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‘New Journalism’, Subjectivity and Postmodern News

Maitrayee Basu reviews the legacy of New Journalism, and sees the signs of postmodern times in its two-pronged assault on literary hierarchy and the ideal of objectivity.

Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 2, September 2010 Politics, Postmodern Journalism, and the Public

According to Esquire editor Harold Hayes, New Journalism is really ‘literary journalism’ which dates back to the early twentieth century, but ‘New Journalism’ was the name that caught on in the 1960s (Buettler, 1984). Hartsock (1999: 433) lists the various names which have been used for the form besides New Journalism, including literary journalism, literary nonfiction, creative nonfiction. Hartsock also suggests that the multiplicity of terms for this form indicates the ‘fluid nature of its boundaries’. Perhaps the main reason why the term ‘New Journalism’ caught on was its use of the word ‘new’ which, as Bourdieu (1993: 104) claims in his theory of cultural power, is a potent tool in the struggle against established forces.

Connery (1992: 4) defines this ‘genre’ as writing that falls between the traditional categories of fiction and journalism. However, Hartsock (2001: 17) seems to be more perceptive about the inability of the existing modernist categories to define the ‘narrative spectrum’ of the form since it not only blurs the line between the two genres mentioned by Connery, but also challenges the appearance of unity in the existing ideologies of practice within those literary genres, thus upsetting their stability and authority.

Hartsock (1999: 433) also describes it as ‘epistemologically fluid’ – like the early novel, a ‘shifting form’ which attempts to mirror a changing reality that combines ‘the interplay of consciousness’ and phenomenal experience. The parallel with early novels, which became the monumental literary creatures that New Journalism claimed to have displaced (Wolfe 1973: 41), is interesting, since it illustrates the ongoing struggle for power between new forms of writing, which dislodge the established forces and then subsequently struggle to preserve their own status quo, which still newer forces try again to displace.

‘New Journalism’, New Authority

It is important to acknowledge the importance of Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, The New Journalism, and to recognise it as a serious claim to legitimacy on behalf of a form of writing which had not been sanctioned by the modernist literary authorities. Wolfe’s declaration that a new form was born in the 1960s which dethroned all other forms and genres (Wolfe and Johnson, 1973: 15), became the rallying cry of its many advocates. Daniel Swift ( 2005) and Ted Conover (Boynton, 2005: 7) both acknowledge that Wolfe’s anthology The New Journalism gave a vocabulary to the methods and techniques practised by the writers of this new form: saturation reporting, attention to detail and status, etc.

Thomas Connery (1992: 3) also surmises that Wolfe’s definition of the new form acted as a departure point for writers like James Murphy, John Hollowell, Ronald Weber and Norman Sims, who expanded and altered it, but stayed within the confines of Wolfe’s major claims about the style, methods and potential of the form. In the fierce contention which exists today as to which texts constitute ‘New Journalism’, and thus which writers can be labelled ‘New Journalists’, most critics first transcribe the list of writers drawn up by Wolfe, albeit extending the list to include some earlier writers also. Furthermore, if this identifies Wolfe’s anthology as the rallying point for advocates, it also suggests that it was the definitive list which defenders of the previous hierarchy felt obliged to respond to.

Robert Boynton, Nicholaus Mills, Norman Sims, Edd Applegate, Arthur Kaul, Paul Many and even Esquire’s editor during ‘New Journalism’s’ peak years, Harold Hayes, are among the many authors who have disputed Wolfe’s claim that the form really was new. Instead they have attempted to show that New Journalism has historical antecedents or can be tied to conventional journalism or literary historiography, thereby securing the continuity of literary authority and safeguarding it from those whose interests lie in rupturing it. Theirs is an attempt to salvage the established literary traditions which Wolfe’s assertion poses a threat to. As Hartsock (2001: 17) points out, ‘the assertion of ‘‘newness’’ could only tend to reduce the earlier versions to mere antecedents and precursors and not the real thing’.

