Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In praise of American journalism

American journalism, still a model

By Gideon Rachman

Rupert Murdoch’s arrival at The Wall Street Journal is being greeted by American journalists with roughly the level of enthusiasm with which the Romans greeted Alaric the Visigoth. The Atlantic Monthly proclaims that the day the elderly tycoon took over the Journal was “a date that will live in infamy for a certain generation of American newsmen”.

The Atlantic frets that the Murdoch model will sacrifice “responsible, serious journalism” and damage public life in the process. Mr Murdoch’s defenders regard this as self-important tosh.

Of course, the reactions of anybody watching events at The Wall Street Journal from the Financial Times are bound to be a little complicated. But my first instincts were sympathetic to Mr Murdoch. A lot of American newspaper journalism strikes me as self-reverential, long-winded, over-edited and stuffy.

My first encounter with the very different culture of US journalism came when I was working as a freelance in Washington about 20 years ago. Every now and then, I would wander into the Chicago Tribune offices next door – but I could see that something about me was upsetting their bureau chief. Eventually, he approached and said: “Would you mind wearing a tie when you come into the bureau?”

American journalists, I realised, regard themselves as members of a respectable profession – like lawyers or bankers. Their British counterparts generally prefer the idea that they are outsiders. They like to quote the adage of the late Nicholas Tomalin that: “The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.”

The British sometimes argue that because American journalists have joined the establishment they are easily duped by “senior sources”. The US press’s supine role in the run-up to the Iraq war is cited as evidence.

Maybe so. On the other hand, it was painstaking and daring American journalism that uncovered the Watergate scandal.

Certainly, after a while in Washington I began to develop a grudging respect for my neighbours at the Tribune. I admired the fact that their investigative team would work for months on a single article. On the British paper I then worked for, an “investigation” was something we started on Tuesday and published on Sunday. I was also sure that when American papers used the phrase “sources say”, there really were some sources. I was not always so confident when that phrase appeared in my own newspaper.

Later in my career, I found myself defending a British colleague in Thailand – who was being roundly criticised by some Americans for using quotes from the Bangkok Post, without attribution. I coldly informed my American colleagues that they were box-tickers, making a fuss about nothing. When the Americans left, my British colleague thanked me and then added casually: “Mind you, you might have struggled to find those quotes in the Bangkok Post.” He had made them up.

This kind of thing has brought British journalism into disrepute in the US. Jonathan Foreman writes in Standpoint magazine that when he worked for an American paper, he discovered that “it was official policy not to trust any item in any British paper except the FT”.

Of course, the cultural divide is not absolute. My British colleague in Bangkok was not averse to making up a generic “man in the street” quote. But he was also a courageous journalist, who risked his neck reporting from Iraq.

And American journalism has also had its scandals – such as the case of Stephen Glass, who was fired from The New Republic for a series of fictitious articles. My theory is that when US journalists find that they can get away with fabrication, the discovery is so destabilising that they go crazy and make up entire stories – rather than the occasional quote.

But, in general, the British-American distinction holds. The Americans are stuffier and more cautious. But they are also more careful and take the idea of journalism as a civic duty much more seriously. Much as it pains me to say this, I fear the Americans are closer to being right than the British.

Accurate and timely journalism is crucial to public life. Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations commander during the Rwandan genocide, discovered that “a reporter with a line to the west was worth a battalion on the ground”.

It is the frontline reporters who ferret out the facts that matter most. But the editors and commentators who shape them into received opinion are also critical to democratic debate.

Yet British journalists are often curiously unwilling to acknowledge their power. A recent Reuters Institute report on the “Power of the Commentariat” is in no doubt that opinion writers shape politics. But the authors, John Lloyd of this newspaper and Julia Hobsbawm, note that: “No commentator to whom we spoke said s/he was powerful. It doesn’t figure on the permissible responses of British commentators.”

This denial of influence has both an attractive and a slightly sinister side. Self-deprecation is a noble British tradition. And journalists who do not take themselves too seriously are less likely to write pompous articles.

But the British commentators’ reluctance to accept that their scribblings matter also reflects a refusal to accept responsibility. In the end, those American journalists who insist on the civic importance of good journalism are correct. What we write does matter – even if it is sometimes easier to pretend that it doesn’t.

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