, thanks to Boyd, I was covering the history of the world in the 20th century through the eyes of those who had lived it.

How rare that kind of journalistic training is these days. The liberals who run the media are especially bad, but conservatives are not exempt from this problem. A few years ago, I actually paid for a magazine—a conservative one—featuring an essay in which the writer boasted about his indolence. I won’t name the guilty party, just the name of the essay: “A Critic’s Confession.” The confession from this writer, calling himself a movie critic, was a list of movies he will not see: “It’s often the case that you want to hear my views on a movie I have simply decided I cannot bear to see.” The first kind of movie is the scary kind: “As I’ve gotten older I’ve lost my tolerance for being frightened at the movies.” The second is the kids-in-danger genre: “I cannot sit through any depiction of child abuse or any film in which a child is placed in physical or emotional jeopardy.” Lastly there are those bad old liberal movies: “I am increasingly unable to pass any kind of aesthetic judgment on fact-based films whose primary purpose is the naked advancement of a left-wing agenda.”

This writer is related to famous conservatives, so we needn’t wonder how he got the job, but his first two criteria for rejection, scary movies and kids-in-danger movies, leaves out quite a few of films, not to mention the entire horror genre. So much for The Hunger Games, Jaws, The Wizard of Oz, Super 8, E.T., Pinocchio, The Exorcist, and the Star Wars prequels. The third diktat, rejecting any left-wing movies, reveals a strange and ironic bit of totalitarianism; it’s this kind of narrow self-censorship that quickly becomes a conservative form of Stalinism, where only art that supports the State—or in this case the anti-State—is permissible.

We need only to sample an offering from this same critic to see where this kind of prissiness gets us:

There’s no upside for me in reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If I say anything interesting about its plot, I’ll be criticized for publishing spoilers. If I say anything critical, I’ll be accused of raining on everybody’s parade. If I praise it, I’ll be attacked for excessive kindness and sentimentality. So let me just say that I thought it was pretty good, that I enjoyed watching it, and that it has all the strengths and weaknesses of every project with which its cowriter and director, J. J. Abrams, is involved. Which is to say: Its first 45 minutes are sensational; it plays on the viewer’s emotions expertly; and it is cast brilliantly.

What a brain fart.

Of course, as always, the left is the worst. The Rachel Maddowization of the media is now complete, with reporters actively passing on stories that don’t fit their narrative and dolling out lecture porn for their zombie audiences.

In her book Resistance: How Women Saved Democracy from Donald Trump, the clownish Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin describes how in 2018 Ilyse Hogue, who at the time was the president of Planned Parenthood, was hearing things that caused her to doubt Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett. Rubin writes:

Hogue found skepticism even among progressive donors. Did they really want to put all their eggs in one basket held by a single woman accuser? Despite skittishness among her donors and allies, Hogue had no option but to fight for every Senate vote. She kept up a steady drumbeat against Kavanaugh in the media and encouraged NARAL forces on the ground to make their voices heard.

It’s an astonishing admission from Hogue but an even more astonishing admission from Rubin. She doesn’t pause for one second to consider contacting the Planned Parenthood donors who had doubts about Blasey Ford? In other words, Jennifer Rubin ignored what could have been a great story. What other profession supports and rewards such basic incompetence? It’s like a baseball player who won’t swing at pitches.

The media has been dying for a long time and has done plenty to deserve their impending demise. In 2013, Patrick Pexton, then the ombudsman for the Washington Post, sent an open letter to then-incoming Post owner Jeff Bezos. Pexton was demanding the firing of Jennifer Rubin. At the time Rubin was still considered a conservative columnist, but Pexton’s torching memo had nothing to do with politics. It was about Rubin’s incompetence as a journalist. ”[S]he is often wrong, and rarely acknowledges it,” Pexton wrote.

She was oh-so-wrong about Mitt Romney, week after week writing embarrassing flattery about his 2012 campaign, calling almost every move he made brilliant, and guaranteeing that he would trounce Barack Obama. When he lost, the next day she savaged him and his campaign with treachery, saying he was the worst candidate with the worst staff, ever. She was wrong about the Norway shootings being acts of al-Qaida. She was wrong about Chuck Hagel being an anti-Semite. And does she apologize? Nope.

He goes on:

Rubin was the No. 1 source of complaint mail about any single Post staffer while I was ombudsman, and I’m leaving out the organized email campaigns against her by leftie groups like Media Matters. Thinking conservatives didn’t like her, thinking moderates didn’t like her, government workers who knew her arguments to be unfair didn’t like her. Dump her like a dull tome on the Amazon Bargain Books page.

Not a chance. Jennifer Rubin has a big mouth and no curiosity or reporting skills, which makes her perfect for the modern media environment. The Washington Post lost $100 million and half its readership last year. When it’s all over, Jennifer Rubin can hit the lights.

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