"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 March 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Crop the Presses!



Had the 36 conservators who

recently compiled the NYU

journalism department's Top 100

Works of Journalism in the

United States in the 20th

Century dared to include

"Drudge Report Exclusive

1/18/98," that landmark new

media missive that proved so

conducive to talking heads

talking head, their list would

have no doubt drawn far more

media coverage than it has.

Instead, the list makers

endorsed all the usual

journalist's journalists - John

Hersey, Edward R. Murrow, Joseph

Mitchell, Lillian Ross, etc. -

producing an insular,

predictably high-minded document

that inspired one medium-length

article in The New York Times

and cursory mentions everywhere

else. USA Today listed the five

"familiar works" its editors

felt might resonate with

readers; the more pragmatic

Chicago Tribune truncated that

list to three. In other words,

it was not exactly the kind of

material to inspire a

Politically Incorrect circle

smirk or distract Howard Kurtz

from the First Fellator's

imminent media prospects.



To give the list makers their

due, they apparently did try to

enliven said list with the usual

bait for the statisticians of

cultural injustice: Out of the

100 articles, books,

photographs, radio broadcasts,

and TV specials that the list

features, only 15 were created

by women; minorities were

similarly underrepresented. Its

editorial mix was even more

exclusionary: newspapers using

the list as a model would be

unrecognizable creatures, with

sections on war, politics, and

race and almost no coverage at

all devoted to business, health,

women's rights, gay rights,

science, technology, religion,

the arts, the environment, and

sports. Unfortunately, the

nation's CEOs, nurses,

feminists, homosexuals,

chemists, chip fabricators,

priests, sitcom stars, tree

huggers, and ESPN enthusiasts

failed to challenge the

ridiculously limited scope of

this perspective, and as a

consequence, no protest-fueled

media coverage ever



In retrospect, do the list's

makers wish they could do a

rewrite? Or are they content

with their moral victory, their

high-minded version of

journalism not as it is, but as

they wish it were - journalism

with nary a Matt Drudge or

Rupert Murdoch or Walter

Winchell or Bernarr MacFadden

soiling its history?

Interestingly, their titular

taste in adjectives leaves room

for such rogues at the

convocation: The choice of "Top"

over "Best" implies that impact

and influence at least play

supporting roles to quality. And

yet, for some reason, the list

makers fail to follow through on

this premise. At least the PR

whizzes who came up with Random

House's 100 Best Novels list

have a plausible motive for

their lecture-hall pedantry:

Plenty of people already buy

Danielle Steele and Stephen King

novels, so there was no need to

include them in what was

primarily a publicity stunt

designed to move product. But

with the Top 100 Works of

Journalism, there's no explicit

commercial imperative - so why

hew to such elitist sales



After all, it's not as if it

were only the denizens of The

New Yorker, Esquire, The New York

Times, and a few other

officiously sanctioned media

outlets who had a lock on

stylistic virtuosity, reportage,

and formal innovation. The

Times' piece on the list

suggests that for its chief

architect, NYU Journalism

Chairman Mitchell Stephens, "The

final value of the list is what

it says about the role of craft

in making people see

themselves." That's fine, but

surely crap has played an

important role in defining this

century's journalism too. In

failing to acknowledge any of

the less high-minded values and

trends that have informed our

news media over the last 100

years - sensationalism, hype,

the pseudo-event, and celebrity,

to name a few - the Top 100

Works of Journalism list

sabotages both its entertainment

value and its utility.



Compare it, for example, to

Entertainment Weekly's recent

100 Greatest Moments in

Television list, which

celebrates serious newscasts,

slapstick sitcoms, and VW

commercials alike. Such

catholicity makes this list a

far more informative document

than one that would have

excluded infomercial pitchman

Ron Popeil in favor of multiple

Paddy Chayevsky references - you

get a sense of how both the high

and the low have shaped the

medium into what it is today.

Read the Top 100 Works of

Journalism, however, and you'll

simply have a better

understanding of who journalists

think they're supposed to say

they like when they want to give

the impression that they, too,

are aghast at the tawdry

carnival of contemporary news

media, with its reprobate band

of celebrity profile fluff boys,

New Fiction fabulists, craven

serial shills, and indefatigable

Monicalogists. Hey, the notion

of hyper-industrious rock scribe

Neil Strauss literally crawling

into bed with Jewel in order to

better feel up her lushly

buoyant psyche for a Rolling

Stone interview that reads like

a self-McSweeneyed parody makes

us just as queasy as any pompous

protector of journalistic

integrity too. But really, is

that any reason to banish a

force as influential as Winchell

from the realm of "top"

20th-century journalism?


Winchell's absence is especially

puzzling in a list shepherded by

Stephens, who certainly

understands how tabloid

sensibilities have governed

journalism throughout its

history. Indeed, whenever we

want to disabuse overwrought

hair pullers of the notion that

the media's current excesses

represent some sort of fall from

grace, the first thing we point

them toward is Stephens'

excellent book, A History of

News, wherein he recounts how,

in 1655, one of England's first

newspapers, the Weekly

Intelligencer of the

Commonwealth, featured an

article about "a woman in Kent

who cooked and served to her

husband the vulva of his lover."

(Imagine the cautious euphemism

Barbara Walters would be forced

to deploy while conducting an

interview with that particular

pepper pot.)


Perhaps the Top 100 Works of

Journalism is simply trying to

resist fashion - these days,

everyone embraces the tabloid

ethos, it seems. But ultimately,

its middlebrow disavowal of

journalism's baser engines

renders it a supremely ironic

document. Indeed, scan its

contents for examples of

PR-driven presstitution or

self-absorbed media criticism -

two of the most dominant modes

of contemporary journalism - and

you'll come up remarkably

empty-handed: A. J. Liebling's

collection of New Yorker press

criticism, The Wayward

Pressman, is really the only

thing that qualifies. But what

is the list itself except a

combination of these two modes?

And why is it so ashamed of its




Of course, the list does pay a

kind of covert testimony to the

sort of just-add-fodder

pseudo-journalism it shuns.

Unlike those painstaking

academics at Entertainment

Weekly, who actually took the

time to write cogent

explanations for why the TV

moments on their list actually

mattered, Stephens and his

compatriots (including such

celebrity journalists as Clay

Felker, George Will, Morley

Safer, Pete Hamill, Todd Gitlin,

and Ellen Willis) apparently

felt no need to expend such

effort. And thus we're left with

an incomplete,

less-than-informative document.

For example, the notes regarding

James Agee's and Walker Evans'

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

fail to mention that this work

had a rather delayed impact

according to the usual cycles of

journalism: Written in 1936, it

didn't actually see print until

1941 and then sold only 1,025

copies, until a new edition in

1960 introduced it to a more

receptive audience of Agee-esque

children of privilege, looking

to slum nobly with the poor folk

of the Deep South. And then

there's Stephens' terse

assessment of Liebling's The

Wayward Pressman. "He did it

first and probably best,"

Stephens exclaims, a statement

that demands at least a little

elucidation given that the

Wayward Press column from which

Liebling's collection was drawn

had been a feature of the New

Yorker long before Liebling

started contributing to it. On

the other hand, it's easy to see

why Stephens and company simply

allow their slapdash

commentaries to suffice. Keeping

up with Page Six and The Drudge

Report and Maureen Dowd and all

the other clowns and ringmasters

of our current media circus

leaves little time for craft.

courtesy of St. Huck


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