One of the most exciting media trends of the past few years has been the return of the hack. You know, biased journalists: Fox News slamming liberals; Newsweek misleading readers that Barack’s real name is Barry; Harper’s magazine calling John McCain a hypocrite on its cover (just out in print, web link not available). You can almost feel the testosterone heat surging among editors who, emboldened by blog blather and retreating readers, say, hey, we have opinions too!
This is big change because not so long ago journalists were pure of heart. Saints. For a brief period of time, say 1935-2000, Western reporters took oaths in an altruistic calling — a Switzerland amid a commercial world at war, casting news from the mountaintops about truth and justice, and keeping their hands clean. Heaven forbid opinion crept in, or worse, someone tried to buy it. Money? Gifts? Lunch? Please, we don’t touch that. Talk to the clerks in ad sales.
The height of such altruism was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose feverish reporting of Watergate in the 1970s ticked off Nixon loyalists but was more about truth than liberalism. Read All the President’s Men and you get the vibe of two guys simply trying to solve a puzzle, because the truth was out there. If the break-in had been orchestrated by Martin Luther King Jr. or the Pope, you sense Woodward and Bernstein would have dug all the harder to get that scoop.
Ah, but that’s all over. One million blogs filled with internet flames have caught the attention of the reading public, and newspapers and cable networks are tripping over themselves to share a little venom, too. Which is simply a return to reporting’s roots.
Journalism began as a sordid business, back in Renaissance Europe with handwritten newsletters slamming political foes or reporting ghastly deeds. The legend of Count Dracula started with hacks documenting the grisly acts of Vlad Tsepes Drakul, perhaps with embellishments to protect German interests. Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame wrote a little piece skewering the prejudices of the English, coyly suggesting all those pesky Irish troubles could be solved if the Brits just ate Irish babies.
Passion makes for good copy. So the hell with church and state. If we all wanted pure news, we’d still be reading newspapers — and odds are, we don’t. We want sex, violence, and a point of view that amplifies our own. Admit it and embrace it: The gloves are off journalism, baby, so may the best slander win.