Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
by JOHN MARKS
The name alone conjures up vast, unholy regions of boredom; not Time, with that sense of a reportorial bullet punching through drywall, or Newsweek, redolent of rabid and relentless topicality, but US News & World Report, calling to mind a dossier stapled together in Des Moines or Hoboken and disseminated to retired colonels living in Arizona, the demographic once identified as the core readership of the least-loved of the three American newsweeklies.
If you’re over the age of forty, you might still have memories of the magazine and even know that term: Newsweeklies!
What a strange concept in the permanent twilight of our modern media, and yet not so long ago ago, it made perfect sense. Newsweeklies were periodicals that appeared every seven days, usually at the end or beginning of the work week. They served to summarize events for people too busy to peruse daily papers or watch the evening news broadcast, which were, until about 1990 and the maturation of cable news, the options available to most regular consumers of information.
It’s hard to grasp the reliability of that older news cycle in the age of 24-hour cable networks, Facebook, streaming video, broadband Internet access and minute-to-minute tweets on the microflora of Washington politics and Hollywood deal-making, but newsweeklies held a firm place in the American imagination for decades. They filled in the gap between now and later, if that makes any sense, and tended to be cradle to grave experiences. If you subscribed to one of the big three in college, or so went the wisdom, you became a branded reader for life.
Newsweeklies were central pillars of what’s now known as the “mainstream media”, but the threadbare geezer of today–cut to pieces by accountants, beggared by technology and rendered all but nonsensical by the need to chase scarce advertising dollars down a thousand pop cultural rabbit holes–bears little resemblance to the smug giant of the second half of the 20th Century.
Endlessly and often deservedly pilloried by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, despised by bloggers of every stripe, the “mainstream” once consisted of a few serious outlets that could be counted on to deliver a select batch of news to four or five different audiences numbered in the tens of millions. At the peak of the old system, there was money to sustain lifelong careers, power to sway events and, believe it or not, a single standard of truth in journalism that most practitioners of the trade quickly, almost instinctively grasped.
Competition played the enforcer. Newspapers, newsweeklies, radio and broadcast checked and balanced each other.
It’s tempting to claim categorically that the old days were either much better or much worse, but that’s a bit too easy. Truth in journalism didn’t always mean that the news as reported was true, and lots of stories about lots of different kinds of people never made into print. Then, as now, it was never easy to write openly, honestly and comprehensively for an American publication about poverty, race, sex and the rest of the world.
Still, flaws and all, the system worked. American readers could depend for decades on a healthy diet of diverse news that had been sourced by reporters and vetted by teams of editors who had themselves once been muckrakers and knew the difference between fact and fiction.
Locally, in small towns and big cities, the cops, courts, school boards and city halls got covered. Nationally, every big paper had its Washington and New York staff, and prestige operations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal sent foreign correspondents around the world. Television and radio had their own separate operations, feeding off print and at the same time digging for their own stories.
Worldwide, by the 1970’s, more and more big local papers could afford to open bureaus in the world’s hot spots. Readers in Dallas didn’t have to turn to the Times or the Journal for international developments. The Dallas Morning News had its own bureaus, stocked by its own people who got those jobs after proving themselves at home.
And maybe, just maybe, if they knocked the ball out of the park overseas, they landed a cushy job at a newsweekly, where the deadlines stretched to days instead of hours, the word counts routinely broke a thousand and the sky could be the limit in terms of impact.
As a whole, with clear reservations, mainstream media was a coherent, profitable, practical and effective way to disseminate news. Then it all went away.
For an insider’s account of these magical, imperfect and ultimately doomed days, and for a deeper understanding of the kind of journalism they represented, Robin Knight’s newly self-published memoir A Road Less Traveled is a must. Knight is rare Brit who spent the bulk of his professional life working for an American publication, so his observations about the experience have a double interest; among insiders, he was always an outsider.
