Why can't we produce more greats like these?

EVERY SO
OFTEN a frisson of smugness crosses British newsrooms. From America
will come the unmasking of some hapless young reporter who has been
caught making it up. “So much for factchecking, eh?”, goes the smirking
refrain here, as we examine yet another dent in the expensive bodywork
of US reporting – a business that, to our tastes, takes itself far too
seriously. Cheeky Brit hacks 1, New York Times 0.

But the Make-It-Up Cup is not the only contest.

There
is also the the Best Reporters League; and in this, a rather different
scoreline obtains. My new book, The Great Reporters – intended to
celebrate the remarkable work and adventurous lives of the best-ever
reporters – profiles 13 greats. Of these, nine are American, and only
four are British – an imbalance which, I think, says uncomfortable
things about our journalism.

First, my selections. From here,
William Russell of the Crimea, James Cameron, Ann Leslie and Hugh
McIlvanney. From there: Nellie Bly, who feigned madness to get herself
locked in an asylum so she could expose it; Richard Harding Davis, the
war correspondent whose descriptive writing is still deservedly
anthologised a century later; Floyd Gibbons, who once booked himself
onto a ship likely to be sunk by Germans so he could report its
torpedoeing; A.J.Liebling, writer of some of the best features ever
printed; J.A.MacGahan, whose exposé of Balkan atrocities changed the
map of Europe and is the single greatest piece of reporting ever; Edna
Buchanan, the Miami Herald crime correspondent who wrote intros like:
“Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin…”; Ernie Pyle,
legendary chronicler of G.I. Joe; George Seldes, investigative
reporter, who single-handedly took on the tobacco industry; and Meyer
Berger of the New York Times, who, to cover a multiple shooting,
interviewed 50 people and then returned to the office and wrote a
Pulitzer Prize-winning story of 4,000 words in two and a half hours –
not a word of which was changed.

Why so many Yanks? Well, they
seem to value reporting rather more than we do. There is, for a start,
an astonishing ignorance here of journalistic history. Before the book
came out, colleagues would ask: “Who’s in it?”. When I told them, they
would then need virtually every name explained. “Er, Liebling? Ernie
Who? Floyd What? Richard Harding How Much?” And it’s not really
surprising. Our journalistic heritage is neither celebrated, nor even
really maintained. If it was bricks and mortar it would have fallen
down long ago. No journalism course in this country pays much – or even
any – attention to the best there’s ever been, an omission whose
absurdity is apparent if one contemplates, say, a fiction-writing
course doing the same, or a class in symphonic composition conducted by
someone who thinks Beethoven is a film about a dog.

America, as
shown by even the briefest glance at how much better journalism is
taught there, does things differently. And not only does it have a keen
sense of learning from the greats, but journalism education there also
means equipping reporters to compete in the information ‘arms race’
with officialdom. In the UK, we teach a rather shop-soiled series of
craft ‘secrets’ and seem reluctant to admit the last 40 years have
happened. In the US, meanwhile, j-students get to grips with the
mechanics of computer-assisted reporting (how to construct and use
databases and spread-sheets); and they are formally taught
investigative reporting, in particular where to get official data, how
to use it, what you are entitled to, etc. The result is rather a lot of
investigative reporting there, and a conspicuous lack of it here. At
the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Amsterdam
there were 450 delegates. Just 10 were from the UK.

The Danes managed to send 30.

The
contrast is apparent in other areas. America has the Pulitzer Prizes;
we have an annual, drunken celebration of Groucho Club culture. And
therein, perhaps, lies something deeper. For what our trade often
honours is not investigations, but stunts or the signing of cheques;
and what it values (as opposed to says it values) is not reporting, but
editing and commentating. If you want status and salary here, you don’t
remain in reporting – you aspire to edit or have a column. Is there a
reporter in the country who earns even a quarter of Richard
Littlejohn’s booty? Not one that I’m aware of. Yet what is rarer: a
talent for great reporting, or the guile to write like a taxi driver
with an expense account? And are there any reporters who have the
salary and profile of the wittering me-columnist, hired because she so
captivated the editor at a party the other night? No.

And so the
moral of this slips down the editorial food chain: if you want to get
on, get an opinion, any opinion, rather than information. And if you
really want to get on, go to parties, circulate, network, be a
character. But don’t report.

Very few editors put serious
resources into reporting these days. Instead, they cut back on staffing
and budgets, and reach for the easy options of lifestyle and celebrity.
It is, after all, a lot cheaper than conducting investigations. If
editors do have spare cash, they spend it on columnists. Where once
nationals had one or two, now they have far more than there are
sensible – or remotely interesting – opinions to go round. We seem to
have forgotten that until the reporter reports, the editor has nothing
to edit and the columnist nothing to comment upon.

American
journalism is not perfect. It can be pompous, too uncompetitive, and
too prone (renegades such as Sy Hersh apart) to fall for flagwaving.

But
its reporting has (the Jayson Blairs apart) precision and technological
nous. It is informed by the best of the past, its young reporters are
encouraged to write adventurously (as opposed to smotheringly conform
to a sub-tabloid conveyor-belt style), and, crucially, newspapers give
reporters elbow-room. Their stories have length, the thing you need to
report and write beyond the superficial and conventional. No wonder
they produce more than their fair share of greats.

David Randall
is assistant editor of the Independent on Sunday. His book, The Great
Reporters, is published by Pluto Press at £14.95
(www.greatreporters.co.uk)

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