Gay Talese is an American journalist and a nonfiction writer. He wrote for The New York Times in the 1960s after working for its copy and obituary sections. In the 1950s, he was one of the first writers to add minute details, use literary flairs, and begin articles in medias res. These techniques became the foundation of the revolutionary “New Journalism.”
He has written many non-fiction books, beginning with 1964’s The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His 2006 autobiography A Writer’s Life focuses on his trials and failures as a writer, such as having a profile piece rejected by The New Yorker, which ironically reviewed the book positively and said it had a “distinctly moving” quality.
Gay Talese was recently named the winner of a George Polk Award for career achievement. The awards, presented by Long Island University, are considered among the top prizes in U.S. journalism. Born in 1932, Talese graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in journalism.
Gay Talese: I mean here we are in 2008 and the war in Iraq is still going on and that’s like the big story of the last five years, the big bad story. What do journalists do? Nothing. They became embedded. That’s a further explanation of what I talked about being linear and being goal-oriented and being sucked into a narrow space, a personnel carrier or a tank. When Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld invited the press in and the great Washington Press Corps, the great newspapers of our country let reporters travel with troops and what did that do? That made the press like a mascot to the military. They were traveling with the American military and what do you think they were getting? They didn’t get anything. They got maybe propaganda purposes for Rumsfeld and others, Condoleezza Rice and Wolfowitz and all those people that were promoting the war. The journalists became sucked into that war. There was no great David Halberstam or the others who in Vietnam were confronting the government, challenging the President. Nobody challenged President Bush. Nobody challenged any of these people in charge since the war began and the invasion began in 2003. It was really awful. So you say what did they get? Well, they certainly didn’t do any great work. They should have, you know, alerted the American public, they should have been critical of the government, they should have been extremely skeptical at least. Oh, we have to worry about being patriotic. Journalists shouldn’t be patriotic. They go to jail, that’s fine. Let me go to jail, but tell the truth and don’t report what’s not the truth and don’t listen to the flax in Washington. You know, as I speak to you now, I’ll probably be old before we get to the audience, but there’s a guy that used to be President Bush’s PR man, his spokesperson and press attaché and now he’s disavowing his connection but he was another merchandiser of mythology out of the White House. A lot of people jumping ship now of course and selling books as well, but the journalists were very lacking in great courage ‘cause they got sucked into that war and- well, enough of that. What else? Well, I can’t think of- I think newspapers are well written because the journalists today are very well educated, but that doesn’t mean they have a particular point of view or a vantage point or a way of seeing the world or a way of writing. The writing, because they’re educated, is filled with language that is the language of the campus, of the well educated. I think we become as a society very class centered because those who are educated and use the laptop are very much in a kind of a world of more privileged people. But the journalists when I was a young man in the 1950s and ‘60s, we were more of the underclass. There were people like me from the Italians and there were people- there were Jewish, a lot of Jewish people and some Irish. And we were the grandchildren or the children of newcomers and we had a sense, we as journalists, of being on the outside looking in, looking in at power or looking in at privilege or looking in at something that was different from what we thought we were and what we probably really were ‘cause we were probably the first in our family to get a college education. And not many of us went to elite schools either.
This is in the ‘50s and ‘60s I’m talking about. And so we did have a sense of being newcomers to America and being very- with a sense of wonderment and curiosity and a sense of not being a member. You see the journalists of today who are 25, 35 years old or a little older, probably went to Harvard, Yale, you know, or the better- Princeton and like schools, Stanford and in New York or in Washington probably belong to the same clubs as the people they’re writing about. In my day, we journalists weren’t- we weren’t that socially acceptable. I’m not saying that we were unacceptable; I mean we were just outsiders and reveled in it to a degree. We really reveled in it. And we had a sense of a skepticism, which I know I’m repeating myself, but what an absence of skepticism of these journalists of the 21st century I mean ‘cause they all- they go to Washington. There must be six, seven thousand journalists in Washington. They all know everyone else, they go to the Washington Press Club and they hang around with members of government and they all want to be on Air Force One and they want access. Who wants access to these lies? I mean the sources, I mean they cover up all the sources. I mean I am not at all unaware of the First Amendment. I am an absolutist on the First Amendment. But I also believe that the American public deserves to have those who are being quoted identified. And I don’t believe in most cases those people who are allowed to be anonymous should be allowed to be anonymous in print or on television. But that’s the rantings of a senior citizen I’m afraid, but that’s the way I feel.
Question: Are journalists lazy?
Gay Talese: I didn’t say lazy, but I mean I’m not gonna quarrel with it. They’re not lazy, they got conditioned into it. They became embedded. You understand? Not lazy. I mean I don’t think they know any better. It’s not that they willfully are not making that extra step, but they grew up with the technology beginning with the tape recorder-- this goes back 40 years-- and now with this whole technology where it’s easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It’s easy to go- well, you can write stories and you get it and people, the bloggers they’re all making it up and there’s no fundamental first source that is so authoritative that it holds up. There’s not this great sense of inquiry or demand to know or I want to see it before I believe it, that idea of looking in the faces of the people, not getting it third and fourth hand or getting it from the internet. I mean that is a kind of a recycling of triviality and meaninglessness and too often misinformation.