Literary Journalism and the Novel

The novel and literary journalism (or New Journalism) are equally committed to phenomenal reality and the capacity of the author to capture it and portray it in prose. Indeed, literary journalism seems to be a response to an issue raised by the novel in the nineteenth century, namely, the correspondence between literary illustration and the reality that it imitates (Watt and Carnochan, 2001: 11). This supports Wolfe’s rationale for New Journalism as the rightful successor to the novel, which he claims was in a ‘retrograde state’; stagnant for over half a century (cited in Beikhman, 1973: 57).

Both these literary forms also share a deeper, functional similarity. Like narrative literary journalism, the novel dethroned the dominant literary mode preceding it – the literary traditionalism of the heroic epics and legends, which were formulaic and stagnant. Wolfe (1973: 42) mentions ‘the similarity between the early days of the novel and the early days of the New Journalism’: in both instances a group of writers from a genre regarded as Lower Class who were ‘in love with realism for its own sake’, came and sacked the existing literary power structures. Both the journalistic tradition and the novel grew out of epistemic discontinuity which favoured the ‘new’ and the ‘real’ (Rosenberg, 1959, as cited by Carey, 2007: 6). In turn, literary journalism blurs the line again between ‘factual fiction’ and ‘fictional fact’, which, according to Carey (2007: 7), was drawn to separate reporting from social commentary in the advent of realist writing. However, literary journalism rebelled against the objective ideals of modern journalism, and this ties it even closer to the novel.

Status Anxiety

Wolfe (1973: 39), in the introduction to his anthology, celebrates the fact that the new writers are ‘ignoring literary class lines’, hence giving rise to ‘status panic’ in the field. This accounts for the criticisms he had been receiving from both journalistic and literary quarters.

The political divide between the different classes of writers in the 1960s was likened by Wolfe (1973: 39) to the eighteenth century class structure. By the early twentieth century, novelists reigned supreme in the literary field, according to Wolfe. They were followed in the status hierarchy by the literary essayists or critics, whose analytical insights defended the legitimacy of the more ‘creative’, higher class of novelists. Journalists, with their lack of ‘creative’ or subjective license, make up the lowest rung in Wolfe’s rendering of the status hierarchy in the literary field. In his eyes, the feature writers among whom ‘New Journalism’ originated, were even further down the literary scale.

This hierarchy has since been reversed, according to Lewis (n.d., as cited by Boynton, 2005: xii) who says that: ‘Whereas the journalists once felt humbled by the novel, we now live in an age in which the novelist lives in a state of anxiety about nonfiction.’ The reversal of fortunes may have come about because news has become the ‘de facto literature of our times’, which is used by many people for distraction and entertainment as well as information (Hanson, 1997, as cited by Knobloch, et al., 2004: 282).

Macleish (1992: 11) credits ‘literary journalism’ for this accomplishment, claiming that the two ‘separate purposes’ which differentiate ‘poetry’ (literature) and ‘journalism’ are merged by this form. Wolfe (1973: 40) had already suggested that status panic was brought on by the advent of a new form of writing which has taken over the ‘techniques of the novelists’, ‘the insights of the men of letters’, and combined them with investigative reporting; hence the novelists and critics displaced by it were emphatic in denying legitimacy to the new form.

This, however, does not explain why the ‘newspaper people were upset’ (Wolfe, 1973: 39). It’s not as if ‘New Journalism’ threatened their literary status, since they hardly had any. But perhaps by its very relationship with literature, already disputed by the men of letters, New Journalism also undermined the position of journalism as a decidedly non-literary activity, and thus prompted a further dispute with those who identified their journalism, and themselves as journalists, in this non-literary way.

Fazakis (2006: 6) analyses the numerous representations of journalistic ideology and practice which emerged during the Malcolm-Masson trials in 1984, and offered ‘competing definitions of what journalism is and what journalists do.’ She observes that although the journalists univocally talked about journalism as a homogenous and unified field, the image of the field which emerged was not that of a ‘unified static entity with fixed borders’ but ‘composed of several “journalisms”… in which the authority to define what journalism is and what journalists do is at stake’ (Fazakis, 2006: 11).

