What Else Is News?

Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings
Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings; drawing by David Levine

Except for politics, no business is scrutinized more exhaustively than journalism. This scrutiny produces an endless stream of books, academic studies, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and phone calls to talk-radio stations from ordinary citizens with opinions to air. Journalism talk is part of the nonstop background noise of American life.

Here are five of the more recent books on the subject. It would be easy to find five more almost as recent, and ten or fifteen more are probably being composed as we speak. These five are fairly typical. Four are by career journalists—mostly newspaper editors and reporters, but only one a television reporter. The fifth is by an academic and freelance journalist, whose specialty is scrutinizing and trying to make sense of what he sees.

Glumness is the prevailing spirit here, and for good reason. This is journalism’s age of melancholy. Newspaper people, once celebrated as founts of ribald humor and uncouth fun, have of late lost all their gaiety, and small wonder. They have discovered that their prime duty is no longer to maintain the republic in well-informed condition—or to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the old gospel has it—but to serve the stock market with a good earnings report every three months or, in plainer English, to comfort the comfortable.

It is fitting that yesteryear’s swashbuckling newspaper reporter has turned into today’s solemn young sobersides nursing a glass of watered white wine after a day of toiling over computer databases in a smoke-free, noise-free newsroom.

The Last Editor, Jim Bellows’s reminiscence of days when the going was still devil-may-care, is the one entirely gloom-free book among these five. It is one of those seasoned-old-newsman memoirs about the old days and the good times when reporters treated celebrities and politicians with the contempt they deserved and sometimes did brave things. Hildy Johnson still lives in books like these, and Clark Gable still puts rich society dames like Claudette Colbert in touch with the masses by showing them how to dunk a doughnut. It’s light as a June cloud and just as pleasant.

Bellows was a superb editor with a zest for mischief and hell-raising. At the Herald Tribune he unleashed the so-called “new journalists” like Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe to do an unorthodox, highly personalized kind of reporting that shocked traditionalists while attracting publicity and readers. Wolfe’s satirical attack on The New Yorker and its revered editor William Shawn was typical of the uproar he wanted journalism to create. As editor of The Washington Star he encouraged his gossip columnist, for the pure competitive sport of it, to report regularly on the romantic life of The Washington Post’s executive editor.

Bellows’s affection for his trade is touching these days when so many papers are turning into cash machines. The work “shouldn’t be something ancillary to…

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