Journalism, real journalism, is both hard work and high art.
Journalists, real journalists, spend their working days doing the jobs of three people---the reporter, the scholar, and the writer.
As reporters, journalists, real journalists, hit the pavement, work the phones, get out in the world, actually and virtually, and talk to people, all kinds of people, and by talking to them I mean getting them to talk and then listening hard. It's not just a matter of gathering a few good quotes from them either. You have to get them to explain themselves. Many of the people you talk to don't want to do that. Many can't. You've got to prod them, encourage them, and help them. Often to be able to do any of those things you have to know as much or more about them and what they do as they know themselves. (That's part of being a scholar, but I'll get to that.) And while you're talking to them, listening hard to them, you've got to do two conflicting things---keep an open mind and at the same time make judgments about what they're telling you. Objective, almost scientific, judgments. You have to let them have their say and you have compare what they're saying to what other people you've talked to have said, to what they've said in the past, to what you know to be the facts (because you've done the scholarly work of looking things up beforehand), to what's going on around them, to what they've done.
And journalists, real journalists, don't go out into the world just to talk to people. They go out to see how the world is working. They have to collect data. Writers and poets and painters and most other people call this data the details that God is in. Journalists have to see the landscape, they have to see and be able to identify the flowers and weeds dotting the landscape. They have to observe processes and understand how those processes function to the point where they can explain them as well as any expert but in language non-experts can follow (and there's some of the writer's work that has to be done even before sitting down at the keyboard; gathering the details precisely requires finding the right words on the fly), they have to know so they can describe it later, as Hemingway said they had to be able to, how the weather was, the weather being both a metaphorical and a literal fact.
As scholars, journalists, real journalists, have to spend a lot of time gathering the facts they couldn't gather from their work as reporters, either because the people they talked to didn't know them or because they lied or misremembered or plain got things wrong. This means spending a lot of time reading and looking things up. This is the part of the job at which most people who call themselves journalists are weakest.
Now comes the hard part.
This part is too near and dear to my heart for me to get into now. Once I started I wouldn't be able to stop. But it's enough for the moment to say the writing requires more the ability to turn a clever phrase.
I said now comes the hard part, but in fact the writing is being done all along, and the reporting continues throughout, as does the looking things up and reading stuff. It's kind of a holy trinity. Three jobs in one profession.
When it is done well---as it is in all the writings of John McPhee, the "Letters From Europe" Jane Kramer wrote for the New Yorker in the 1980s, the travel books of Jonathan Raban, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, and, the best of the best, J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground---readers can get the sense that things happen in this world just so journalists can write about them.
Obviously, real journalism---and also obviously I'm using the phrase real journalism as if it is interchangeable with great journalism, which is unfair, because journalism doesn't have to be great to be done well, to be real---the best journalism requires lots of time and lots of space and the patience and indulgence of the journalists' editors. Most people who do the work commonly called journalism don't have any of those.
Most people who work as journalists are on deadline. They are given relatively few column inches to fill, allowed very few minutes---seconds!---of airtime. Their editors and producers aren't at all patient or indulgent. Real journalists don't have to please anybody but themselves and their smartest and most savvy readers. Most people who work as journalists have to please their bosses, please advertisers or at least not offend them, and please a wide and not terribly sophisticated audience. A great deal of real journalism is a one-shot deal. The lucky journalists are done with their subjects forever when they've finished their book or article or documentary. But the rest often work beats. They have to keep coming back to the same subjects over and over, and that means coming back to the same sources over and over and that means they have to keep their sources happy or at least mollified enough to not begrudge talking to them again.
To get their jobs done every day they can't worry about all the things real journalists have the luxury of worrying about. They have to let things slide, mainly the writing and the scholarship. They are forced to rely over much on their memories and their sources. They only have time to do some of the necessary reporting and they have to hope they can do that well on the fly. Often the best they can do as reporters is spell the names right, get the limited amount of facts they can gather straight, quote their sources accurately and in context, and write it all up in a coherent and engaging way.
They aren't "real journalists," they are reporters and the smart and honest ones know this and don't mind it. They call themselves reporters with pride, and plenty of them have good reason to be proud. They are excellent reporters.
Journalism, good journalism, is an active, demanding profession. Journalism, good journalism, if it is not art, is craft.
