To be said for the [old journalism...


January 07, 1995

"THE BEST THING to be said for the [old journalism] culture was that, almost inadvertently, it produced something truly first rate, and that was the worldly tradition in American reporting.

"The old system gave American reporters an efficient, unsentimental education in American realities. [A. J.] Liebling in Providence and [H. L.] Mencken in Baltimore, to name only giants, learned rapidly that corruption and collusion and ambiguity were part of the daily run of democratic life.

"But they learned, too, that reforming the system was not always a self-evident consequence of exposing its shortcomings. . .

"Nobody can describe Mencken as 'soft' or 'in the tank,' but his experience made him cautious about judging from a distance what was and was not a sin.

"When Mencken, for all his reputation as a hatchet man, tried to define his credo, he wrote that the man he had come to mistrust most was the one whose 'distinguishing mark is the fact that he always attacks his opponents not only with all arms, but also with snorts and objurgations -- that he is always filled with moral indignation -- that he is incapable of imagining honor in an antagonist, and hence incapable of honor himself.' The kind of man he admired most was one who had 'a serene spirit, a steady freedom from moral indignation, an all-embracing tolerance,' he wrote. 'Such a man is not to be mistaken for one who shirks the hard knocks of life. On the contrary, he is frequently an eager gladiator, vastly enjoying opposition. But when he fights he fights in the manner of gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon.

" 'That is to say, he carefully guards his amour prope by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest -- and perhaps, after all, right.'

"The old, worldly tradition in American newspapering now belongs almost exclusively to diehards like Murray Kempton, whose sometimes deliberately perverse judgments -- that a gangster can display more honor than a mayor of New York, or that Richard Nixon had more character than Bill Clinton -- often feel like a kind of final Flamboyant Gothic flourish placed by the one remaining craftsman on the peaked roof of the old church." -- Adam Gopnik in the Dec. 12 New Yorker.

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"MENCKEN despised people." -- Rubric in Newt Gingrich's college lecture outline.

* * *

"In Mencken, Gingrich can see only a misanthrope, a hater, and is blind to Mencken's wit, his capacity to puncture a fraud in a phrase. Which stands to reason. Mencken would have seen through Gingrich's intellectual vanities and self-inflated crusades, and sliced him up like a Sunday ham. Gingrich has probably read enough Mencken to know that."-- David Remnick in the Dec. New Yorker.

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