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.