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Early in his memoirs the great Victorian journalist Henri de Blowitz refers to his “uncontrollable desire to get at the bottom of sensational reports.” He was trying to explain why he became a journalist, instead of remaining a sober businessman in Marseilles. This was the best he could do. In a later chapter he discusses what was in “universal opinion, the greatest journalistic feat on record,…the publication, in the Times, of the Treaty of Berlin at the very hour it was being signed in Berlin.” Needless to say, de Blowitz was the person responsible for this triumph. But plainly he felt some puzzlement about exactly why it was such a feat.
To have published an important document before anybody else does not make you a great writer or even a great journalist…. Any journalist by profession might have done what I did if he had said, “I will do it,” and had thought over the ways of accomplishing his scheme. It was a feat in which neither talent nor science stood for anything. The story I am about to tell must not therefore be ascribed to vanity, but should merely be considered as the fulfilment of a duty to my journalistic profession, to which I am devoted.
Evidently de Blowitz could see that detached readers might well have asked what exactly was the point of a feat in which the Times of London managed to print a document on a Saturday only through prodigious efforts and enormous expense, whereas this same document was freely distributed to every journalist in Berlin shortly afterward.
At the heart of de Blowitz’s confusion was his difficulty in confronting the fact that his sense of pleasure and triumph was that of the gossip, the person first with the news, suffused with the satisfaction of having slaked that “uncontrollable desire to get to the bottom of sensational reports.” Such, in essence, was the duty he felt toward his profession.
Now journalism has always been fair game for abuse, and though they may have made a fuss about Spiro Agnew, most members of the profession readily concede the fact. Indeed the more seasoned of these members will invariably commend Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop to novices, explaining that this chronicle of mendacity, idleness, venality, and ignorance is a splendidly accurate distillation of their calling.
But “gossip” (or even “mere gossip”) is not one of the terms of abuse genially acknowledged. There are, to be sure, gossip writers enjoyed by the readers. Particularly in England a good gossip page is regarded as a sine qua non of such papers as the Daily Mail or the Daily Express or The Evening Standard. More avowedly serious newspapers such as the London Sunday Times or The Observer acknowledge the need, with gossip columns purged of excessive prurience or outrageous snobbery. These responsible efforts are of course extremely dull. In the United States prurient and snobbish gossip is reserved for the huge mass circulation papers like the National Enquirer and…
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