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Journalism Past and Present

Marion Rodgers, author of Menken: The American Iconoclast, and Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting From Washington: A History of the Washington Press Corps discuss their books, journalist Henry Louis Mencken, and the state of journalism today. Read yesterday’s post here

Donald Ritchie:Ritchiecover_1

Yes, as king of the print generation H.L. Mencken would surely have shuddered over the ephemeral nature of cyberspace, but I can’t help thinking that he would have admired the bloggers’ linguistic creativity and their penchant for poking holes in the establishment’s pretensions.

As for wartime journalism, Mencken also experienced that first-hand during the First World War when he was perceived as being too sympathetic to Germany, even for an iconoclast, and had to withdraw from news commentary until after the war. I ended Reporting from Washington in the aftermath of September 11th 2001, when the terrorist attacks both revived public interest in news from Washington and put pressure on the press corps for more overt patriotism. Public attitudes limited the reporters’ usual skepticism about the government’s actions and motives. Earlier in the study of twentieth-century news reporting, I found instances where there isolationist Chicago Tribune published classified information about the government’s contingency war plans–just days before the Pearl Harbor attack–and midway through the war revealed that the U.S. had broken the Japanese naval codes. The Navy wanted to sue the Tribune for its breach of national security, until it realized that the Japanese had not changed their codes, suggesting that they had not read the Chicago newspaper. To avoid attracting their attention, no suit was filed. The Tribune came in for considerable criticism at the time, although its ace Washington correspondent Walter Trohan noted that some of the harshest critics later published the Pentagon Papers.

These instances show that the tension between national security and the public’s right to know isn’t a new phenomenon. Reporters have to balance the demand to provide relevant information for their readers with the concern not to hinder the nation’s war effort. The usual practice is for reporters to rally ‘round the flag at the beginning of a war, and then slowly regain their professional detachment as the war progresses, especially if news from the battlefield contradicts what the government is saying. And today it’s even harder for the mainstream media to censor themselves. whatever they try to suppress will find an abundance of alternative outlets online.

Mencken was a man of such strong opinions, who rarely hesitated to write what he thought. Are there any examples of him admitting that he got something wrong and changing his position?

Marion Rodgers:Rodgersbook_jacket_1

There are not many instances of this. But here is one that comes to mind: when Mencken married. Until the age of 50, Mencken was called “America’s Foremost Bachelor,” praised for being the patron saint of single men. When H. L. Mencken married Sara Powell Haardt in 1930, the press concluded that the author of “In Defense of Women” was probably in the most embarassing position of any fiancee in recent years. They were bent in trotting out the old quotes. How, reporters insisted with glee, will Mencken explain that he had once said “A man may be a fool and not know it –but not if he’s married.” Long before, he had defined love as “the delusion that one woman differs from another.” To these queries Mencken replied; “I formerly was not as wise as I am now….the wise man frequently revises his opinions. The fool, never.”

My question to you, Don is twofold:

1) Is there any modern journalist that you have written about that comes close to being another H. L. Mencken?

2) You have such a busy schedule, as Senate historian, as author of many books, not to mention your other activities, speech giving included. Tell us about how you do you your work, so you are able to achieve a balance at work and at home, how you find time to produce so many fine books. They are packed with information, yet always readable, with impeccable scholarship.

Donald Ritchie:

I should have realized that the laws of matrimony applied even to H.L. Mencken. Only his wife Sara could have gotten him to eat his words.

I don’t see any single journalist or media personality standing as the modern day equivalent of H.L, Mencken. Perhaps a Dr. Frankenstein could assemble one from various parts: a little of Tom Wolfe’s wordplay, Maureen Dowd’s humor, Frank Rich’s criticism, Helen Thomas’ questioning, George Will’s analysis, William Safire’s lexicon, and Rush Limbaugh’s invective. The result would surely shock and awe readers as much as Mencken used to by himself.

As for writing books, for me it is a labor that occupies some part almost every evening and weekend. A subject has to be compelling enough to consume so much free time, but one hopes that interest will transfer to the readers as well. Public historians are not awarded sabbaticals or summers off between semesters, but those of us who work in Washington are compensated by access to the enormous research resources of the Library of Congress and National Archives.

While writing about Washington news reporters, I had the added advantage of having them call and visit the Senate Historical Office in search of historical background for their own news stories. Almost daily contact with reporters made me curious about the accuracy of their “first rough draft” of history, and how they went about collecting it. I set out to write their history and did much of my research by reading their memoirs, oral histories, and news stories, but got a lot of other insights by interviewing them after they had finished interviewing me. One of my functions at the Senate is to conduct an oral history program, and one of my books is a manual on Doing Oral History (Oxford, 2003). My research–and writing–is always improved when I have the chance to talk with those who participated in the events of the past, and record their often colorful descriptions and candid assessments. I wish that I could have had the opportunity to interview H.L. Mencken, but reading your biography was almost like meeting him personally.


Want to read more by Rodgers and Ritchie? Check out some of their past posts on the OUP blog.

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