The Digital Journalist
New Journalism:
The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

by Ron Steinman

May 2006

Are you tired of hearing about James Frey and his failures as an artist and author? I am. Because his book continues to sell, I feel certain Frey is laughing all the way to the bank. If what he wrote is so inaccurate, why do people keep reading him? I think the answer is that it reads more like fiction than the fact it purports to be.

Do not blame James Frey for what he did and how he wrote his so-called memoir. Instead, look to Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Michael Herr, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and all the writers in the 1960s and 1970s who changed the face of journalism forever.

In his new book, The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, author Marc Weingarten tells us in loving detail in an anecdote-filled story how a group of diverse writers changed the face of modern journalism. Do read this entertaining book, but with care and, possibly, like I did, you might lament. However, I exclude several of his heroes such as Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin and John Sack -- good storytellers all, but I do not brand them as new journalists.

Marc Weingarten's reporting and writing is often colorful. The stories, many of which have been around for years, are wonderful and, I assume, accurate. The book describes the way journalism has changed from who, what, where, when and why to Tom Wolfe's "jazzy prose," a style copied by many though never as well as the original.

Tired of what writers in post-World War II considered the dull, at times rat-tat-tat of daily reporting, some writers and editors in the second half of the 20th century broke open the usual Dragnet-way of writing into styles deeply infused with a personal ethic that at times seemed to have little to do with the facts. Editors such as Clay Felker at New York magazine, and Harold Hayes at Esquire, as well as others at Ramparts, Rolling Stone and Scanlan's, to name but a few, helped make sweeping changes in the way these magazines treated their writers. These editors allowed writers and reporters to roam freely on the open range of their imaginations.

Thus was born new journalism, or creative non-fiction, considered by some the bane of modern journalism. Reading those writers makes me wonder about their reporting, and how much of their often-fertile imaginations influenced the final words on the page. Reading these writers from yesterday and those who follow them today I wonder, where is the journalism?

Marc Weingarten's book is the story of how the new journalism began, when writers started using the means and methods of fiction to enhance their storytelling to create what we now call narrative non-fiction. He makes it seem there was no so-called creative journalism before the age of new journalism. What nonsense.

Consider the work of William Howard Russell, Richard Harding Davis, A.J. Liebling, John Hersey, Joseph Mitchell, William Laurence, Red Smith, Bob Considine, Meyer Berger, Lillian Ross, Ernest Hemingway, Ernie Pyle, Martha Gellhorn, Thucydides, and a legion of other writers who told compelling stories imaginatively. But the difference is they did so without ever veering off the reservation of accuracy. These writers are familiar to journalists, editors, and readers. If they are not, they should be. After all, without calling themselves new journalists, they knew how to tell a story with, in the end, reliable facts and a strong sense of place. They took us where we never expected to be, and they did so without conflating the facts or making composites of their characters. Then, as now, that is no small achievement.

For good or evil, this method of new journalism is with us everywhere today, especially in academia where courses in narrative non-fiction rule J-schools and English departments in many colleges and universities. Creative non-fiction, new journalism, is usually entertaining. It is often very clever. But where is its truth? Similar to re-enactments in many documentary films, can we believe the verisimilitude portrayed on the screen and in the written word? That is my problem. What is true? What is false? What is made up to tease the reader? In journalism there can and should be no middle ground.

The proliferation of college courses is dangerous to the craft. Those academics who preach the virtues of new journalism want their students to apply the techniques of fiction to fact-based stories. In other words, juice up the usual dull approach to typical or everyday events with technique rather than timeless, old-fashioned storytelling, itself not a bad way to work. Creative non-fiction has become more important than accuracy. It is often the easiest kind to write.

As working journalists, and particularly for those still in school, there is a lesson in this book that we must take seriously. Not many of us can be Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese or Truman Capote. Wolfe makes it clear in much that he wrote that his facts had to be unimpeachable. In Wolfe’s case, though a careful and apparently accurate reporter, his technique often ruled and overpowered his text. His remarkable style at times overwhelmed his reporting. Many tried for years, and some still try to copy what Tom Wolfe did and how he did it, but a copy is never as good as the original. Maybe even for Wolfe it is the reason he now mostly concentrates on fiction. There his only muse is his imagination, and not the way he played with words as he did so well for many years as the journalist he was.

Caught up in its own hype, new journalism often shot itself in the foot with over-the-top writing, and the way it arranged the facts to fit emotional conclusions. It still does. Writers too often massage facts and create composite characters to better demonstrate their argument. It really takes little talent to rearrange time, place, statistics, sources and action to make a better story. Should we believe some writers when we see direct quotes that, when reading the story, we realize were impossible to come by? It seems we regularly see writers and reporters fired for lying, especially in print, to further their own careers, starting in 1980 with Janet Cooke, and then moving on to Jayson Blair, Ruth Shalit, Stephen Glass, Jack Kelly and others, wherever we turn, and in seemingly increasing numbers today.

Only late in his book does Marc Weingarten discuss the decline of new journalism and the many problems it created. For me, his critique comes too late. He should have been less gee-whiz and more critical throughout the book. Too much damage has been done to the craft of reporting with years of avoiding time-honored practices of old journalism. Perhaps it is better to bury the concept and get back to good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed reporting and leave much of new journalism to the world of fiction where it belongs.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.