Why We Need to Break Up the Washington Press Corps
Journalists were once outsiders looking in, says Gay Talese, but today their proximity to Washington makes them myopic; they'd be wiser to disperse and keep their eyes on the horizon.
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.
His groundbreaking article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" was named the "best story Esquire ever published," and he was credited by Tom Wolfe with the creation of an inventive form of nonfiction writing called "The 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 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. His latest book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.
Gay Talese: It was alleged that the newspapers were not aware the large percentage of the population of American citizens were unhappy with the ruling establishment, did not feel their voices were being heard and they voted against what everybody thought was the leading candidate and instead voted for this rank outsider, a very unpredictable and generally unpopular person, this businessman, this egotist, this rakish character named Donald Trump.
I thought what was missing from the newspapers, and I think more than that from Americans in general who watch television, who read books, who teach in universities, who are among the educated classes, which almost includes everybody these days. The reason I say that, in my lifetime born in 1932 and becoming a journalist in the 1950s and at the time I became a journalist in the 1950s we journalists, whether we worked for the New York Times or the Philadelphian Inquirer or the Chicago Tribune were generally the first of our family to have gone to college. And when I say college I do not mean Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, I mean Brooklyn College or in my case the University of Alabama. We were not going to the elite colleges, if we went to college at all we were considered scholars in our family. But what we were, not true today, but what we in the mid 20th century America we were outsiders. We journalists were of the outsider class whether we were Italian heritage as me or Jewish or African-American or Spanish, whatever.
And we did have courage because most of us had come from parents or grandparents who had first-hand knowledge of persecution in foreign countries and who came to this country on the run and brought with them the spirit of unfairness. And we as the inheritors of their spirit in journalism we were the children of those people, we brought not cynicism but skepticism of power. And it was never our ambition to be part of power because we were chroniclers of power, we were critics of power, we were viewers of power, we were outsiders. Well those days are long, long, long gone. What we have now, 50 years beyond what I'm talking about, is a group of journalists who go to the same elite schools as the most privileged people of power.
Obama was a college professor, a Harvard man and he was teaching while president for the two terms essentially teaching class to the higher classes, including the journalism of his time. Now you have this rank foul-mouthed, God with his awful blonde hair becoming elected and then people in journalism oh god it's so embarrassing. It's like they were so stunned it's like having their world is shattered. Why are you so shattered? Why are you so stupid? Don't you realize that you journalists are so blind? You don't know as journalists anything except being educated from the time you're privileged little kids. I mean even the poor people, black people, Hispanic still want to be like the privileged white people.
And what I'm getting at in a long-winded way is that we journalist have failed. We're a failed profession. The pride that my generation took being strong as a force against the powers of prerogative, the powers of privilege doesn't exist anymore. It doesn't exist anymore. The journalists now want to be part of a power game. They want to get on Air Force One. They want to join Trump at 21. They want to have dinner at 21 with him. They want to be clustered in Washington, which is the most decadent city. It's the most evil empire.
If I were running Washington, boy do I sometimes have grandiose ideas in the middle of the night if I was running Washington. I would get half of those reporters out of Washington, break up the Washington press corps, send them all over to the state capitals. We have 50 states; put two reporters in every state instead of covering Congress or the cabinet or whatever, let the people who are from these states report the mood of the states, report the feelings, the findings, the personalities that are in parts of America that are not in the mainstream in the mainline.
And we tell our story not from the powerbrokers that are clustered in Washington those privileged power and generally rich people, but we tell something about the results of law, the results of privilege, the results of ignorance, the results of bad decisions and war, we'd cover injured soldiers, we'd cover the life of farmers, we'd cover a grease mechanic a guy some redneck sheriff somewhere. And if we knew the America that way we would not be surprised by such an election as we had in the aftermath of Obama's eight years.
Journalists today don’t report like they used to, and they sure as hell don’t dress like they used to either. Gay Talese, a defining figure in literary journalism, here reconstructs the mentality of journalists in the 1950s, when his career began. Compared to now? It’s no wonder the media was shocked by the election results, Talese says. Today’s journalists are glued to Washington D.C, under the influence of the same potion that has seen the rise of celebrity: power, luxury, elitism. Talese suggests the Washington press corps disperse out to the 50 states and report on the end result of policies – how it affects people on the coast and the heartland – as much as they report on the formation of those policies the nation’s capital. Perhaps with an ear to the ground, the next election won’t take everyone for such a ride. Gay Talese's most recent book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.
Bill Nye's most recent book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.
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