Journalism worth preserving

The profession should be "reconnect[ed] with its legacy of engagement with the humanities"

Because journalism is increasingly being turned into an instrument - of the Internet, of commerce, of the popular will (to be endorsed by tweets and “likes”), and of partisans of all varieties - acts of journalism are increasingly ephemeral. In chasing audiences, in moving ever faster, journalists are losing their capacity to create memorable works that make sense of the world. They are losing the capacity to create works that endure. One way for journalists to reverse this trend, and to connect with durable sources of memorability and lasting significance, is to reconnect with journalism’s legacy of engagement with the humanities: with history, literature, and philosophy.

While there is broad agreement about the importance of preserving the “watchdog” function of journalism, far less attention has been given to the alienation of journalism from literary and artistic culture and the consequent loss of vitality and intelligence for American life as a whole. While journalism at its best provides useful information to citizens, the activity also stands alongside literature in providing society with memorable characters and stories, alongside philosophy in asking intelligent questions about hard human problems, and alongside history in providing context and memory of how the past can be prologue.

To regain a place for thoughtful, probing journalism among the intellectual activities of American life, it’s valuable to look back to the core humanities fields from which most contemporary journalists have strayed.

To be sure, relating journalism and the humanities demands a brief explanation, if only because other pairings might seem more immediately appropriate. Journalism and entertainment: now there’s a duo. Journalism and propaganda? A toxic brew always demanding vigilance.

What relationship do journalism and the humanities have in the first place, and how can we begin to understand the prospects for future collaboration, the pathways towards communion, between them? I want to approach the task by reflecting on the lives of individual journalists and humanists as well as by the direct assertion of this proposition: The natural home for journalism of enduring value and cultural merit is and can only be the humanities.

We see the veracity of this proposition through the lives of individual writers and artists. Take Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and then wrote a memoir of his experiences, If I Die in a Combat Zone, published in 1973. Nearly 20 years later, in “How To Tell A True War Story,” O’Brien made a classic statement about the perils of war reporting, in the form of a chapter in his novel, The Things They Carried.
O’Brien insisted that his war fiction was truer than combat journalism because, in some elusive way, literal accuracy obscured rather than revealed the larger meaning of war. The same arc—from everyday journalism to literary fiction—was followed by Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. Even poet Walt Whitman worked as a journalist for years before writing his celebrated Leaves of Grass.

So journalism surely has a robust link to the humanities, mediated through what Philip Rahv has described as “the cult of experience.” Great writers need great experiences, and journalism can provide them. John Steinbeck wrote a series on poor migrants for a California newspaper in the 1930s (for which he got paid, by the way), and then he turned the series into Grapes of Wrath. More recently, Steig Larsson, an investigative reporter in Sweden, reported briefly on neo-Nazi movements in northern Europe before transforming his experiences into the bestselling Dragon Tattoo series of novels.

So are the humanities in a kind of vampire relationship with journalism, where they feed on its body and then discard it?

Not quite—the relationship is more symbiotic than that. In the world of ideas, journalism also plays a role. French intellectuals first began using the term in the 17th century to refer to periodic publications that reviewed and reported on ideas, especially new ideas in science. The “Journal des Savants” was founded in 1665. In the following centuries, the journalist as popularizer of complex ideas gained traction in Europe. Karl Marx visited the US to report on the Civil War, for instance. Walter Lippman, perhaps preeminent journalist of ideas in the 20th century, battled with John Dewey in the 1930s over the nature of American democracy.

Albert Camus, an essayist, novelist, and playwright, was the editor of a newspaper, Combat, during World War II. He wrote an article about the first atomic explosion on Hiroshima. Today, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell presents original ideas and novel interpretations of existing ones in his writing.

The journalism that concerns me is animated by the ideal of non-utility, by non-commercial aims given shape by art and literature. Lee Gutkind calls this species of journalism “creative nonfiction.” Think of George Orwell’s classic report, “A Hanging,” about an execution in colonial Malaya, present-day Burma. Orwell is a nonjudgmental, detached observer, consciously trying to hold a mirror to reality while at the same time applying literary and philosophical concerns to the task. John Hersey does the same is his classic New Yorker report on the lives of six characters in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the doomed wanderings of a young American, also invokes an evenhanded, cinematic approach to presenting compelling characters who cut at the heart of the human condition.

Enduring journalism of significance isn’t limited to texts, either. Dorothea Lange. Walker Evans. Gordon Parks. The films of Errol Morris. Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds about the Vietnam War. Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. These works of journalism—and there are many others—are part of our common artistic and cultural heritage, and they spring from the humanities. These works are important expressions of what it is to be human. We should value them for that alone.

Let me close on a personal note. I have written three works of narrative nonfiction. One is biography, another is an obscure creation story (a dramatic retelling of how a small group of people made a software program for Microsoft), and the third is a memoir, a story within the larger story of my own life. This last work, about myself, was non-linear—a broken, disjointed narrative about an unfinished life.

I share that information because I want you to know that, in the matter of journalism and the humanities, I am not neutral. Journalism of enduring value, and the people who create it, are part of the traditions of the humanities.

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G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at Arizona State University's Cronkite school. A senior writer for The Wall Street Journal from 1989 to 2002, he is the author of the forthcoming book Hotel Africa: the politics of escape.