One of the central tenants of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, “Seek truth and report it” stands as a pillar of ethical journalism. Yet in an age where “alternative facts” and “fake news” dominate much of the national dialogue, the truth remains curiously elusive.
At the 2017 Academy Awards, The New York Times debuted its first-ever ad during the program which ends with the words: “The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.”
Tom Wolfe had his own way of delivering the truth. The legendary journalist and novelist, who died on May 14 at the age of 88, fearlessly pioneered “New Journalism,” an innovative and highly contentious method of reporting and presenting stories.
Fraught with controversy, New Journalism’s subjective reporting led many to condemn the style as dangerous and antithetical to the very definition of journalism. But the essence of Wolfe’s philosophy — to value “truth” over “facts” — may just be the bulwark against colorless journalese and could re-engage apathetic readers with print journalism.
Donning his three-piece white suit and silk shirt, Wolfe stood out amongst the crowd in a look he coined “Neo-pretentious.” But his outward appearance did not hold a candle to the eccentricity of his writing.
Starting with an avant-garde piece for Esquire entitled “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” in 1963, Wolfe boldly tossed traditional journalistic conventions aside and exhibited his masterful use of language in this piece about the hot rod subculture in Southern California.
Wolfe’s New Journalism comprised of four literary devices, according to The New Yorker: “scene-by-scene construction, realistic dialogue, a third-person point of view (where the reader feels as if he or she is inside a character’s mind), and then, in contrast to traditional newspaper journalism, a descriptive eye, in which a subject’s clothing, manners, eating, and living room are as important for the writer to document as the subject’s words.”
Wolfe became an indefatigable defender of this inventive technique. Replete with exclamations and descriptive language, he spearheaded this newfangled “Saturation Reporting” that strove to achieve a confluence of creativity, drama, suspense and truth. Wolfe wrote a piece on famed American record producer Phil Spector that exemplified the nature of New Journalism. The Atlantic published an excerpt of this work:
“All these raindrops are high or something. They don’t roll down the window, they come straight back, toward the tail, wobbling, like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses. The plane is taxiing out toward the runway to take off, and this stupid infarcted water wobbles, sideways, across the window. Phil Spector, 23 years old, the rock and roll magnate, producer of Philles Records, America’s first teen-age tycoon, watches … this watery pathology…it is sick, fatal…”
New Journalism’s supporters praised the form’s engaging language and believed that it’s more literary qualities could re-energize public interest in the news. Critics defied this arguably naive optimism, emphasizing the potentially dangerous ramifications of New Journalism’s presentation of the facts.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they “feared that reporters would be tempted to stray from the facts in order to write more dramatic stories, by, for example, creating composite characters (melding several real people into one fictional character), compressing dialogue, rearranging events, or even fabricating details.”
Hunter S. Thompson adamantly rebuked the form, evident in his 1971 letter to Wolfe. “I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible ‘new journalism’ shuck you’re promoting,” Thompson said.
Yet in 1973, some of Thompson’s work was included in Wolfe’s anthology “The New Journalism,” such as his famous article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Despite his objections to the form, his own style seemed to align with the values at the heart of the New Journalism movement.
New Journalists “challenged the ideology of objectivity,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica contends, and unsatisfactory coverage of some key historical events gives credence to their intentions.
Pure, standard journalism “failed to convey the complex truth of events such as McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, and the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.” Especially with more complex stories, regurgitating detached facts with no personal interpretation whatsoever can cripple a truly informed citizenry.
For this reason, I have a bone to pick with Emily Witt of The New Yorker, who wrote that New Journalism is and should remain out of style. She said that its emergence aligned with “a time of intense social change, and the traditional way of describing the world, both in fiction and nonfiction, was inadequate to the task.”
In 2018, traditional journalistic tools could never suffice. With the dawn of social media, the way the average consumer absorbed news and his or her relationship with the media underwent radical growth.
News organizations needed to adapt to the sweeping change that brought information to people’s fingertips and simultaneously ushered in an age when immediacy now threatens to supersede accuracy. Facts, statistics and quotes are spun every which way, then broadcasted through various media outlets, reaching an unprecedented number of citizens.
Indeed, journalism should never transform into an overdramatized soap opera presenting distorted facts to an uncritical audience, but their lies value in the essence of its purpose. Gay Talese, author of legendary, unconventional articles such as “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” did not consider himself a New Journalist, but Wolfe drew much inspiration from his philosophy to “do something that would hold up over time, something that could get old and still have the same resonance.”
With truth at the center, journalism could greatly gain from literary devices and storytelling techniques to create evergreen stories with more meaningful insight into momentous events. If a journalist covered a local mayor’s speech, why shouldn’t he or she notice and report the details of the setting, the feelings in the air or how the mayor looked or emoted while delivering the speech?
If readers feel inclined to question facts in today’s climate, they may actually find more credence in a story told by a human being, clearly infused with their interpretations of the facts, the people, the atmosphere and the event as a whole.
Context is key. The circumstances of today, as they did in Wolfe’s time, often demand more than cold facts that will likely be brought into question regardless. New Journalism 2.0 may be on the horizon and could change the landscape of journalism going forward, inviting more creative, colorful and personal interpretations of the news.