Judge is a Washington writer and author of God and Man at
Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story
of Washington’s Only World Series, and other books.
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.
names like Dana Milbank, Christopher Hayes and Don Lemon don’t
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 dishevelled. 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.
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 honour 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
head-hunters 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
2015 the way to gain prominence as a reporter is to either embrace
and reinforce 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.