Our Golden Age of Journalism: Tampa Edition

Here for the record, and in celebration of our national holiday, is a great piece of journalism from the 2012 Republican Convention in Tampa.  “Dispatches from the Republican National Convention:  Entry 6,” by Dave Weigel, writing for Slate, on August 28.


Click on the link and then come on back.


Why is this an absolutely fantastic piece of reportage?  First and foremost, because Weigel captures, perfectly, the feel on being on a convention floor.  TV cannot give us this.  Most of us will never have a convention floor pass.  So Weigel’s piece, in its way, is important.  He is also funny.  Succinct.  In few words, he gives us both context (something that happened with Hillary in 2008) and hard news (the convention rules fight with Ron Paul supporters).


Unfortunately, unless you are either a media maven or a Tea Partier, likely you have never heard of Weigel.  Even then, you may not have seen this article.  And that is one of the secondary problems (in my previous two essays I talk about the most important) weakening American media.  Turbo-charged by the invention of the Internet, event reportage and commentary have grown so large that, in a way, American media is collapsing in upon itself.  This is what happens when a user cannot find the good bits, like Weigel’s coverage, in the dump of dreck.


Where does a reporter like Weigel come from anyway? American media’s great years began in the last century when editors and reporters began to marry storytelling with fact, as Weigel does.  This was an enormous change from nineteenth-century news coverage, where neither reporter nor reader seemed to expect a story to be true in the factual sense.


I discovered this—peculiarity—while spending five years hunched over microfilm machines in Memphis and New York, researching a series of family monographs, for which also I collected old issues of Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Comparing the illustrations and reportage the Harper’s correspondent had done for the Civil War Battle of Memphis with contemporary photographs of Memphis and local diaries, I could find no similarity.  I realized that the Harper’s reporter had never accompanied Grant down the Mississippi to Memphis, but likely had remained on the safe haven of a bluff farther up river.  In short, he made the whole thing up.  He imagined what Memphis probably looked like, and how the battle, from what he heard, unfolded.


Another example.  I spent a delightful afternoon in the New York Public Library reading a labyrinthine piece from a New York Times reporter, writing in the early 1890s, about Florida.  The only problem was that the poor man had been to Florida only once, several years before, and yet now he had been tasked with writing a very long piece on “the new Florida,” about St. Petersburg and its grandiose just-built hotels, where he had never been.  I could picture the whiskey bottle at hand, as he added filler after filler about birds and feathers and women’s hats and waterways and more birds and feathers, puff, puff, puff.  Likely, the railroads had told the New York Times:  “we have that new terminus to St. Pete—give us 10,000 words.”


So if you suppose there was a Great Day of Journalism buried deep in our distant past, let these two examples disabuse you of that notion.


Our golden age of journalism arose out of our need to figure out the role or roles we would play, as a nation, in wars that did not threaten us here at home:  the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam.  Americans were growing better-educated, both reporters and readers.  Ironically, the reportorial voice could be heard because the pool of Americans from which that voice could arise was small, limited in ways we abjure today.  Most reporters were male and white.  He had to have started at one of the heartland newspapers flourishing then or to have attended the Ivy League.  (Exceptions always made for women married to powerful men, of course—see Clare Boothe Luce.)


As the century progressed, his voice was amplified, by war newsreel, by radio, then television, then not only television but cable.  War and new invention:  Manichean forces.  Every golden age plants the seeds of its own destruction.  For journalism, the seed has been celebrity.  Slowly, the journalists at the top of the profession (certain columnists, evening TV correspondents, a few magazine writers) became rich and famous.  Even though more than a few may be or may have been among the most humble of men (what I find to be the case at the tip-top of every profession), egoism, entitlement and a sense of detachment from the masses began to filter down through the ranks.


This was the world of American journalism into which I stumbled in 2007.  This was what I observed—not so much on the campaign trail, where reporters keep a sense of balance by clinging to an old-time faith in themselves as proles—but at glitzier media gatherings in New York and D.C.  Sometimes I felt that I had wandered by mistake into a gentleman’s club, membership leaning into each other over jolly drinks, not looking around to note how the club now looks a bit down-at-heels, its day come and gone.


And so from Tampa, unless you shut your eyes and ears, you were inundated with the sorry American journalism that the old clubsters are coughing up.  Here, alas, is such a piece:  “Chris Cillzza:  Why Campaigns Don’t Need the Media,” by Howard Kurtz, for The Daily Beast, August 19, 2012.


No reportage there, right?  One inside-the-beltway guy talking to another insider.  Kurtz and Cillzza shooting the breeze.   A plug for one guy’s book, to boot.  Pathetic.  Even more so:  they can think of nothing to say (name-calling in 2012, importance of ads and links) that the rest of us aren’t already contemplating too much, as it is.


Unfortunately, American journalism is weighted down with Kurtz/Cillzza puffery and blocking our view of the Weigels.  (Jesus, it just occurs to me that in its own way Howie Kurtz’s piece is like the 1890s NYT ramble through an imaginary Florida.)