The ‘agreed upon rules’ (Fazakis, 2006: 11) which helped journalists cohere as a group, were based on the ideology of objectivity (Schudson, 2001: 151). Accordingly, undermining objectivity as the norm in journalism, would threaten the existence of the professional group as a whole. Hence, any action which resulted in the questioning or rejection of the objective ideal would have been opposed by those in the group with an interest in preserving it as the norm.

Feature-writing had been positioned at the lower end of the journalistic field due to its distance from the objective ideal, from which the profession derived its legitimacy. While Wolfe praised feature-writing, because it gave ‘a man a certain amount of room in which to write’ (Wolfe, 1973: 18), thus allowing the subjective opinions and views of the writer to creep in, for the same reason many journalists derided it as ‘soft news’. If Wolfe’s claim that the ‘New Journalists’, the former feature writers, with their ‘new’ form of writing, had ‘dethroned’ the highest echelons of literary power, i.e. the novelists, is to be taken seriously, then such a state of affairs, in which low-status journalists were celebrating the role of the subjective in news writing, and their own success in raising the status of the subjective, will also have threatened the ‘hard news’ group whose power in the journalistic field depended on the authority of the objective norm. This is what prompted the ‘newspaper men’ to oppose the legitimacy claim of the ‘New Journalists’, just as vehemently as the literary types.

Epistemological Gap

Boynton (2005: xxix) observes that ‘we are currently experiencing the fascination with “true stories”’, which he says is ‘common during the times of unrest and turmoil’. Hartsock (2001: 12) refers to the ‘unrest and turmoil’ as resulting from an epistemological crisis, beginning in the 1890s, which was ‘fuelled by a cultural need to know and understand the real world’ through prose (Connery, 1992, as cited by Hartsock, 2001: 12). As shown above, in the nineteenth century there was a rift between (fictional) novels and (facts-based) journalism, which later resulted in the rise of ‘literary journalism’. However, Hartsock (2001: 12) suggests that there was also a rift in the journalistic tradition itself, which proved a further factor in the subsequent development of this form.

The rift within the ranks of journalists, some of whom were already breaking away from the unified image of an objective ideal, was itself a response to the ‘objectification of news’ (Hartsock, 2001: 12). In short, those disadvantaged by the objective ideal had reason to object to it; and having lodged their objections, they tended to turn to more literary forms. Thus, just as the objective ideal reached its highest level of influence in America, so the USA also played host to the ensuing, literary rebellion.

Schudson (2001, 2005: 97) traces the evolution of the objectivity norm and its status as journalism’s ruling ideology from the 1890s when American newspapers were in revolt against control by political parties. The need for occupational independence and identity intensified as journalists began to emerge as a group with ‘prevalent patterns of behaviour’ and unique professional practices such as the interview (Schudson, 2001: 157). The significance of particular practices associated with journalists – the ‘digging’, ‘hustling’ and ‘low life legwork’, as Wolfe (1973: 40) terms them, is discernible in the tendency to attach the legitimacy and authority of journalism to any form of writing which employs them. This tendency can be observed in the New Journalists’ attempt to claim that their writing is a representation of phenomenal reality (Wolfe: 1973: 43), based on verifiable facts; moreover that this basis it itself verified by the fact that the writers employed journalistic tools and techniques to get their stories. The potency of this claim, and the power accrued in it by reference to journalistic techniques, prompted critics like Dwight Macdonald (as cited in Harvey, 1994), to reverse this powerful flow of associations, and to name New Journalism ‘parajournalism’ or a ‘bastard form’ which only exploits the ‘factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction’ in a spurious attempt to claim legitimacy.

