Saturday, June 30, 2007

Jemima Lewis on Brit hacks vs supine Yank journos

Journalists in this country are despised, and we know it. Indeed, we embrace our lowly status with a perverse, distinctly British pride: we call ourselves "hacks", lest anyone should think we take ourselves seriously, and delight in Fleet Street legends of debauchery and low cunning. British journalism - both the profession and the end product - is tough, unscrupulous and, at its best, riotously good fun.

In America, different standards prevail. When I went to work at a current affairs magazine in New York a couple of years ago, my editor warned me that I was in for a culture shock. "American journalists," he said, "believe they belong to a kind of priesthood. Ever since Watergate, we have seen ourselves as guardians of the truth. That," he added ruefully, "is why our newspapers are so boring."

Until you have tried ingesting The New York Times with your breakfast, you do not know the meaning of ennui. Nicknamed the Grey Lady - as a term of endearment - and boasting the priggish motto "All the news that's fit to print", it is the sine qua non of sober, morally upright journalism. And this respectability is its greatest weakness: it is far too polite to be subversive.

When President Bush was making the case for the invasion of Iraq, The New York Times - supposedly a fierce critic of this administration - swallowed the White House propaganda as if it were medicine from Mary Poppins. As it later admitted in a hand-wringing editorial, it simply accepted what it was told about WMD, because it came from "official" sources.

So did some in the British press - but there were at least plenty of sceptical, irreverent and downright belligerent voices making themselves heard. Our broadcast media, too, acquitted themselves dispassionately - at least by contrast with the feel-good patriotism that saturated the American TV news. There is a thin line between respectable and supine, and American journalism has settled on the wrong side. Our own press is no less obsessed with celebrities, but we specialise - too much so, you might think - in tearing them down. In America, to be famous is to be worshipped unquestioningly. Hollywood stars demand copy approval, and get it - which is why you will never read an interesting celebrity interview in an American magazine.
from the Independent

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