In my experience, and I can think of a few others who fit into this category, he was a foreign correspondent par excellence. Harassed by the KGB in Soviet Russia for his reporting, ringside to the later years of apartheid in South Africa, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and damn near every other major political upheaval event of the era, Knight could certainly have embraced the romantic image of the heroic, world-trotting superhero journalist of the Western imagination.
In reality, he embodied the truth behind that myth. Endlessly curious, indefatigable in the pursuit of the story, modest in his speculations and predictions, vast in his contacts and travels, he was among the most self-effacing of reporters in a field of big personalities. At 68, he’s also one of the last of an invaluable breed. His diagnosis of the demise of the profession is both dire and spot on.
“Almost without exception, as costs have risen and revenues have fallen,” Knight writes, “magazines and newspapers have chosen to close bureaus abroad and rely instead on wire services or young cheap stringers or instant experts flown in to cover big events like earthquakes or revolutions. Day-to-day, websites now cover narrowly selected areas of the global market–celebrities, sports, entertainment, business. Within seconds of a wire service putting out a story, it is parroted by TV channels and newspapers and online outlets in all corners of the planet–it saves them hiring their own journalists. In the process the appearance of foreign reporting is preserved but all context and expertise is lost, ignorance of life deeper than television headlines grows, valuable news sources disappear, repressive governments cheer and lunatic conspiracy theories (especially in the Mideast and America) take root which, over time, have the potential to cause large parts of the earth to spiral into a nationalistic maelstrom similar to that of the 1930’s.”
Coming from a journalist who in a 30-year career rarely gave himself over to alarmist sentiments, those last lines should be understood as a warning.
Reading about Knight’s life as a foreign correspondent for US News & World Report is a bit like discovering the bones of a unicorn in the forest. You recognize the contour of an unlikely shape emerging in the weeds, and you say to yourself, “So the damn thing really existed.”
The horn of the unicorn is objectivity. Once the philosophical cornerstone of an entire profession, the notion of objectivity informed every page of U.S. News.
In our retrospective understanding, the ideal of objective journalism seems to convey wide detachment from subject matter, a sense of exquisite balance between opposed viewpoints, but above all a magnificently dispassionate judgment about means and motives. That’s a utopian understanding of what was always more an aspiration than a daily habit. Knight’s book makes very clear that his moral judgments about events–an optimistic definition of bias, perhaps–shaped and framed his coverage as a reporter, whether in London, Moscow, Johannesburg or Almaty.
To take just one example, objectivity never meant giving equal weight to Soviet and Western claims about Russian economic progress or the lack thereof–”he said, she said” at the geopolitical level. Knight’s bias in his coverage was conservative to the extent that he never bought Moscow’s line on much of anything, but he never relied on Cold War assessments coming out of the White House or Downing Street either. Instead, like other Western reporters in the era of 1970’s detente, he attempted to chart the distance between official declarations and whatever numbers, names and voices could be found on the ground to support or refute them.
That was his version of objectivity in the field, but how did editors actually view the term? Did publishers really aspire to that standard or was it just one more pitch for the bottom line, useful as long as it worked?
These questions are more difficult to answer now than they might have been a decade ago, when objectivity was still taken for granted as the standard in journalism, but it’s possible to draw a crude picture. Everyone had their bias. In the attempt to find a proper editorial line, phallic, bright red Time tended to lean conservative; slutty, flirty Newsweek gear-shifted left; US News & World Report, a.k.a. “Snooze” to its competitors, pitched itself like a weary hermaphrodite right down the middle.
Knight, whose memoir is the only history of the number three newsweekly we’re ever liable to get, offers this portrait in miniature. “US News, as the magazine was generally known, could only have existed and flourished in a vast continental country like the United States,” he writes. “Founded in 1933 by a man called David Lawrence, and headquartered in Washington D.C., its basic premise was to explain, analyze and interpret the previous week’s news–and to look ahead.”
