Friday, February 23, 2007

Hackery: US versus UK

Thanks to our large number of national newspapers - not for long, I fear - British print journalism can reasonably claim to be the best in the world. It's certainly the toughest. American journalism, however, takes itself more seriously. Hackery over there is a heroic profession and is celebrated in movies like All the President's Men and Good Night, and Good Luck. US journalism is, as a result, inclined towards pomposity, British journalism towards piracy. But, paradoxically, the British are much better at comment. Consider this article from the New York Times. Bob Herbert's point is that we shouldn't spend so much time on Anna Nicole Smith when there are so many important things to think about. And, er, that's it. The NYT is full of such meagre stuff. Compare any of it with the material on or linked to Danny Finkelstein's Comment Central. The overwhelming superiority of British comment journalism is clear. On the other hand, the Americans are better at long, intensively researched pieces. Look at this extended anti-Cheney article in GQ. Sure, it's a polemic but it has a kind of thoroughness you don't often see in the British press. Also the Americans have big news magazines - notably the superb Atlantic - full of utterly definitive essays. US mags, in short, are better, the newspapers worse. In Britain, you have to read the papers. In America, you don't.


  1. I agree with you 100% Bryan. I read the New York Times daily for many months: it is a unique combination of self importance and mediocrity. Its front pages are abysmal.

    On the negative - very negative - side, US broadcast news is also piss poor: and I remember the desperation and impatience plainly, shamelessly exhibited by US TV journos before the second Iraq war: these people wanted that war! They could not face a future without being embedded with some trigger happy marines.

    Again you are spot on about their excellent news magazines: we can't compete. Why not? The Spectator and the New Statesman are piffling in comparison.

  2. Is the pomposity of US jounalism related to the hegmonic position of the US in the world today? And is the piracy of British journalism got something to do with Britain's relative impotence? In other words, does the tenor of journalism in any country at any given time reflect the political zeitgeist? Or has the style and content of newspaper journalism in both countries always been thus?

  3. Heartily agree (sorry). In addition to the excellent Atlantic there are Harpers, National Review, Weekly Standard, New Criterion, and such gems as First Things. You are right about the pompous and self-serving New York Times, but don't forget the outstanding Wall Street Journal. The Comment pages and book reviews are excellent, and, if you are not a zillionaire, you can throw two thirds of it away unread.

  4. The proof of this is the regularity with which US bloggers quote British newspaper opinion pieces now that they are all on the web (we already take for granted the Times, Telegraph and Guardian sites in particular, but they are excellent).

    US hacks don't seem so comfortable in that happy middle-ground between the two extremes of loudmouth shock-jock polemic, and tame statement of the inoffensive obvious.

  5. Yes you are dead right about the difference between UK and US journalism. But UK "opinion" journalism, which is rampant, also tends to be fact-free. The US are obsessed with fact-checkers (I found "Bright Lights Big City" most telling cf the equivalent publications in the UK). You can't imagine anyone turning a hair in the UK if we had Jayson Blair here, as "opinion" journalism over here is just craply incorrect on almost any detail of a topic that the reader actually knows about (so is presumably equally unreliable on the things she doesn't).
    Certainly the opinion is much more incisive, focused, pity, entertaining and readable. But reliable it is not. I do agree that it refreshingly lacks the pomposity of the US press, but I think these two aspects are intimately connected.

  6. I agree, the Atlantic is good. Whether their they will remain so after hiring Andrew Sullivan remains to be seen, however.

  7. As a person who works at a newspaper and reads quite a few of them, I feel obliged to comment.

    First, British folk have always considered their newspapers far superior to ours, and probably for good reason: There are so many of them and so many famous writers got their start as journalists (Dickens as a court reporter in the 19th century, Stoppard as a theatre critic in the 20th, just to name the first two that come to mind).

    And it's ridiculous to say you don't laud them: Every commenter here is lauding them, with the possible exception of Maxine, and you also have movies with journalist heroes (see "State of Play," Bryan: It won the BAFTA and is all about a journalist who solves a big murder mystery. My hero Bill Nighy won an award as the savvy editor of this crafty band of journos -- played by John Simm, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald).

    What I see about your papers is the schism between serious papers, The Guardian, The Times, The Evening Standard,et al, and all the tabloids that publish ridiculous crap about the royals, etc. We have yellow journals in the states, too, but no one believes what they read in them. But when I'm in Britain, it seems to me that there are plenty of people who read only the rags and think they're getting first-rate news.

    As for the NY TIMES: It's gone way downhill, in my opinion. I dumped my subscription several years ago because of its, as Chris Hale put it, "combination of self importance and mediocrity." And its tolerance for the shenanigans of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. On the other hand, it's apparently had a very, very unhappy newsroom, too -- at least it did until Howell Raines stepped down.

    But that's just one big paper. Personally, I love the Washington Post. And in Calif., the San Francisco Chronicle is also good. They're not so self-important, though obviously, because this country is so big, they have hugely different foci. The Post is what you read if you want to know all about Beltway politics in more detail than you'd get in NYC. But it also has a good books section (which was the only reason we took the Times as long as we did).

    As for magazines, I don't know what your big ones are in the UK, but The New Yorker is fantastic, as well as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, several more.

    This post is too long, but I just want to stand up for American journalism. If all you're reading is the emasculated NYTIMES, you really aren't getting a true flavor of big American newspapers.

  8. A commendably robust riposte, Susan. Our national newspapers also have the advantage of operating in a small, manageable country where the zeitgeists are more readily identifiable. The US is unhandily vast.

    (You make one small error, however: the Guardian isn't a serious paper.)

  9. I think it's more deep seated than that Neil. We'v always been more cynical than our counterparts. It's probably hard to find any definite reason- millions of different sociological causes going back millenias probably.
    Or it could just be the weather.

  10. From another Yank: I can't do better than Susan Balée, but I also wonder how much the U.S. journalistic weaknesses have to do with the growing realization that print journalism is facing a slow death? For that reason, the New York Times is moving into film journalism (e.g., documentaries).

  11. River of Deceit, my comment was pretty crass and uninformed - top of the head stuff really. My line of thinking had something to do with national character (which in itself is a highly problematic concept) and how this is shaped by socio-political forces. Why does American journalism take itself more seriously, as Bryan suggested it does? Why is it celebrated? And why is British journalism less celebrated etc? You're probably right, though, there is no one reason or factor that determines such things. However, I think the weather should be factored in more often when trying to explain general behaviour.

  12. As someone who is slightly in danger of commiting offences in the manner of sweeping generalisations- they're all shit.