In literature, the journalist is an unrecognizable fiction

The Argument

In thousands of novels about the news craft, almost none offers lifelike characterization.

January 21, 2001|By Steve Weinberg | By Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Journalism is a weird trade. It plays a role at the center of democracy, but resides in a chaos of perceptions, at once reviled and revered, misrepresented and romanticized. Janet Malcolm took journalists to task in the New Yorker, calling them seducers of their sources who massage and corrupt the raw material of life for the sake of The Story. No doubt many readers of that august magazine believed every word Malcolm wrote.

Fiction writing ought to be able to help here. Novelists, after all, like to think of themselves as hotly pursuing greater truths. How does a journalist think? What holds the journalist to the thin line of accuracy, or, in some instances, causes the journalist to cross the line into untruth? These are worthy questions for novelists wanting to illuminate character.

A few thousand novels have had their way with journalists. Dozens that I am aware of are scheduled for publication during 2001. How do I know? I collect them, and have almost surely read at least half of those in existence.

It turns out, according to the vast majority of novels with journalists as protagonists, that as a group reporters and editors have a lot of sex on the job, lack craft scruples and solve murders frequently enough to obviate the need for police in some parts of the country.

Trouble is, as a real-life reporter for 35 years, I almost never recognize my brethren in the novels featuring them. In real life, most journalists most of the time are observers, not participants. Many readers of journalism novels do not realize that, however. Much or all of what they think they know about journalists is derived from reading unrealistic novels about the craft's practitioners.

Many of those novels are written by nonjournalists who are primarily interested in the reporter or editor as deus ex machina, not as a believable representation. In those cases, the lack of verisimilitude is perhaps understandable. Many other unrealistic craft novels, though, are written by journalists who know better.

Added together, journalism novels have sold millions of copies -- maybe tens of millions, considering some of the authors have names like Irving Wallace, Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel, Sally Quinn, Marvin Kalb, Ted Koppel, Jim Lehrer, Jack Anderson, Jimmy Breslin, Pierre Salinger, Dean Koontz and Sandra Brown. The monthly magazine Romantic Times mentions journalism novels every issue, and it is no secret how well romance fiction sells. This year Barbara D'Amato, Jan Burke, Lillian Jackson Braun and other writers who feature the same journalist protagonist in novel after novel are scheduled to publish again.

I also collect novels with biographers as protagonists. The number is quite modest, but in general biographers are portrayed more realistically. My sense is that a large proportion of novelists writing about lawyers (whether prosecutors or defense attorneys), police officers, physicians, professors and other professionals worry about verisimilitude -- which is not the same thing as saying the portrayals are usually positive. So why is verisimilitude in journalism novels so rare?

The simple answer to the question is novelists sensationalize to drive plots that sell books. Fair enough. Novelists want their fictions to reach large audiences. They can accomplish that, however, while remaining more or less faithful to the way journalists work.

Call my proposal a journalist procedural, a concept that could take its place alongside the police procedural, courtroom procedural and operating room procedural. A few successful novelists have written journalist procedurals that are action-packed, yet shot through with verisimilitude.

In my view, the best journalist procedural published in this country appeared in 1971. It is "The Fly on the Wall" by Tony Hillerman (Harper, 280 pages, $6, paperback), published years before he started writing the Native American mysteries that made him a household name. Hillerman, a former newspaper reporter and journalism professor, took his title from the metaphor, attributed to Walter Lippmann, of the journalist who sees all and feels nothing. The protagonist, John Cotton, keeps a picture of the symbolic insect on the pressroom wall in the Capitol of a Midwestern state.

When introduced by Hillerman, Cotton seems to be a gray sort of guy, gathering information away from the sunlight --much as most first-rate, real-life journalists do. Hillerman describes Cotton walking through the Capitol:

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