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Monday, February 21, 2005

Outlaw journalism and the blogs

A worthy legacy

It goes without saying that the death of Hunter Thompson is a tragedy, but it comes at an odd time for journalism. Thompson and his peers, like Lucian Truscott, Frances Fitzgerald and others who came of age in the 1960's and early 70's were largely ignored inside the newsroom. They were outsiders and remained largely outside the journalism mainstream. Some broke through, like Sy Hersh, but they never stayed for long, or eventually shoved aside for years. Bloggers act as if their treatment in the press and by the press is something new and unique. It isn't.

Thompson had been a newspaperman, had worked for Time and hated it. He didn't fit into the neat box that people wanted to place journalists in. Was it really any wonder that David Halberstam didn't wind up running the Times or that Sy Hersh still has to deal with people who call him a traitor. Journalism wasn't embracing the outcasts, not then, and not now. Thgompson didn't wind up in Rolling Stone because he was in high demand as a political commentator. Just like people aren't falling over themselves to read Bill Grieder finance stories today. He was a refugee from American journalism, just like many bloggers are today. Remember, the people we scorn today were the people who fit the idea of the ideal journalist. Judy Miller is what every editor, secretly dreams about, the sexy, tempestous man-crazy reporter. The fact that she's a tool for those in power doesn't discomfort them.

Bloggers are not some new creation, but the newest set of the barbarians at the gates. They are the people who don't trust the system and it's artifacts. It is to writing, what rap is to music, the coming of democracy to a trade. What Thompson and his peers did in the 60's and 70's, we do today. But free of the constraints of editors and publishers and the need to hustle up work.


Because of two different trends in writing.

One is the coopting of journalists. The insiders beat back the challenges from the Sheehans, Halberstams and Arnetts. Those who played the game won, those who didn't became heroes and authors, and exiled from the newsroom. Arnett hung on longer than most, but most were gone from the daily papers by 1975. Or they became enamored of celebrity, like Bob Woodward. Some like Sydney Schamberg and Ray Bonner, following in their tradition, were booted from newsrooms the minute their bosses felt uncomfortable. Or exiled to "alternative" papers. The newsroom became the home of the tame dissident and the complient office holder. Carl Hiaasen saves his most brutal critques of Florida life for his crime fiction. Bob Greene wrote drivel for years, finally canned, not for a lack of talent, but an excess of hunting teenaged trim. The best writing in the Washington Post is Tom Boswell's sports columns.

If people are disheartened by this, they shouldn't be. Ernie Pyle died 60 years ago this week, because he loved soldiers and the stories of their lives. Edward R. Murrow was forced out of CBS. Thompson was lucky in that since he was never inside the tent, they could never kick him out. But most of the great heroes of journalism were and will be forced from the newsroom, because that is not a place for uncomfortable truths. There has never been a national columnist like Jack Newfield or Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin, and never will be. Because they will never play the game, or even recognize it.

The other is the irrevelant nature of modern fiction writing. The worst thing to ever happen to writing was the writing program. Because it allowed people to focus on the trivia in their lives. The greatness of Heller and Mailer escapes these mindless twits nattering about their cheating dads and pill popping moms. It's not even a world of clever craftsmen like Thomas Pynchon, but of navel gazers like Dave Eggers. Eggers, a silly, irrelevant man in a serious time, draws only my contempt and scorn. I mean, his idea of struggle was living off inherentences. Not that his personal story wasn't tragic, but it's not Sophie's Choice. The problem is that Eggers and his little group of confederates are trivial people in a not trivial time.

So you have journalists, Washington journalists, who report but do not question, getting squeamish when people do, like Helen Thomas, seeking to live off the handouts of their "sources", and get the hand-fed "scoop" which will sell papers. And fiction writers more concerned with apartments and cheating mates than the world around them.

Here are some random quotes from current fiction on Amazon. I won't name the authors to spare them embarassment:

Shane McCarthy is a Berkeley-educated chimney sweep, plying his trade in the mercurial atmosphere of dot-com bubble San Francisco circa 1999. His wife, Lou, glides in and out, obsessed with making her own start-up fortune. Outside of home and work, Shane's life revolves around basketball games at the Firehouse, an asphalt refuge where he plays the game with other 30-somethings, reveling in the physicality of crashing bodies.
You can't escape him. He swerves in and out of your life as if effortlessly walking through a crowded restaurant. He's a passive-aggressive master. He's as undetectable as a whisper and as effective as a tiny toxic pill. You probably went to school with him, and he knows everything you've done-every foolish secret ambition you've nurtured, everyone you wish you'd never slept with, every lame, fleeting trend you've embraced. The Underminer throws you into a spiral of self-doubt each time you see him.
Prep is the story of Lee Fiora, a South Bend, Indiana, teenager who wins a scholarship to the prestigious Ault school, an East Coast institution where "money was everywhere on campus, but it was usually invisible." As we follow Lee through boarding school, we witness firsthand the triumphs and tragedies that shape our heroine's coming-of-age. Yet while Sittenfeld may be a skilled storyteller, her real gift lies in her ability to expertly give voice to what is often described as the most alienating period in a young person's life: high school.
The Right Address seeks to expose the cruel and wicked ways of the top echelon of the Park Avenue crowd. Peppered with seemingly unbelievable accounts of social-climbing at its worst, the characters in this novel glide from party to party, relishing every possible chance to destroy each other's reputation while simultaneously air-kissing one another.

