As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side and “creative” writers on the other. We expect philosophers and scientists to argue and prove their claims or die trying. We declare that poets, novelists and playwrights can stage life’s truths rather than demonstrate them. When geniuses do either, insights spurt at point of impact, like blood at the bullet’s point of entry.
But journalists? It’s confusing. To demand that they perform elevated forensic tasks while conveying the news smacks of capitalist exploitation of workers, schoolmarmish control-freakism, abuse of second-rate minds. If journalists wanted to be scientists or philosophers, they’d have stayed in grad school–or accumulated stronger grade-point averages. Yet venturing too far into artistic license still gets your ass canned.
Reporters and editors for respectable outfits keep to modest standards of accuracy, of real sources and confirmable facts, on pain of being humiliated on Romenesko’s MediaNews, boldfaced and multiply linked. The other part of the field offers full-time gasbags–decorous synonyms include “pundit,” “commentator” and “analyst,” commoner ones “jerkoid,” “screamer” and “culture critic.” They grab cable and syndicated-column jobs, lifetime employment no matter how many facts they screw up, so long as they don’t piss off public taste (no actionable racism, anti-Semitism or pedophilia) or their ideologically sensitive employers (“If we’re paying you to talk left, Botox-brain, don’t mess us up by talking right, or going middle of the road“).
Is this a media culture that dares render harsh judgment on H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), the erstwhile “Sage of Baltimore”?
Like an Underwood typewriter by the desk, or London Fog trenchcoat for foreign assignments that never come, a taste for Mencken serves as symbolic projectile for pontificating, old-fogy journalists, usually conservative, almost always male (though maybe there’s a Mencken Fan Club for testosteronic Lady-J’s somewhere). You can spot them in the newsroom–they’re preternaturally certain they share the Baltimore Bulldog’s alleged fearlessness, independence and panache. Terry Teachout, industrious music critic for Commentary and octopussian freelancer, is a middle-aged fogy of 45, so the affiliation shows generational staying power.
Teachout, to be sure, is an admirer. His Mencken ranks as “America’s greatest journalist,” “the sharpest, cruelest, most self-assured wit in the history of American letters,” “the reigning literary panjandrum of the twenties, a critic whose blistering attacks on the culture and customs of the Bible Belt (a term he coined) had made him the idol of every aspiring young writer in America.”
Yes, he writes every. If biographee Mencken, according to Teachout, “lived to exaggerate” and contradict himself, his biographer loyally honors the venerable link between imitation and flattery. Mencken’s “nineteen books and thousands of essays, articles, and reviews,” Teachout asserts, “had won him the undying hatred of millions of devout believers in what he called ‘the whole Puritan scheme of things, with its gross and nauseating hypocrisies, its idiotic theologies, its moral obsessions.'” Might any of those have been aspiring writers in America?