In Europe, by contrast, journalism did not have so many partisan political ties from which to distinguish itself. Journalism evolved from the same melting pot of eighteenth century realist writing from which the novel also emerged; and the isolation of factuality in prose came about only as a result of instrumental measures such as the introduction of libel laws (Carey, 2007: 7). The French word ‘nouvelle’, encompassing both the novel and journalism (Carey, 2007: 7), indicates the shared origins and joint legacy of these two forms. Similarly, European journalism continues to be oriented towards commentary and interpretation and has strong ties to literature, forming something of a ‘secondary sub-brand of a much more prestigious literary profession’ (Schudson, 2005: 101). Since European journalism was not framed as the antithesis of literature, as was the case in the USA, in Europe the coming of New Journalism did not necessitate the overthrown of the literary status quo. Conversely, perhaps its advent has not been the major event that it was in America, where it entailed closure of an important epistemic rift.

Subjectivity in the Postmodern News Environment

Whereas the modernist view of the world considered it possible to determine the nature of reality by the scientific method of detached observation, the development of quantum physics and the introduction of the uncertainty principle by Heisenberg in 1925, together led to a shift from scientific belief in the progressive closure of uncertainty and ambiguity, to belief in the indeterminate nature of reality (Hartsock, 1999: 443). Heisenberg (1958, as cited by Hartsock, 1999: 441) comments on the subjective nature of all types of observation, saying: ‘what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our methods of questioning’. This raises doubts about the validity of established, modernist methods of journalism, which do not acknowledge the subjective nature of all observations, up to and including professional reporting,

As essential as it once was for journalists to assume a neutral voice, more recently, the neutral, omniscient voice of the objective ideal has come to be distrusted (Buettler, 1984). Expressing or recognising this distrust is now as obligatory as ‘objectivism’ once was. Moreover, since articles written in the modernist, pyramid style exhibit neutral modal shading, i.e. they consist only of physical description not interrupted by subjective interpretation or evaluation by the narrator, categorical assertions are typical of these texts (Simpson, 2004:127). In today’s climate, however, to write as if one’s writing is neutral, is sufficient to show that the writer is anything but. Instead, there is widespread scepticism towards any theory of practices which does not consider the social conditions of the practices under ‘objective’ observation (Bourdieu, 1990: 33), and equally widespread suspicion that any such ‘independence’ is really an institutional voice steeped in specific ideologies which benefit the news industry.

Narrative literary journalism, says Berger (1982, as cited in Hartsock, 1999: 440), is an attempt to re-establish the fundamentally subjective relationship between ‘teller, listener, protagonist’. This, according to Bourdieu (1990: 33), is the issue objectivism ignores whenever it claims to operate in the break between observer and society.

Besides the needs of the audience, what pushed subjectivity to the forefront of a field previously ruled by objectivity norms, were the concerns of the professionals working in it. They found themselves reduced by the objectivity ideal to mere ‘voyeurs with no sense of participation in life’ (Knoblauch, n.d., as cited by Buettler, 1984). Fazakis’ (2006: 14, 18), in describing the professional the Malcom-Masson case, mentions that that the journalists who first vehemently opposed Malcolm’s methods (compression and conversion of spoken discourse from interviews into readable text), and denied that these were standard journalistic practices, later shifted their support to Malcolm. She says they did this because they did not ‘want to be reduced to machines, mechanically reproducing reality.’

The objectivity ideal had forced journalists to seek prestige in the field by adhering to it. Or, in the case of those ‘feature writers’ as described by Wolfe (1973: 18), they were granted (limited) freedom to be subjective and interpretive, but only if they withdrew any claim to the authority of the field, which was inextricably tied in with objectivity. As the influence of the objectivity ideal has waned, however, so more journalists have been attracted to the subjective, and intrigued, to say the least, by forms in which it finds expression. Hence even the most hardened ‘newsmen’ have moved towards styles of writing which allow them to be central to their own writing, and to gain legitimacy from their personalities rather than the constricted ideology of objectivism.

