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Small Victories: Real Journalism

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Letters to a Young Journalist

I haven’t read all the titles in Basic Books’ “The Art of Mentoring” series—there are also Letters to a Young Contrarian, Letters to a Young Artist, and Letters to a Young Mathematician, to name a few—but I doubt there is a single volume among them that so unabashedly urges its protégé readers to think of themselves as moral crusaders. The days when the public thought of journalists as crucial and brave passed us by some time ago. The tide will turn one day, but to have words like truth, justice, integrity, idealism, dignity, and empathy pop up now in a book about journalism is bracing, comforting—and odd. The author doesn’t use those words ironically: Anyone “who doesn’t enter journalism believing it is a moral enterprise might as well move straight on to speculating in foreign currency or manufacturing Agent Orange,” he writes.

Samuel G. Freedman has a reputation as a demanding but revered professor of journalism at Columbia University. An education columnist at the New York Times, he is the author of six books, including last year’s Who She Was, a son’s moving and painstakingly reported biography of his mother, and Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School, one of the hallmarks of immersion journalism that reveals why a beleaguered teacher returns to teach every year despite the educational system’s prejudices against her poor, minority students. At a time when many journalists are understandably nervous about declining readership, the growing attention paid to unedited bloggers, and the Bush administration’s skill at putting the press on extended public trial, the task of shoring up the young troops runs the risk of seeming quaint.

Freedman is aware that few, if any, journalists would recognize the field as he sketches it in Letters to a Young Journalist, but it is the work of a mentor—and the pleasure of someone who loves journalism as much as Freedman does—to prescribe its lofty tenets. “As a reporter, you will be tacking…between the shores of truth and justice, trying to hold your direction true north,” he writes.

Freedman wants his readers “to celebrate moments of human achievement and unearth evidence of human venality,” but how often does the world offer up clear proof of either? “What we sell is something good and precious, the most incisive and artful rendering of human events that we can produce,” he asserts, but when readership (and viewership) are steadily declining, how long can you persist in feeling proud of something people ignore?

Three-quarters of the way through the book, Freedman acknowledges that the world he has portrayed in Letters to a Young Journalist is imaginary. “It is a world without resumes, rejection letters, boring assignments, newsroom budget cuts, backbiting colleagues, and tyrannical editors,” he writes. “It is a world that does not exist.”

But it is an alluring and intermittently attainable vision. There is the chilling and courageous prospect that “your friendships and family bonds may be strained or even broken” just for being a good journalist. As an example, Freedman uses the late New York Times editor and reporter Jeff Schmaltz, who was living with AIDS as he covered the disease and the politics that surrounded it in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Schmaltz was covering the funeral of an Act-Up leader who had died of AIDS when a TV reporter thrust a microphone in his face. “Are you here as a reporter or as a gay man with AIDS?” he asked Schmaltz.

“I didn’t respond,” Schmaltz wrote in an essay about the incident. “People in the crowd moved closer; they wanted to know the answer. I wanted to know it, too. Finally, it came out: ‘Reporter.’ Some shook their heads in disgust, all but shouting ‘Uncle Tom!’ They wanted an advocate, not a reporter.”

When your profession calls on you to depict other people honestly and publicly, those people often forget that journalism has anything resembling a noble purpose. “As relentlessly social as journalism can be, in this respect you’re going to have to prepare yourself for a certain kind of loneliness,” Freedman writes.

His insistence that journalism has a thoroughly moral grounding inevitably forces him to confront Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, her trenchant examination of the “psychopathology” that exists between journalists and the people they write about. Malcolm focused on the controversy that occurred after journalist Joe McGinniss portrayed Jeffrey MacDonald as a killer in the bestseller Fatal Vision. MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters, had given McGinniss complete access to his defense team in exchange for a share of the profits from the book. Among journalists, at least, Malcolm’s opening salvo is notorious: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Freedman goes to town with Malcolm’s condemnation, pointing out that Malcolm was once sued by one of her subjects; the federal jury that saw the case found her guilty of libel. A year later she won a reversal, although that jury determined that she had invented two quotes. “Every journalist probably does, at some point or another, leave behind a source who feels aggrieved, undressed, abandoned,” Freedman writes. “But admitting there are flaws in the system is far different from saying that every journalistic encounter inevitably, inexorably leads to betrayal.” Letters to a Young Journalist can be read quickly, but because Freedman surveys so many of the issues a journalist faces in such a clear and insightful manner (he even confronts the sometimes academic debate about whether to use a tape recorder or the old-fashioned notebook), the book lingers in the mind far longer than it takes to read.

Freedman manages to parse long-standing moral debates about journalism as well as the apparent inconvenience of entering journalism when there has been “a series of despairing studies of public attitudes toward the media.” He cites a study, conducted in 2005 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showing that 40 percent of Republicans believe the news media are damaging democracy, while 54 percent of Democrats responded that news organizations are “too soft” on the president. That poll followed another Pew study, half of whose respondents “believe little or nothing” in their daily newspaper.

Freedman entered journalism during the Nixon administration, when public confidence in the press was at an enviable 85 percent and journalist heroes were plentiful. Freedman cites Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tom Wolfe, and Seymour Hersh in particular. “[T]hey made reporting look not only courageous but cool,” he writes, noting that because he started out in the early ’70s, he is “accustomed to an adversarial relationship between government and media.” Inevitably a lot of people entered journalism precisely because they were lured by the cool factor Freedman mentions. It seems like a particularly glamorized era to have become a reporter. I bet that a good number of people who became reporters thinking that investigative journalism was sexy—when it really requires mind-numbing patience and diligence—eventually hightailed it to other professions.

Isn’t it possible that a generation of new journalists is apt to produce work that, in the long run, is stronger? Prognostication is a murky science, but if you’re entering journalism now, when the public thinks of you as biased or irrelevant or traitors, isn’t it more likely that you’re rooted to the profession? The public’s current distaste for the press has an unexpected benefit that this book, however inspiring and thoughtful it may be, can’t equal: The public mood, and the Bush administration, have managed to winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Clay Smith is the literary director of the Texas Book Festival.