For a profession whose entire raison d’être is communication, American journalists sure have done a lousy job of explaining why the slow-motion disintegration of the business model upon which their livelihoods have depended for the past three hundred years might have significant negative consequences for the country. The arguments one hears tend to sound like high-school civics lessons that people automatically tune out. And those are from the serious journalists. The unserious ones—the ones whose ranks are booming—present a daily argument for saying good riddance to newspapers and the like—with the Murdoch empire’s recent phone-hacking scandal being only the most gruesome.
Ironically—and apparently somehow below the radar of most journalists in America—the profession was recently blessed with what could have been, and still might be, the most effective propaganda vehicle for the societal significance of journalism I could imagine. His name is Mikael Blomkvist, and the paunchy, forty-year-old, lady-killing, black-coffee-and-bourbon swizzling, cigarette-smoking, crusading, feminist, Swedish journalist just happens to be the hero of perhaps the best-selling book series in the world. The late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—have already sold upward of fifty million copies worldwide, and spawned three pretty decent Swedish films. MGM’s release, over Christmas, of David Fincher’s $100 million Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with yes, James Bond (Daniel Craig) playing Blomkvist, is no doubt driving those numbers even higher.
True, just like Mr. “Shaken, Not Stirred,” Blomkvist is too good to be true. He works for Millennium, a profitable, do-good, investigative business magazine of which he is part owner and editor that has no imaginable analog in American journalism. (It is modeled after the tiny anti-racist magazine, Expo, that Larsson helped found in 1995 and for which he continued to labor until his fatal heart attack in November 2004 at age fifty, just before the publication of Dragon Tattoo.)
Blomkvist, therefore, lives and works in a journalistic environment about as far as possible from the kind of politics-as-entertainment/entertainment-as-politics that dominates American mainstream news—particularly business news, where Larsson’s billionaire villains would, until very recently, likely have been treated as akin to super-heroes. As the business writer Chrystia Freeland has mused, “You don’t have to be a fictional Scandinavian social democrat to wish that business journalism in the United States was more about afflicting the comfortable and less about cozying up to them.” But if highbrow American journalists would look up from their decaf soy lattés, they might find much to cheer, or at least to ponder, in Larsson’s trilogy. For in addition to earning its bona fides as a first-rate, albeit decidedly implausible, murder mystery series, it also is among the most nuanced and thorough fictional demonstrations ever written of the importance of journalism to a democratic society.
It’s true that Larsson cheats. Not only do women fall in love with Blomkvist too easily, but the idea that the Robin to his Batman is the magical “Girl” with not only a generous set of tattoos but also a photographic memory and the ability to hack into any computer system in the world, is not bloody likely either. Her hacking talents—not unlike, come to think of it, those of the Murdoch cretins but in this case used only for good—make it possible for Blomkvist to become privy to all sorts of secrets that would elude a mere mortal journalist. What’s more, he becomes so personally involved in the story that he ends up caring far more about the fate of the individuals he is reporting on than about his responsibility to publish anything approaching “the whole truth.” Near the end of Dragon Tattoo, when Blomkvist finally finds the object of his frenetic search, he explains to her that she has no need to fear exposure: “I’m not thinking of exposing you. I’ve already breached so many rules of professional conduct in this whole dismal mess that the Journalists’ Association would undoubtedly expel me if they knew about it…. One more won’t make any difference.”