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May 18, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 20
Of honest men & good writers
By Jack Newfield
After participating in several panel discussions, attending (More)’s counter-convention, reading books and articles by Tom Wolfe and Mike Arlen, and being interviewed by several high school students about it, I have finally come to the conclusion that the new journalism does not exist. It is a false category. There is only good writing and bad writing, smart ideas and dumb ideas, hard work and laziness.
Anyone who is less than 35 and owns a typewriter becomes known as a “new journalist.” Writers as different as Richard Goldstein, Eldridge Cleaver, and Rex Reed get lumped together under a contrived umbrella.
Everyone has a different definition of what the new journalism is. It’s the use of fictional techniques, it’s composite characterization, it’s the art form that’s replacing the novel, which is dying. Or it’s anyone who used to write for the old Herald Tribune magazine, it’s participation in the event by the writer, it’s the transcendence of objectivity, it’s anyone who makes up quotes, it’s anyone who hangs out at the Lion’s Head.
Seymour Krim, in a piece in New American Review, once made a reference to the “Cleaver-Rubin-Newfield style.” And Mike Arlen linked me and Tom Wolfe together: “The New Journalist is in the end, I think, less a journalist than an impresario. Tom Wolfe presents Phil Spector! Jack Newfield presents Nelson Rockefeller! Norman Mailer presents the Moon Shot!”
This piece is to explain why I don’t think there is such a thing as new journalism, and why I don’t think I am a new journalist.
To begin with, there is not that much new about the new journalism. Advocacy preceded the who-what-when-where-why of the AP by a couple of centuries. Tom Paine and Voltaire were new journalists. So was John Milton when he wrote his “Areopagitica” against government censorship in the 17th century. “Objective” journalism developed with the teletype and radio news.
Defoe, Addison and Steele, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain were all new journalists according to most definitions. So was Karl Marx when he wrote for the Herald Tribune.
Yet something different and better does seem to have happened to mass publication journalism in the last 15 years. I suspect it is nothing more profound than a lot of good writers coming along at the same time, and a few wise editors like Dan Wolf, Clay Felker, and William Shawn giving these writers a lot of space and freedom to express a point of view. I wouldn’t refine the generality much more than that.
But this new rush of talent did not, as Tom Wolfe seems to suggest, spring Zeus-like from John Hay Whitney’s banker’s brow in the Trib’s protean city room in late 1963. It appears, rather, to have crystallized at Esquire in the late 1950s, and to have been motivated by an economic desperation to compete with Playboy’s sexist centerfolds, then attracting considerable advertising revenue away from Esquire.
It was during this period that Esquire published brilliant profiles of Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, and Joe Louis by Gay Talese. Talese managed to get inside his subjects’ private and interior lives, and give readers a deeper, truer sense of how things really are. At the same time Tom Morgan now Mayor Lindsay’s press secretary wrote equally rich portraits of Roy Cohn, David Susskind, and Sammy Davis, Jr. These are preserved in a forgotten book, “Self Creations: 13 Impersonalities,” which some paperback publisher should wake up and re-issue.
Then in 1960 an Esquire editor named Clay Felker had an idea, and assigned Norman Mailer to cover a real event, the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles. Mailer’s piece was a masterwork of good writing and clear thinking. It was not a new form. John Hersey, also a novelist, had written about a real event — Hiroshima. George Orwell had written about the Spanish Civil War. James Agee had written about the life of white tenant farmers in ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
So Mailer, who happened to be a novelist of distinction, wrote a great work of journalism. And Esquire, in an economic war with Playboy, published all 30,000 words. I was attending Hunter College then, and Mailer’s piece blew my mind. It also blew Pete Hamill’s and Jimmy Breslin’s. Mailer opened a door with that piece, and the one he did on the Liston-Patterson fight. But it was not a new art form. He did not invent anything. He just wrote great liberating prose. Just like Lillian Ross, or Joe Mitchell, or A. J. Liebling, or Westbrook Pegler and H.L. Mencken.
I grew up on three journalists: Murray Kempton, sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, and I.F. Stone. From Kempton I tried to learn irony and a sense of history; from Cannon a love for the city and a sense of drama; from Stone a reverence for facts, truth, and justice. Later, from Hamill and Breslin, I would learn the legitimacy of rage, the folly of politeness, and a sense of concreteness about the lives of ordinary people.
Then along comes Tom Wolfe, the Boswell of our boutiques, with a history of the new journalism that never mentions Kempton, Cannon, or Stone. Or Lillian Ross and Joe Mitchell, who wrote for the rival New Yorker. Or any Voice writer, for that matter. Like any faithful Boswell, Wolfe only mentions his friends.
