Sunday, March 12, 2006

Shooting Straight About New Journalism

A caution: The average reader isn’t going to be as thrilled with this book as I am. I’m a little over the top on the subject matter—journalism. It’s an abiding passion. So please, run that through your critical filter before rushing out to buy Marc Weingarten’s The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight.

That said, I loved this book. Plowed through it like it was a work of fiction. Speaking of works of fiction, maybe this should be the test for prospective readers, if you don’t instantly know the title is a derivation of a Jimmy Breslin novel—The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight—put the book down and back away.

Weingarten’s book is a brief, and by no means comprehensive history, of Breslin and other practitioners of the so-called “New Journalism.” Tom Wolfe. Hunter S. Thompson. Joan Didion. Michael Herr.

In the early 70s, as a journalism student, these writers were an inspiration to me. They were re-writing, literally, the norms of journalism even as they skewered societal norms and it seemed so right, so fun and so important.

I was too much the adherent of hard news to ever be a “new” journalist. My standards were shaped by juco instructor Bill Bidwell—a twitchy, chain-smoking ex-newspaperman. Bidwell taught to me get it right. Be objective. Never omit the attribution to a quote. Spell names correctly and always, always, always confirm a scoop with at least three sources.

Bidwell’s training did not stop me from being influenced by Thompson and company. In 1973, Wolfe and E.W. Johnson issued an anthology/text book on the new journalism. It’s still on my shelves.

As Weingarten notes the New Journalism wasn’t exactly new. This kind of participatory journalism has been around a while. It’s just that this particular variant involved so many writers, appeared in so many high-profile publications and came along at a time of great social upheaval and change.

“New Journalism as Wolfe envisioned it—as the great literary movement of the postwar era—died a long time ago, but its influence is everywhere. Once a rear-guard rebellion, its tenets are so accepted now that they’ve become virtually invisible. The art of narrative storytelling is alive and well; it’s just more diffuse now, spread out across books, magazines, newspapers, and the Web,” writes Weingarten in the book’s epilogue.

The book is best early as we’re introduced to Wolfe, Didion, Herr and Thompson. It’s not perfect, there are a few curious omissions. In recounting how Rolling Stone (the magazine, not the band) dispatched Thompson and Timothy Crouse to cover the 1972 election, Weingarten neglects to mention Crouse’s superb book, The Boys on the Bus. Published in 1973, it was a scathing and brilliant insiders account of the media, who covered the ’72 Presidential race.

Weingarten’s final chapter on Rupert Murdoch’s seizure of New York magazine from Clay Felker is over long and doesn’t fit comfortably within the book’s overall theme. It does serve as an unfortunate introduction to the sad state of affairs that is magazine journalism today.

Still, it’s a good read and a good work. Personally, I can’t imagine anyone not finding this stuff riveting.

Everyone: “Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia . . . “

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