Wednesday, April 30, 2008
eating sushi on the eve of May Day a Free Tibet demonstration marched by
Journalism as Literature:
A Lost Art
by Christopher Hitchens
The generic British word for journalist — now unofficially adopted by all English-speaking foreign correspondents — is “hack.” This represents an effort to draw the sting from an insult by annexing it to oneself. Other self-descriptions, such as “reporter” or “correspondent,” represent an attempt to professionalize what began as a craft or trade. One hack of my acquaintance used the word “writer” as his official occupation on his passport because, as he said, it could by the stroke of a pen be changed to “waiter” if the officials at the frontier post looked menacing or uncooperative.
Yet to be considered a “writer” is the highest aspiration of the hack. It is something that can only be said of you by others, not something you can lay claim to yourself. In the course of this spring at the school of journalism, I have been attempting to highlight those moments in American history when mere journalism rose to the level of literature. I thought this might be good for morale.
“Unacknowledged legislators” was Shelley’s term for those poets who raised the moral and political temperature. The United States Constitution does not mandate an opposition party, but its First Amendment does grant unprecedented liberty to the press. And very often, in periods of crisis, it has fallen to the wielders of the pen to fill the void or to set the example. By what I consider to be a nice coincidence, the most luminous moments of “journalism as literature” have also been the moments of courage and dissent.
Indeed, the American idea is the product of a clash between rival journalists and pamphleteers, who in pre-revolutionary days conducted a vigorous argument about the first draft of the United States. In my J-school course, therefore, we began with the work of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush, and continued with the tussle over the Federalist Papers as conducted in, among other places, Alexander Hamilton’s New York Post.
The crisis over slavery, another institution which enjoyed “bipartisan” support, was largely precipitated by the work of a few outstanding journalists and editors, principal among them William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and — first martyr of the American press — Elijah Lovejoy. Of special interest is the way in which the anti-slavery movement cross-fertilized, especially through Douglass’ personality, the movement for the enfranchisement of women. This, too, was largely conducted through journals like The Revolution.
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (written for serialization in a paper called The Appeal to Reason), Mark Twain’s almost Swiftian writings on the Spanish-American war, the lonely but beautiful writing of Randolph Bourne during the “Great War,” and the huge one-man journalistic and literary efflorescence of H.L. Mencken in the 1920s and ’30s — these all help to establish a certain tradition.
There remains the question which I have been, in my own mind, slightly postponing. What has become of this great tradition today?