It was handy to have Christopher Hitchens around, and I’m sorry he’s not anymore. He was an excellent example of the power of oral articulacy, for instance, whose Youtube greatest hits were as much argument as one ever needed to convince someone to pay attention to the importance of rhetoric. And after years of being subjected through innumerable political campaigns to the notion that someone who flip-flops over the course of decades is unprincipled and intellectually unreliable, seeing Hitchens go from being a Balliol Bolshevik to a supporter of the war in Iraq, and the reasoning that brought Bush to it, was pure tonic.
But the two things he represents, the two things he was, that I think are the most important to journalism are expert and subjective.
When journalists are good at what they do, they learn a lot. Journalists talk to a lot of people most of us never get to. When you call up from the Toronto Star, or Vanity Fair or the Financial Times, people tend to take your call and, whether out of respect for the profession or unexamined reflex, they also tend to answer your questions. And if those questions are well put, and the answers well understood, you can find over time, in the journalists doing the asking, a remarkable cache of information, details, analysis and insight. If the journalist has what was once called by people in Hitchens’ educational milieu a first-class mind, as Hitchens himself undoubtedly did, then this repository becomes nothing less than an international treasure. Which Hitchens also was, and remains.
But we seem to have trouble with the notion of a journalist as an expert. Certainly there are many who aren’t, many who cover beats they don’t understand, or who are employed to opine when they have not earned the right, either through experience or demonstrated ability.
But when things go right, the people who ask questions for a living end up having a lot of answers and, after a time, can develop a greater perspective on subjects and circumstances than many, sometimes most, of their interviewees. We have any number of these people in Canada, or have had. Philip Marchand, for instance, who was the books columnist for the Toronto Star from 1989 until 2008 (he now writes book reviews freelance for the National Post). He had been employed for more than 20 years to read, and I saw him do so, many times, in his glassed-in office on the fourth floor of the Star building, morning, noon and night. The paper invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably as much as a couple of million, to have him be as expert as he was, to give him the often-subtly-used ability to compare a book written in 2008 to one written in 1973, or one author’s use of a technique or scenario to someone who did it better, or differently, or worse.
Andr Picard at the Globe has covered medical and health issues for so long, I would choose to go to him to understand any given epidemiological issue before I’d go to a random epidemiologist.
We have a dozen more at least (James Dubro on organized crime also comes to mind), and though they have all written books and been on TV and radio shows talking about this or that, I believe they have been insufficiently appreciated, unsatisfactorily used, inadequately lionized.
Hitchens, thankfully, was not. At least in part because of the strength of his personality, and probably not a little because of his Oxonian provenance and accent, Hitchens was, for at least the last twenty years of his life, recognized for what he was: the person you wanted to hear from on the Balkans, American politics and religion (and Orwell, and Jefferson, and the royals, and tea).
Which led us, with him, to accept the idea of subjective journalism. He remained for most of his life a reporter, interviewing people, going places, seeing and doing things, and bringing them back for us. But he had dispensed with any idea that he was not, himself, a person, in his case, a person who was the product of all the reporting, and living, he had done prior to the piece we were reading. He was not going to ignore it, and he didn’t ask us to, either. He did this grandly, on a large stage, with more aplomb than most of us even have the wherewithal to imagine mustering. But the essence of what he was doing was not unusual. Most, possibly all reporters and journalists do it. But mostly all of them are ordered not to reveal that fact to their readers, and are sometimes even threatened or fired when they do. There was a Washington Post editor, who worked at the paper Watergate heyday and rose to be executive editor, who made public the fact that he did not vote, in order to maintain this ludicrous faade of objectivity. As if not voting would blind a journalist from knowing what she knows and thinking what she thinks. As if such a thing were noble, desirable, or in fact anything other than deluded nonsense.
Christopher Hitchens was a subjective journalist, as we all are. There are certain things that are dictated in the pursuit of any story, certain people you absolutely must talk to, for instance, certain issues you must broach, but everything from the phrasing of the lead to the tone of the kicker is the product of subjectivity. How one juxtaposes one quotation with another, which experts you choose to call with your limited time, which sides of a debate you consider valid enough to discuss and which ones you don’t, are all products of an inescapable subjectivity that erases the possibility of an objectivity that editors are fools for demanding and readers are fools for inferring.
Hitchens was an expert with earned and changeable opinions, a man whose mind started out strong, and got stronger as the result of the career he chose and how he chose, and was able to pursue it. And because one of the basic skills of that profession was the ability to explain, he was not only an expert, but an expert storyteller, an expert explainer, a professional communicator, something every good journalist is.
It’s easy to forget the value of this particular professional class of question-askers and answer-demanders, the people rude enough to inquire rudely and arrogant enough to expatiate and expect not only to be paid for it but to have special protections to do their jobs. Easy to forget, as citizen journalists increasingly take up the mantle while abnegating the responsibilities, ethical and syntactical, that come with it. It was handy to have Christopher Hitchens around, and I’m sorry he’s not anymore.
Bert Archer writes about media for the Toronto Standard. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him @BertArcher.