I’ve had a lot of shop talk conversations with Hamill and Breslin, and both feel a special debt to Cannon for the shaping of their craft. Hamill, in fact, dedicated his collection, “Irrational Ravings,” to Cannon.
This is how Pete described Cannon’s influence on him: “But it was Cannon who made me want to be a newspaperman. He wrote a sports column, but it was always more than that. In some ways the hero of the column was its style, an undisciplined personal mixture of New York street talk, soaring elegance, Hemingway and Algren, deep Celtic feeling, city loneliness, Prohibition violence, and a personal belief in honor.”
But is the 70-year-old Jimmy Cannon a “new journalist”? Or just a good one?
Another exceptional sportswriter of the ’50s left his mark on many of us W. C. Heinz. Heinz’s classic 1952 piece on Rocky Graziano can be found in the anthology “The Best of Sport” published by Viking. Heinz also authored a lean, beautiful novel about boxing, “The Professional.” Breslin calls Heinz “the best I ever saw.” Yet Wolfe and most students of the new journalism have never even heard of him.
What’s called the new journalism is really a dozen different styles of writing. Talese and Capote do one thing very well. Rex Reed has his own act. Breslin, Hamill, and I have certain things in common a populist politics, working-class backgrounds, respect for Mailer, Kempton, Cannon, and Heinz, and a love for this wounded city. Sometimes I think the three of us, one pusher, and one junkie will be the last five people left in this town.
And Tom Wolfe represents another strand in all this. He is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant. Wolfe is a dandy. His basic interest is the flow of fashion, in the tics and trinkets of the rich.
But if Wolfe represents a conservative, or perhaps apolitical approach, there is also the committed school of Stone, Kempton, Royko, Halberstam, Wicker, Cowar, Hentoff, and many others.
Some alleged new journalists, like Robin Reisig and James Ridgeway, are really part of an older muckraking tradition that stretches back to Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. So is Jack Anderson, who is considered an “old journalist” because he has a syndicated daily column.
Actually, I think the only really new journalism in America today is being done by people like Studs Terkel and Robert Coles, who are trying to record history from the bottom, through the eyes of average, infamous people, rather than through presidents and celebrities.
Paul Cowan’s recent stories on coal miners and the residents of Forest Hills are also in this democratic vein. So are my own prison articles, where I try to present the prison reality from the point of view of powerless unknown inmates, rather than wardens, or expert penologists, or corrections bureaucrats, or liberal politicians.
The new journalism is not going to become an evolutionary substitute for the novel, as Norman Podhoretz first suggested in a 1958 essay, “The Article as Art.” Tom Wolfe also made this excessive claim in his recent essay in New York magazine.
The new journalism, Wolfe wrote, “is causing panic, dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre, starting the first new direction in American literature in half a century.”
First of all, there are still plenty of fine novelists around Barth, Roth, Updike, Bellow, Ellison, Pynchon, and Malamud are all working. Plus fresh talents on the way up like Fred Exley, Robert Stone, Marge Piercy, Sol Yurick, and Robert Coover, who assure the vitality of the genre.
Second, some of the best “new journalists” have found their own expanded form still so inhibiting they have turned to writing novels themselves — Hamill, Breslin, Joan Didion, Jeremy Larner, David Halberstam, Joe McGinnis, and earlier, Mailer, Baldwin, and Heinz, Breslin and Joe Flaherty have spent the last year working on novels.
Third, most of us alleged new journalists have read a lot of naturalistic novels, and have been influenced by Dreiser, Dos Passos, Farrell, Steinbeck, and Algren. This tradition seems out of fashion now, but what’s called the new journalism owes a lot of dues to it.
There is room for both good novels and good journalism. The need for newness, the competition of categories, is just a game of egos. Why deny our roots? What is the need to claim historical novelty? What’s wrong with giving credit to Jimmy Cannon and John Steinbeck?
The distinction has also been blurred between what is called new journalism and underground journalism. If new journalism can at least be recognized as good writing and lucid thinking, there is little of that in most of the underground press. (I exempt sea-level papers like Boston’s Phoenix and Chicago’s Daily Planet.)
EVO proved that post-linear heads couldn’t write linear prose. The dumbest political column of the year — even worse than Evans and Novack — was Al Goldstein’s romanticization of George Wallace in the New York Ace two issues back.
Most political writers for most underground papers don’t know how things really work, and lack the Breslin-Hamill instinct for the concrete. At this point, conventional “old journalists” — like David Broder, Jim Perry, Alan Otten, Martin Nolan and Mary McGrory write better and see clearer than the underground pundits.
The underground press has been very good at writing about certain things — the war, women’s liberation, prisons, rock music. But it has been very bad reporting on other things — electoral politics, original muckraking, neighborhoods and ordinary people, crime and the fear of crime and excesses and arrogance when they appear on the left.
