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.