February 15, 2003


Scotty: All the news that's fit to schmooze: a review of Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism by John F. Stacks (Andrew Ferguson, 02/24/2003, Weekly Standard)
JOURNALISM is a character defect. I think most non-journalists would agree with this. It is life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement. Every journalist must know that this is not, really, how a serious-minded person would choose to spend his days. Serious-minded people do things; a journalist chatters about the things serious-minded people do, and so, not coincidentally, avoids having to do them himself. A significant body of research indicates that non-journalists find us insufferable, perhaps for this reason.

Every so often, however, the itch to join the parade proves irresistible, and where that happens you are apt to find a career like that of James B. Reston. More commonly known by his childhood nickname "Scotty," Reston was the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times and for forty years its marquee columnist. He is nearly forgotten today, though he died not so long ago, in 1995, at the age of eighty-six. It seems only journalists remember him, and not many of them. One of these is John F. Stacks, a former reporter for Time magazine who spent ten years researching and writing Reston's biography, published as
"Scotty: James B. Reston and the Rise and Fall of American Journalism." [...]

The keys to success he possessed as a natural gift. He wrote well. He had unqualified confidence in his own opinions, no matter how ignorant he was of the subject, and he wore his omniscience casually, like a rumpled Burberry. He knew how to charm sources and impress them with his discretion. Just as important, he could oscillate gracefully between abject sycophancy and Olympian condescension. Churchill's description of the German national character--they are "either at your feet or at your throat"--exaggerates the Reston style, but only slightly. He was generous to those, like his clerks, who were so far below him on the ladder as to pose no challenge. To those holding on for dear life a rung or two above, he was friendly but cunning; and to the Ochs and Sulzberger families, who owned the Times and controlled the ladder, he was boundlessly solicitous. [...]

The recent canons of the trade, such as they are, require a contemporary reporter to be shocked at this chumminess between hack and source. Stacks's view is less righteously indignant, and more ambivalent--and in the end, sorry to say, incoherent. He seems relatively undisturbed that Reston served as stenographer to Vandenberg, Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and other figures of the dimming past; then he erupts in disgust when, at the end of his career, Reston shared the same relationship with figures of more recent memory--Henry Kissinger, for example. What accounts for Stacks's shifting judgment isn't clear. Incoherence is a common hazard for journalists who dabble in ethical judgments.

IN THE END, of course, Reston's intimate involvement in the affairs he covered isn't hard to explain. He wasn't comfortable with the pose of the contemporary journalist, standing off to one side, watching the parade as it passes. He wanted to join in. "There was, at the heart of Reston's style of journalism, a sense of common purpose with the government and political leaders," Stacks writes. "The press and the government . . . were seen by Reston as collaborators in one enterprise, the preservation of the United States of America."

Reston began his career at the Times the day Germany crossed into Poland. He wrote his last column the year the Berlin Wall came down. His style of journalism was an artifact of the Cold War. When he let Kennedy use his column to send signals to Nikita Khrushchev, or lent his skill to Vandenberg to reinforce the anti-Soviet consensus in American diplomacy, he wasn't acting as a reporter but as a patriot. This urge may be a dereliction of duty in the journalist, but it is a sign of decency in the man. That the two impulses in journalism should so often be at odds--duty versus decency--tells us more about the trade than most of us care to know.

In a universe that includes such folk as Christopher Buckley, P.J. O'Rourke, James Lileks, Mugger, and numerous others, it's no small feat to be the most deft humorist of the Right, but Andrew Ferguson is just that, as the savage wit of this review demonstrates. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2003 12:21 PM

Orin, you should note Ferguson's brilliant Time essay from several years back, when he absolutely laid waste to the entire edifice of jornalistic arrogance in 836 words. A sample line: "Undergraduate journalism schools, for example, take four years to teach a skill--writing a news story--that most people, even undergraduates, can learn in a week; this perpetuates the fiction that journalism is a profession like lawyering rather than a trade like plumbing. "

It's been moved over to Time's paid archive, or I'd post a link... but even at that, it's well worth the cost.

Posted by: Will Collier at February 15, 2003 3:11 PM

There's journalism and then there's newspapering.

I do the latter and never went to journalism school.

My goal is to put wrongdoers in jail, and I do it.

So poo to Mr. F.

Posted by: Harry at February 15, 2003 5:18 PM