It was Life magazine that broke the Abe Fortas and San Diego scandals. It was Hamill’s piece in New York magazine (April 14, 1969) that first noticed the swelling rage in white workingmen’s neighborhoods. It was the Staten Island Advance that first exposed the horror of Willowbrook. It was Jack Anderson who exposed ITT. These are the sort of stories a better underground press might have dug out first.
Some press critics have tried to make “advocacy” the line that divides “biased, irresponsible” new journalism from professional, objective mainstream journalism. But it seems to me that the most blatant advocacy journalists have almost always been on the right.
Joe Alsop has been advocating (and predicting) an American military victory in Vietnam for a decade. William F. Buckley might be the purest advocacy journalist in the country. He helped elect his brother to the Senate in 1970. He campaigned for John Ashbrook in New Hampshire this year. He is editor of a magazine with an ideological line much more narrow and rigid than The Voice. He even ran for mayor in 1965.
Somehow the concept of advocacy in journalism has become identified with the left. But what about the Reader’s Digest? They’ve published 77 pieces on Vietnam since 1951, 76 of them in favor of the war. Does U.S. News and World Report present a balanced view of capitalism? Is new Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader fair and objective?
Objectivity can be defined as the way the mass media reported the history of the Vietnam war before the Pentagon Papers; the way the racism in the North was covered before Watts; the way auto safety was reported before Ralph Nader. Objectivity is the media printing Nelson Rockefeller’s lies about Attica until the facts came out that the state troopers and not the inmates had killed all the hostages; that the troopers used outlawed dum dum bullets; that 350 inmates including some badly wounded, were beaten after they gave up. Objectivity is printing a dozen stories about minor welfare frauds, but not a word about the My Lai massacre until Seymour Hersh. Objectivity is not covering the stomping of the gay activists at the Inner Circle dinner because Micky Maye’s union paid for a table. Objectivity is ignoring George McGovern as a joke after he won the Wisconsin primary. Objectivity is believing people with power and printing their press releases. Objectivity is not shouting “liar” in a crowded country.
And in the current (May) issue of (More), Robin Reisig has a powerful piece on all the daily “objective” reporters in New York who are on the take.
Harry Schlegel is an assistant city editor of the Daily News. He also holds a $900 a month job as research director of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Interstate Cooperation. The chairman of the committee is John Marchi, whom the News endorsed for mayor in 1969.
George Douris is the City Hall bureau chief for the Long Island Press. He also gets paid by the PBA to edit their paper Front and Center. And he writes a lot of stories for the Press about the police department’s fight for higher pay and other matters. They are usually pro-police. That’s what I would call real personal, participatory journalism.
When Ms. Reisig confronted Douris with this conflict-of-interest, Douris, with unconscious irony, threatened to call a cop if she didn’t leave the City Hall press room.
At bottom, I believe objectivity is a figleaf for covert prejudice. The point is not to confuse objectivity with truth. It was objective to quote Joe McCarthy during the 1950s; it was the truth to report that most of what he had to say was unfounded slander. Today much of what Nixon, Humphrey, and Rockefeller say is lies, but they are quoted without challenge, and given credibility.
The goal for all journalists should be to come as close to the truth as possible. But the truth does not always reside exactly in the middle. Truth is not the square root of two balanced quotes. I don’t believe I should be “objective” about Racism or the conditions inside Clinton Prison, or lead poisoning, or the fact that parts of Brownsville look like Quang Tri. Certain facts are not morally neutral.
A few cynics argue that the new journalism can best be detected by its resemblance to fiction, by its liberties with the facts. Well, if that’s the case, then the best example of new journalism this season is Edward O’Neill’s story in — of all places — the Daily News, four Sundays ago.
O’Neill’s story was about the Inner Circle dinner. It ran in the first edition that rolls off the presses at 7 p.m. It was a fine story with nice details. The only problem is that the Inner Circle Dinner started at 9 p.m. So the story must have been written at least three hours before the dinner actually took place. O’Neill wrote:
“The annual show played to a glittering, laughing-room-only audience of top city and state officials headed by Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay. Both chuckled heartily as the newsmen satirized Rocky’s current ‘Love Story’ with President Nixon.”
Rockefeller never showed up, and the News story, of course, didn’t mention the beating of the gay activists at the dinner. But O’Neill should soon start receiving invitations to lecture on the new journalism.
So, I think there is no such thing as new journalism. It still comes down to good writing, and hard work, and clear thinking. The rest is bullshit. The best motto for all of us is still the last line of James Baldwin’s introduction to “Notes of a Native Son.”
“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]