In looking ahead, the publisher chose a path that might be the textbook definition of the objective code in journalism. “The publication,” Knight continues, “billed itself as neither liberal nor conservative, avoided advocacy, spurned “soft” topics such as the arts and sport (unless there was a business dimension) and made a positive virtue of its sobriety. A core feature was called “News You Can Use”–an early stab at consumer journalism, focusing on such topics as ugliness and insect stings.”
Knight then quotes a long-serving editor, the late Marvin Stone, who at one point proudly declared, “We are not entertainment.”
That understatement accurately captures the spirit of the magazine that I remember lying like dirty snow in gray, blue and white piles around my grandparents farmhouse in 1970’s Oklahoma. Oklahoma was the natural habitat of U.S. News & World Report, and on the day that I got hired on staff as a green foreign correspondent, my grandmother beamed. For her, a Roosevelt Democrat who watched the McNeil-Lehrer Report each week and considered David Gergen the most outstanding journalist in America, her grandson had truly arrived.
I might as well state the obvious. I’m far from an unbiased reader of this particular memoir.
In fact, I vividly recall the very first time I heard Robin Knight’s voice, a moment that seemed then and remains in hindsight the employment equivalent of a deep sea rescue operation. Back in 1990, having spent every last dime in my bank account and exhausted all available networking opportunities to move myself to Berlin as a freelancer to cover the post-Communist transformation of Eastern Europe, I desperately needed work.
I had been clerking for Howell Raines and Phil Taubman at the New York Times in Washington D.C. when the Berlin Wall fell, and both editors gave me the same advice. If I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, I should pack my things and head for Europe. I did so, somehow convincing my girlfriend to join me in the adventure, but weeks before I landed at Tegel Airport, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and nine months of a seemingly inexhaustible American appetite for Eastern European news evaporated. “You waited too long,” a helpful young editor at the Times informed me.
Work for U.S. News did not seem to be in the cards. I had stopped by the offices in D.C. and been told in no uncertain terms that the magazine already had three stringers in Berlin. I proceeded to get a part-time wire service gig covering soccer for UPI, an opportunity which vanished almost as soon as I got to Germany.
The day after Unification, October 3, 1990, in the wake of a twelve-hour marathon of self-pity, wherein I ate the last of my leberwurst and absorbed hours of European MTV on a mattress on the floor of an illegal sublet, the phone rang, and a cheerful British voice asked me for a 1000-word piece on the state of the East German economy.
That was Robin, and if he hadn’t called, I’m fairly convinced that my girlfriend would never have become my wife. His arrival in my life was a stroke of great fortune in so many ways. He’d given me more than just a paying assignment. As he describes the era of my hire in the memoir, I’d managed to land in the magazine’s “golden interlude of relative calm and adult, focused leadership”. What that meant in practical terms for an aspiring correspondent and budding novelist can’t be overstated.
Thanks to the timing of my arrival, I would be given a chance to write big, challenging, adventurously written pieces about the state of Europe for a publication that immediately before and after this period never would have allowed it.
Here’s how the author generously describes me in the book: “A sensitive soul in love with words…he never found the rough-and-tumble of Zuckerman’s magazine entirely to his liking, but before he moved into the world of television he did a lot of outstanding work.”
That’s too kind by half, but I would add one caveat. The world of television turned out to be far rougher and tumblier than anything I ever experienced in print. I didn’t leave U.S News because I couldn’t take the bouncy ride. I left the magazine because even then I could see the writing on the wall.
The format was dying. By 1999, newsweeklies had little or no future. Now print itself faces the abyss. By a stroke of supreme luck, I was able to participate in the final glorious years of one of the modern world’s great professions.
Journalism will survive in some form or fashion. The Economist continues to preserve the best of the newsweekly tradition. All is not lost. Yet something indispensable to the high calling of journalism has gone missing–call it the simple virtue of trust, between reporter and publisher, reader and reporter, audience and institution, human beings and fact. Robin Knight’s memoir chronicles the vanishing.
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