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The Psychopathology of Journalism

I don’t know why, but I believed him….”—it’s such a charming and revealing phrase, written with all the amazement of a gossip who spends much of her working life persuading people that she is not seeing them with the intent of making them look foolish or persuading them to utter statements that might look ridiculous in print. This, by the way, should not be construed as a specific sneer at Miss Quinn. The great de Blowitz was just as interested in the tricky business of extracting gossip without being explicitly forced into a relationship where publication of the secret would be interpreted as a direct act of treachery and betrayal.

I am going,” he said, “for the benefit of younger journalists, to give a hint which a good many of them which I know would do well to bear in mind. When a man gives a correspondent an important piece of news, the latter should continue to remain with him for some time, but change the conversation and not leave him until it has turned to something quite insignificant. If the correspondent takes his departure abruptly, a flash of caution will burst upon his informant. He will reflect rapidly and will beg the journalist not to repeat what he has said till he sees him again. The information would be lost, and the correspondent would suffer annoyance that might have been avoided if he had heard nothing. A newspaper has no use for confidential communications it cannot transmit to its readers.”

Only the last sentence of de Blowitz’s admirable advice rings oddly. It is after all plain that newspapers constantly find use for confidential communications they feel they cannot transmit. They sit on them, glorying in the possession of knowledge but deterred by reasons of libel or taste or genuflections to national security from letting the readers in on the secret.

There are other reasons why the gossip-monger’s excited babble is suppressed. The editors or proprietors may simply feel he is wrong. Official censorship may interrupt the confidential communication. This constant tension between primal gossip and eventual publication is the theme of Phillip Knightley’s book on war correspondence, The First Casualty. On the whole it is an interesting, if slightly dogged account of how newspaper reports of almost every conflict since the Crimean war turn out, upon examination, to be unrelievedly mendacious. There are varying patterns of distortion. Either, as was often the case during the Russian Revolution, the journalist’s own powers of observation were so contaminated by class prejudice that he was literally incapable of understanding what was going on around him. Or, as was famously the case in the Spanish-American war, the proprietor simply wanted a war, whether one existed or not. Or, in almost all cases, the military authorities and the civil government back home did not wish to have the population acquainted with perturbing information. Against such alliances of interest, the triumph of truth—as Knightley tells it—has been rare.

The only problem about the book is what exactly Knightley considers “truth” to be. This is most conspicuously evident in his examination of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Knightley starts with the proposition, originally advanced by George Steer in the London Times, that, in Steer’s words, “The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.” Knightley shows how such an interpretation of the bombing became a potent weapon in the hands of propagandists and sympathizers of the Republican cause. Then he quotes supporters of the Nationalists who claim that the bombing of Guernica was a brilliant propaganda coup by the Republicans.

Finally he calls up two authorities, Professor Hugh Thomas and Professor Herbert Southworth, to give their interpretations. He quotes Thomas as saying that “the town was bombed by the Germans…probably not as a shock attack on a specially prized city, but as one on a town where the Republican-Basque forces could regroup….” He quotes Southworth as agreeing that the Germans did the bombing and then as asking “Why was it done? This is more speculative. There is nothing to show that the Germans wanted to test civilian morale. German documents tend to show that it was a tactical operation.”

Knightley now mops up: “So Steer’s original accusations, the birth of the legend of Guernica…now stand contradicted…. Thus it is clear that the correspondents made Guernica. If Steer, and, to a lesser extent, Holme, Monks, and Corman, had not been there to write about it, Guernica would have passed unnoticed, just another incident in a brutal civil war….”

There seem to be several problems with this triumphant conclusion. First, the quotations from Thomas and Southworth seem much more tentative than Knightley’s comment would warrant. Second, Knightley seems to demand some ethereal definition of objectivity and restraint from correspondents like Steer. They would presumably have been allowed by Knightley to report that Guernica had been bombed; that the war factory outside the town had not been attacked, that it was market day and the civilian population had been machine-gunned as it fled to the fields, that the town had been laid open with high explosives and saturated by incendiary bombs.

But there they would had to have stopped, prevented by hindsight from saying that it was a shock attack or that the Germans were trying to test civilian morale. In sum, they should have concluded with the sedate observation that “this is just another incident in a brutal civil war” and, presumably, “a war in which many atrocities have been committed on both sides.” The heart of the matter is that the psychopathology of journalism has no place for untoward ideological enthusiasm, and untoward ideological enthusiasm is exactly what Knightley feels he is sniffing in the Spanish Civil War.*

The true journalistic gossip tells his secret, heedless of the consequences. But Knightley’s book makes it dismally clear how easily this small pure urge to communicate is extinguished, and how easily it is compromised. The My Lai massacre was not exposed by one of the hundreds of journalists who had worked in Vietnam, but by Seymour Hersh, working for a small news service in the United States. Military obstruction may have impeded the efforts of journalists in Vietnam, but it seems dubious that this was the reason why My Lai took so long to be uncovered.