Notice the trivial nature of these books. Their self-absorption and lack of interest in the wider world. It is masturbation in print for the most part, and irrelevant. You would hardly know that men are hunting men in the mountains of Afghanistan and dodging roadside bombs in Iraq. The world of the vital has escaped our fiction, to be replaced by the world of the trivial and self-involved. Why? Because that is what drives the writing program, those who write well about themselves, but without the real introspection needed to be honest. The Naked and the Dead is a savage tale of men at war, Catch 22 lacking in any kind of larger heroism. These were not tales which made the authors heroic, but exposed their foibles and their fears. What is usually missing from the description of these modern novels is the condescension the authors feel for their subjects. These books are about revenge on imperfect lives, the failures of their parents and those around them. There is no honesty in them, because the honesty is bred out of them.

Their template is the Catcher in the Rye, but lacks the brutal self-analysis JD Salinger brought to it. But then, like his peers, his anger was driven by the war he had fought. These program-raised authors are angry because their lives were imperfect. They have never missed a meal, felt fear at seeing the police, much less rode in a truck past a bomb. They are angry at the safety and comfort of their lives.

So when you need a brutal, honest fiction to deal with lives in Bush's America, and it's contradictions, you get bitter drivel. Or you get the 'sploitation novels which is best-selling black fiction. They aren't exploitation, because most are barely literate. 'Sploitation plays off the fictional criminal world created by studio gangsters and rim-tricked out cars. It's as self-indulgent and masturbatory as the lamest writing program fiction. Just written without a spell checker and sold in the street next to Message for the Black Man and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. The glorification of criminal life is nothing new, but it isn't reality either.

The outlets to discuss American life are now closed off because one group is afraid and the other indifferent.

Which is why blogs are so popular. There is no other outlet to explain the contradictions in American life cleanly and clearly. The outcasts are more unwelcome now than ever in newsrooms battered by greedy owners and vindictive politics, fiction created to explain the anger at middle class suburbia. Honesty and truth have no place in either forum.

Which is why Hunter Thompson was a hero. He was honest to a fault and mean to a fault. In a world where journalism has become about asking questions politely and fiction about settling grudges with parents and schoolmates, he was about something far more important.

Blogs follow in the tradition of outlaw journalism, but without the flourishes he liked. It's not about just being outrageous, most of the bloggers are little different than their peers in newspapers, clean living young men and women. They don't get drunk and naked for fun, they pay their bills, stay faithful and maybe have a beer too many. However, it is the spirit of what Thompson meant, to be outside the laws of journalism, not the rules, but the laws. The laws of not offending advertisers and friendly pols. The laws of family friendly copy. Those laws. Not the rules about honesty and decency.

When Howard Kurtz whines about "fairness", someone needs to tell him the truth. "Mistah Kurtz, we are not fair. We are honest." Bush uses fairness like a Samurai uses a katana, to slice and dice and win. Fairness will no more stop Bush than a bazooka could stop a Tiger tank (couldn't come close). It is honesty which will stop him. People have to tell the truth. Kurtz and his fellows are people to be derided and mocked, not argued with. To accord him respect and seriousness, in the job most journalists disdain like cops hate internal affairs, is to give him power that his peers would never. The next time he whines about fairness, laugh in his face, wave a shrunken head in front of him, show him a picture of King Leopold. Do anything you want to show him the contempt you hold him in. But his words are meaningless to the people who matter, our readers.

Thompson understood the danger of objective journalism, which was a creature of the post-war period, Roosevelt would have laughed at the concept, battered by Father Coughlin and the Chicago Tribune, which is that the dishonest and the disingenious can have their way with the honest and decent. He called for subjective journalism long ago and our temporary experiment of objective journalism is ending, because it only serves the status quo, which is not most of us.

It's odd to think of the outsider Thompson having won the day about what we call journalism, but blogging allows for a world of outlaw journalists, working cheap and fast ans supporting each other in ways he couldn't imagine. It's not a bad legacy.

posted by Steve @ 2:22:00 PM

2:22:00 PM

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