Reporting, good reporting, is an active, demanding job. Reporting, good reporting, if it is not craft, is work. Hard work.
What the two pursuits have in common is that the end of the day both journalists and reporters have accomplished something.
There are very few real journalists covering politics in the Unites States these days, mainly because there's just not the time real journalists need. There are, however, plenty of good reporters. (Sometimes real journalists and good reporters are the same people, going back and forth between the two pursuits, as time allows and need requires.) The trouble is that our National Press Corps is not dominated by the many good reporters. It is dominated by the relatively few celebrity pundits and TV talking heads whose jobs are not to do either journalism or reporting. Their job is analysis, which is a self-flattering term for gassing on about other people's work and accomplishments.
The tone, the agenda, and the rules for covering politics, then, are set and enforced by people who do not actually do anything except talk, and most of what they say, is stuff they've overheard or been fed.
In short, the whole show is being run by parasites.
The ones who do work as real reporters sometimes owe their fame and their large paychecks not to their own hard work as reporters but at their skill at mimicking the other parasites.
A nicer way of putting this, and it's not all that nice, is that the job of being a celebrity pundit is not a particularly active one.
On top of this, most of the celebrity pundits, whether they admit it or not, are in one way or another in the pay of the Right Wing corporate interests that have been running the country for the last thirty years and their job is to further their paymasters' agenda, the top item on the list being to make sure that no Democrat ever gets elected President of the United States.
What a life's work, to be a parasite, a shill, a tool, a flunky, and a suck-up all day, every day.
It's no wonder so many of them loathe and despise themselves.
That self-hatred reveals itself in their crazed obsession with the "manliness" and "femininity" of the politicians they cover.
Back in my undergraduate days, it was axiomatic that Hemingway's macho posturing---all the brawling and the drinking and the whoring around, the gynophobic and misogynistic themes in his writing, the castration anxieties, the restless pursuit of "manly" adventures---was his way of compensating for a fear that being a writer was a weak and feminine vocation. That's easy Freudian claptrap. We know that Hemingway was proud of being an artist, that he worked hard at his writing, at least for the first twenty years of his career, and that he saw what he did as, if not "manly", active and demanding with results that an adult could take pride in. If he had "issues," they were with his very strange mother who dressed him and treated him like a little girl until he was ready for school and who, he believed, drove his beloved father to suicide and was perhaps out to drive her son to it too---she sent him the gun his father used to kill himself as a present.
But the idea that someone like Hemingway, with very traditional and stereotyped notions of masculinity and manhood and yet engaged in work that by his own lights is soft, unmanly, effeminate, might be constantly questioning his own masculinity and then, when finding that he did not, ahem, measure up, compensate by acting out in overly aggressive and stereotyped macho posturing is a sound one and what appear to be textbook cases keep appearing in the op-ed pages and on the Sunday bobblehead gabfests.
Licensed to say or write whatever pops into their heads as long as it furthers their mission of destroying all Democratic Presidential contenders, the celebrity pundits routinely reach into the darkest corners of their own subconscious minds and pull out, in classic cases of projection, their own insecurities, self-doubts, self-hatreds, and instances of sexual panic and confusion, to hurl at the Democrats.
See digby for the latest here.
While Hemingway acted out by chasing marlins, shooting wildebeasts, getting into fistfights with literary rivals, taking pretty women to bed, and drinking first Key West and then Cuba dry, these celebrity pundits compensate vicariously, by being "manly" or "womanly" second-hand, overly identifying with John McCain's wartime heroism, imagining themselves as better bowlers than Barack Obama and keeping their uppity, saphically-inclined wives in line or their philandering husbands faithful with their own sexual prowess and irresistibility.
And don't think I didn't intend the gender confusions in that paragraph.
Having to make themselves feel manly or womanly by proxy must only increase their suspicions about themselves and cause greater confusion and panic within.
The sad fact is that what these people are feeling is not so much gender confusion but a lack of a sense of adult accomplishment. The cure for them is real work, the work they were trained to do.
They can't all turn themselves into great journalists, but they can do the jobs of good reporters.
That would mean telling their corporate paymasters to go to hell, and I wouldn't hold my breath expecting to see that happen any time soon.