Objectivism also evolved as a form of Weberian discipline ‘to keep the lowly reporters in check’. It was a means through which the older journalists exalted themselves by passing onto the younger members of the fold an ethic which was self celebratory. The younger journalists, who were kept under control by the journalistic canon and the prescriptive norms devised by their predecessors, sought to break free by devising a new set of norms based on subjectivity. Thus the New Journalists’ techniques, according to Wolfe (1973: 46), were not based on any established journalistic theory, but discovered by ‘instinct’ and ‘trial and error’.

New Journalism as Alternative Norm

Swift (2005) claims that the early writers of the new form had ‘insufficient shared interests to cohere as a group’. Wolfe’s anthology was successful in providing a shared vocabulary that encompassed the methods practised by the dispersed writers of the new form. This might be seen as an attempt to foster horizontal solidarity and group identity.

Schudson (2001: 152) discusses the acceptance of objectivity as a norm which thereby succeeded in cohering and disciplining a new occupational group, namely, journalists in America. Similarly, Wolfe’s anthology might be seen as an effort to formalise a new norm that was distinctively different from the previously established one.

The inverted pyramid style has been characteristic of mainstream American journalism for more than 100 years. It replaced the narrative form in the second half of the nineteenth century. As recently as five years ago, it was still the most commonly used format in American newspapers (Yaros, 2006: 287). It arranges information on the basis of relative importance in the story, thus letting the writer rank the information in the article in order of importance, and introducing writer’s (or rather institutional) news-value judgements into otherwise ‘neutral’ language. The accompanying rationale for the inverted pyramid emphasises its usefulness in offering the reader quick access to the ‘more important’ facts.

Yet Yaros (2006: 287) believes that this arrangement of news is outdated. Even though the form aids speedy writing (as well as quick reading) by providing the means to ‘critical closure’ (Hartsock, 1999: 438), it seems it is failing to please new generations of news consumers. The audience’s consumption patterns have been moving more in the direction of narrative based literary forms, prompting newspapers, facing a widening rage of competitors, to turn towards this kind of writing. Harvey suggests that they started to move in this direction as far back as the middle of the twentieth century (Harvey, 1994), around the time that New Journalism made its debut.

Knobloch et al. (2004) have analysed the effects of linear, reversal and inverted discourse structures on the suspense, curiosity and reading enjoyment levels of audiences, using Brewer and Lichtenstein’s (1981, 1982, cited by Knobloch et al, 2004: 262) structural affect theory. This theory proposes that certain discourse structures lead to ‘affective reactions’, such as suspense or curiosity, which are engendered while the reader is following the narrative. The Knobloch study revealed that linear type narratives evoked more suspense; reversal types engendered maximum curiosity; and the reading enjoyment levels in both linear and reversal types were higher than those for the inverted pyramid style, regardless of whether the content of the reading material was factual or fictional.

It seems that we have witnessed the return of narrative journalism, with all its incipient, literary tendencies, during the latter half of the twentieth century; moreover, that this development corresponds to the decline of objectivism and the gradual demise of the inverted pyramid which has been its preferred form. In contrast to the difficult, angular shape of the pyramid story, Yaros (2006: 287) suggests that the narrative structure enables an audience with ‘low levels of (background) knowledge’ to process meanings more effectively. It is surely the case that narrative form communicates information better, and is suited to the complex information demands of the postmodern society.

Another factor in the renewal of narrative must have been the epistemic break brought about by the breakdown of modernist authorities and institutions – a rupture of comparable significance to the watershed which occurred during the late nineteenth century when modernist structures established themselves in epistemology, just as they also did in art, architecture and politics.

Thus New Journalism now emerges not only as a short-lived episode; instead we should recognise it as a signpost to the postmodern and a signal of our own reconnection to the continuum of narrative forms.

Maitrayee Basu is a postgraduate student of Culture and Society at the LSE. She gained her first degree at the University of Middlesex in Dubai.


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