In Search of Honest Journalists

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.

But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe's famous squib might be misinterpreted as a satire on dishonest journalists, but it is not.  It is aimed at the generic British journalist, but the American journalist would be an even better topic, because over the past century and a half, just as the American Empire has replaced the British Empire, so too the American journalist as far surpassed his British colleagues in ignorance, venality, and regime-toadying.  What has sometimes passed for courage in the American press was nothing better than the knee-jerk support for leftist parties and movements whose triumph the pressmen quite correctly anticipated.

If we were to drop Humbert Wolfe and take on Diogenes as our role model, as we attempt to shine our light in the nooks and crannies of American journalism, whether practiced by Americans or British immigrants, whom could we name?  To make the game more amusing, we should, in addition to picking out the eccentrics, also have to name a famous contemporary who lived down to Wolfe's description-- the regime lackeys that are the true heirs of Pulitzer and Hearst.

To start the ball rolling, I nominate H.L. Mencken as an exceptionally honest writer for the press--worth reading even when, as he was so often, he was wrong.  And who could be his counterpart in the mainstream?  There are so many candidates, but I choose Walter Lippman, the war-monger who beat the drums for American entrance into WWI and then sought to evade military service by making up whoppers.  When I was growing up, Lippman was always the model for the distinguished journalist as, in the electronic media, Edward R. Murrow was becoming.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

13 Responses

  1. Brent says:

    For the “one honest journalist,” I nominate John T. Flynn. In the mainstream category, how about Woodward and Bernstein? That in a.d. 2022 their names remain synonymous with heroic searchers for truth tells us everything we need not only about American journalism but American consumers of journalism. Their only source was a disgruntled FBI agent who didn’t like Nixon’s making nice with China, and yet, fifty years later, their (his) narrative is still the only one anyone knows.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    W&B are good counterexamples but better pitted against their contemporaries. For Flynn, an obvious choice would be Walter Duranty of the NY Times.On the whole, American reporters and commentators in those days were initially inclined to support their capitalist bosses, but the fact that they failed to get on the New Deal band wagon initially did not make them braver, much less more honest. When FDR started his war against the press, notable victims included Flynn, Mencken, and Nock.

  3. Joe Porreca says:

    Also countering Duranty would be Gareth Porter and Malcolm Muggeridge who told the truth about Soviet-inflicted starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930’s, contrary to Duranty’s lies.

  4. Michael Strenk says:

    I nominate Joseph Mitchell, who started out as a beat reporter. Mitchell’s extreme, sometimes crippling, empathy with the his extraordinary ordinary subjects did not extend to the likes of George Bernard Shaw whom he gleefully slapped around in print when Shaw came to the U.S., which he loathed, landing in NYC, on a speaking tour. The misanthropic Shaw, who also wrote for newspapers and journals might be taken as foil to the compassionate Mitchell.

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    While Shaw may not have been mainstream at the time, I’m not so sure that this wasn’t because the regime, while mostly agreeing with him, didn’t like him saying the quiet part out loud. Now, his heirs in Britain and America make him seem to be almost a paragon of virtue. They certainly are not worthy to lick his literary boots.

  6. William Shofner says:

    There are various parts to the making of a fine journalist/writer. One is wit. Although Shaw may have been lacking in a host of pleasing attributes, one characteristic he held in abundance was wit. Once a theater critic wrote in a London newspaper a scathing review of one of Shaw’s plays. In response, Shaw wrote the critic a brief letter informing him that, ” “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review from the paper in front of me. It will soon be behind me.”

  7. Michael Strenk says:

    I cheerfully concede Mr. Shofner’s point about Shaw only adding that, while I recognize the brilliance of the abilities of Shaw, and Mencken, I would not willingly have spent more than a moment in the company of either nor would I have entrusted to either the care of a child or puppy and, in Shaw’s case, I would say that he joyfully served evil, although with great style, throughout his life without a moment’s compunction.

  8. Michael Strenk says:

    But this is from limited knowledge and could be easily discounted by any with better view of either man.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    I think you have it about right. Shaw was a forerunner of what was to come. He personally possessed a fine mind, was keen witted, a talented writer and could be a smart aleck and boorish, condescending type as well. PBS did a series, The Best of Friends, about the twenty-five-year friendship he had with Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a Benedictine nun and Sir Sydney Cockerell, a museum curator, that is a good look at his capacity for friendship and seriousness . I think Belloc saw further into the pool of darkness that Shaw liked to play around and dip his feet in but over the years I have been more forgiving of him. He was encouraged too much to be and did aspire to be, “a man of his times”, was then duped by those times and in the end, like all of us, subject to its passing.

  10. Robert Reavis says:

    The Best of Friends was a play by Hugh Whitemore that was made into a television series about those three friends mentioned above. I think it was not PBS but BBC that produced it but after a brief look and not finding it anywhere but on you tube, I should say I simply don’t know but did find it enjoyable and worth the watch many, many years ago.

  11. Gregory Fogg says:

    Some of the people I really respect are, or once were, journalists. Carter Glass, Harry Flood Byrd, Douglas Southall Freeman, Pat Buchanan and Dr. Clyde Wilson come to mind.

  12. Michael Strenk says:

    This would seem to be it, Mr. Reavis:

    Patrick McGoohan and John Gielgud? Definitely worth some time, I’d say.

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sorry to have been out of the loop. I went to Charleston–really Mt. Pleasant–to give a talk at a conference of urban planners, architects, etc., who were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the I’On development. The most prestigious of the designers.architects asked the pointed question of how I got invited to a conference of top professionals on a subject I not only know nothing about but also one in which I take little interest. Good question.

    Thanks for the nominations. My old friend Fr. Ian Boyd, founder of The Chesterton Review, introduced me to Joseph Mitchell. Shaw was hardly a journalist except in the sense of writing music reviews for newspapers. I read tons of Shaw in my teens but by the time I was 30 I could not stand his smarmy self-serving platitudes. I suppose, if he was good enough for GKC and Belloc, I ought to admire him, however grudgingly, but I don’t. I do believe that I would trust a puppy or a daughter to Mencken, who barked often but rarely bit. Like Pound, he objected to the growing Jewish influence on our culture, but also like Pound he helped aspiring Jewish writers. Even his silly screeds agains the South were largely put on. He admired the Old South and its fading relics in Baltimore, but one has to recall that Germans had certain instinctive prejudices against a “Cracker Culture” that they did not belong to.