The humbug cliché of the moment is that, in order to spare us such non-news, reporters should quit going to conventions.  Here is media pundit Jeff Jarvis, with a “no more cakes and ale” harrumph:  “Reporters:  Why Are You in Tampa?”  He thinks the cost—a hypothetical $60 mil—could have been better spent elsewhere.  But—and why do I feel I must point out the obvious?—the conventions are very important.  They are one of the few occasions on which all Americans watch the same TV (if on different channels).  Watching and talking about the speeches are one of the few things left that draw us together as a nation.  Some viewers like to prolong the moment by listening to cable commentary afterwards.  Is that so very terrible?


Much of the convention media is foreign, by the way.  From my experience in 2008, foreign reporters caution about in bewilderment—you’d think they would understand the American political dynamic by now—but since not, thank God they are in attendance.


Now, allow me to tie down my own hat of humility as well as one for Jeff Jarvis to point out that it is easy, not tasked with covering a convention, to sit back and carp.  But it is simply not true that nothing of real importance happens at conventions.  If Kurtz and Cillzza got off their duffs, there were stories to be had out of Tampa.  Sometimes they are not the stories you expect, or want, or are happy to follow, but you go where they lead, nevertheless.


To my mind, there are four great stories out of Tampa still to be finished:  the disjunction between the Republican platform and the rise of so many women within the party; the two delegates’ own stories about nut-tacking the CNN camerawoman (perhaps within the context of roughing-up being a hazard of the journo profession—happened to me twice—what is the psychology here?); what it means that so many Americans are unfamiliar with rather typical behavior for an octogenarian like Clint Eastwood and why we find it particularly disturbing on stage; fact-checking Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech.


Fact-checking is one of the tasks that American media continues to do better and better.  The exception to my argument, you might say.  The problem is the complexity of every issue that I talked about in my last piece.  The best fact-checker is Politifact.org.  Go read their research on Ryan’s Medicare assertions.  Not easy to parse.  Moreover, Politifact—the task being difficult—still has not gone through all Ryan’s statements.  By the time Politifact is done, our attention will be elsewhere.


The corollary to the Jarvis screed is the reporter excuse.  Sorry, folks, nothing happening here at the convention, per usual, so I’m forced, for my daily report, into repeater mode.  What my peers are saying.  What my contacts who work for the campaigns are promulgating.


Consider for a long minute the laziness here.  This is like a reporter in Afghanistan (or any war zone) talking only with the general, allowing himself or herself to be driven around by an army liaison to see whatever the general wants the public to know, writing a piece based on that access, and then calling it a wrap.  No American journalist covering a war today would do such a thing.  Indeed our golden age of journalism continues on largely because of our intrepid war reporters: Jon Lee Anderson, Dexter Filkins, George Packer, to name a few.


Political reporters at home complain that political campaigns increasingly restrict access to their candidates and to stories.  In my observation, that is just an excuse, another example of the satiety and couch potato syndrome afflicting us now that I wrote about in my last piece.  On my initial encounter with the traveling presidential campaign press, during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses in 2007-2008, the very first thing that surprised (and shocked) me was their passivity.   Like a herd of sheep, I said to myself, at the end of that day.  And unfortunately, with rare exception (shout-outs to Kit Seelye and Joe Klein), I never had occasion to improve the view.


Vasily Grossman, writing from the Battle of Stalingrad, has given us perhaps the best modern journalism.  And he was Russian.  And a Jew, always in easy reach of German capture.  A be-spectacled man not in the best of health—certainly not in good shape physically.


To put today’s American reporter’s complaint of lack of access in perspective, Grossman had a lot more to worry about when he went out to write about the Russian campaign than a little roughing up by a disgruntled stranger or an oleaginous, stone-walling campaign handler.  The NKVD liked to shoot reporters who annoyed the censors.  And every reporter, like every general, had such a minder, who dogged his every move.


But Grossman used what he had at hand to get the story.  He discovered that he did not fall apart mentally under sniper fire, and so he dodged from ruin to ruin in Stalingrad to talk with Russian soldiers trying to hold onto the city, block by block.  He discovered the use that could be made of chaos and near-defeat:  the political handlers tended to stay away from the ever-moving front.  He discovered (like Dave Weigel) the power of humor, and that he had a gift for listening for it.  He knew in his gut—the niggling all good reporters have—that this was his moment, that such times call for tirelessness, and so he moved back and forth from building shell to sniper outpost to commander bunker and never stopped until he got that story.


In my last piece, I talked about the reservoir of will in the American people.  A new generation of journalists will find that source of resolve and discipline.  I already see it in a few reporters I have met who work for Al Jazeera. But the new club will be international—a mixture of races and nationalities and languages—and it will be interesting to see what of our American media heritage makes it into the global portmanteau, taken from the American journalist experience, a kind of memory, coming to hand to get the story.


Labor Day weekend, 2012


Next up:  the New York Times.  The press returns to North Carolina.







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