To my mind, the big problem with American journalism is not so much that it is snarky, or that opinions have crept into news stories, or that it is more often about attitude and showing off than about facts – though all of that strikes me as plainly true. Rather, it is that journalism – especially the journalism practiced by political print reporters, which is the concern of this magazine – has lost its way. Once, these were the people through whom politicians made their cases to the nation; now, thanks to Larry King et al., they have been stripped of that role, and they simply don’t know what to do anymore.
So they practice “gotcha” journalism. The cover process rather than policy. They get caught up in spin, and who’s-doing-what-to-whom and all the rest of it. It’s a kind of journalism of nihilism – for it doesn’t really believe in anything except itself. Journalism has become, to an astonishing degree, self-referential, like a tribe cut off from the rest of the world. When Maureen Dowd, the current queen of the tribe, and others of her ilk sneer at those who would like to see a journalism that actually cares about things the country cares about, that’s when their cards are most on the table. The notion has become practically incomprehensible. Note, also, by the way, how the only people she ever quotes in her Ain’t-I-One-Smart-Cookie op-ed columns are her fellow journalists.
The late Theodore White gets blamed a lot for starting us down this path. He, of course, was the first political writer to add detail and color to political reporting – to make process come alive. And it is certainly true that other reporters picked up his techniques – and then drove them into the ground through sheer overkill. But what has long been forgotten is that White had a tremendous – and completely unembarrassed – passion for the country, for its people and its problems, its strengths and weaknesses. And he was never afraid to display that passion in his books. He would, for instance, regularly include lengthy chapters interpreting the latest census data in his Making of the President series, as well as chapters that had nothing to do with process and everything to do with the problems facing the country. The craft it took in writing those chapters was astonishing, for this was material that was difficult to bring to life. But it was important, and he cared, so he made the effort. When the day comes that Maureen Dowd can bring herself to leave Monica and Bill behind and writes a column about the census, you’ll know that political journalism has begun to find its way again. Me, I’m not holding my breath.