Journalists may start with the pure urge to tell all but their working lives are spent in environments profoundly hostile to this primal desire to tell all. Knightley has chosen the most conspicuous environment—that of war, where it may simply be absolutely impossible for the truth to be communicated. Readers may come away with the comforting illusion that things are better in peacetime. But it does not take too long to see that then too the gossip stands in permanent danger of blunting his edge. Can he truly say what he knows about business, about law enforcement, about government? As a gossip, he has to have sources who can and will deceive him, use him for their own ends, reproach him for indiscretions, cut him off from fresh material.

Social gossip is all very well, because the subjects like to read their names in the newspapers, even attached to vaguely disobliging remarks. What about powerful people who do not wish to see their names printed in the newspapers? The gossip moves about his village, but each day faces the neighbors too. He modifies and inflects his news accordingly. I.F. Stone chose, in compiling his own splendid newsletter, a slightly different method, less amenable to contamination. He did not move along the usual gossip circuits, but preferred rather only to read source material, congressional reports, budgetary statements. And in that way he remained immune from the compromises to which his colleagues almost invariably fell prey. Many of them had inside stories, embargoed, off the record, on “deep background,” too heavy with “advocacy.” They had the wherewithal to satisfy that basic lust to be first out with the secret, but lacked the freedom, or eventually the inclination, or indeed the moral passion, to satisfy it. Such disappointments do not make journalists cynics, as is popularly believed. It makes them despair.

Despair is a central part of the psychopathology, as Collier’s horrible book makes quite clear. For the hand-maiden of gossip is treachery: the record is never off; the tape recorder is always on. Usually the macho of the trade precludes self-awareness, as did the general feeling of journalists that they were a rough, low lot without the leisure for introspection. But journalism seems to be becoming a more respected or rather self-respecting profession. Perhaps more self-analysis is on the way. One hint of this can be found in a book edited by a journalist and his wife, called The First Time, in which a number of prominent people talked about their first sexual experience.

A couple of journalists are in the collection, giving the inside story on their first times—primal gossip again—and I was much struck by the contribution from the columnist Art Buchwald. Toward the end of it he says,

I had hang-ups and guilt that didn’t help. I put women on a pedestal, but fundamentally I was very hostile to them. I was trying to get even with my mother. Trying to get even with your dead mother is one of the most futile drives. There’s no payoff. A lot of revenge fucking of that sort goes on. But I can’t do it. I can’t be cruel. I can have fantasies about being cruel, but I can’t do it. I used to have a lot of rape fantasies, and my being Jewish, they had to do with fucking Wasps, country-club girls, the girls at Palm Beach or the girls at Smith and Vassar. My fantasies were always of making it with the unreachables, and if you’ve got a good imagination, your sexual fantasies are always better than anyone possibly could really be….”

Back we go to Barney Collier who says that Douglas Kiker told him that Buchwald likes him to tell stories of sexual conquest over lunch at Sans Souci. “Art sits enthralled. When Doug pauses in his story, Art is afraid it’s over too soon and goes ‘Yeah? Yeah?’ And Doug, who wrote two long novels, prolongs the climax. ‘Art loves it,’ Doug said. ‘Especially when I get to the fucking part. He keeps saying, Yeah; Yeah; Yeah.’ ”

It’s a quintessentially journalistic passage; one gossip relating the gossip of a second gossip who himself is admitting to gossipping to a third person who is quite prepared to gossip about himself to yet another gossip who is putting together a book about first sexual experiences.

It’s too early for a complete theory of the psychopathology of journalists but I would commend to investigators Heinz Kohut’s essay on narcissism and narcis-sistic rage in Volume 27 of The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. Kohut talks about the desire among those suffering narcissistic rage to “turn a passive experience into an active one.” Then he reports the case of Mr. P.

Mr P,…who was exceedingly shame-prone and narcissistically vulnerable, was a master of a specific form of social sadism. Although he came from a conservative family, he had become very liberal in his political and social outlook. He was always eager, however, to inform himself about the national and religious background of acquaintances and, avowedly in the spirit of rationality and lack of prejudice, embarrassed them at social gatherings by introducing the topic of their minority status into the conversation.

Although he defended himself against the recognition of the significance of his malicious maneuvers by well-thought-out rationalizations, he became in time aware of the fact that he experienced an erotically tinged excitement at these moments. There was, according to his description, a brief moment of silence in the conversation in which the victim struggled for composure after public attention had been directed to his social handicap….

Mr P’s increasing realization of the true nature of his sadistic attacks through the public exposure of a social defect, and his gradually deepening awareness of his own fear of exposure and ridicule, led to his recall of violent emotions of shame and rage in childhood….

It seems to be as good a definition of a gossip as any I’ve read recently.


Guernica March 18, 1976

  1. *

    For the record it should be added that Knightley says that my father, writing under the name Frank Pitcairn for the Daily Worker, was “unfit to report the Spanish Civil War,” because he believed what he was writing, copy supportive of the Republican cause, to the exclusion of truthful but adverse material, and also that he wanted other people to share his belief. So Knightley calls him a propagandist, a label my father would cordially accept. They have different views of the trade—but in the end it’s Knightley’s quest for the truly “objective” war correspondent that seems to be vain.

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