Image for Can journalists ever be heroes? Is journalism worth dying for?

They’ve been portrayed, over the decades, as fearless adventurers and talentless drudges, noble truth-tellers and wretched liars, romantic idealists and sneering cynics, profound thinkers and fatuous lightweights. In hierarchical surveys of the occupations that British people admire, they regularly appear near the bottom, just above politicians. In books, movies and TV series, they’re often pictured as pushy, insensitive, malodorous, hard-drinking wretches, bullied by angry, dyspeptic bosses and concerned only with revealing the secrets of their betters. But sometimes, amazingly, they can appear as heroic, rather than foolish or unpleasant figures. Superman was one. So was Tintin. But then, so were Bridget Jones and Rita Skeeter. Yes, it’s not all beer and skittles, being a journalist in the public imagination.

In television dramas, journalists are useful to the plot because – in their old-fashioned role as investigative terriers – they perform the same truth-finding function as a private eye, only with the backdrop of a thrumming newspaper-office behind them. Paul Abbott’s State of Play starred John Simm as a reporter who explores the death of a female political researcher who was having an affair with an MP. It was so successful it was remade as a movie with Russell Crowe.

In movies, the newspaper hack is a useful leading man: he’s not professionally tied to an office, he’s reliably hard-bitten and worldly-wise, he lives on expenses and he’d do anything to get A Story – see It Happened One Night (1934), in which pissed-but-decent knight-errant Clark Gable takes runaway heiress Claudette Colbert under his wing, in return for being allowed to tell the story of her “flight to happiness”; or Roman Holiday, made 20 years later, in which growly-but-decent American hack Gregory Peck steers the woozily tranquilised virgin princess Audrey Hepburn through the Eternal City in order to get the story of her, you know, fascinating Ruritanian lifestyle.

In novels that feature journalists, by contrast, we constantly find a moral debate under way, implicitly or explicitly concerning the value of the life under scrutiny. It’s very rare to find a newspaperman or woman in fiction who is not writhing with moral ambiguity. Starting from the proposition that, if someone writes for a living he or she must aspire to write the finest possible prose about the most worthwhile subjects, authors in the past have dealt with the ethical chasm that separates the out-and-out hack from the fine and subtle poet he or she could become.

The dichotomy appeared most vividly in print 120 years ago, with the publication of New Grub Street by George Gissing. Ranged against each other, in Gissing’s 1891 work, are the figures of Edward Riordan and Jasper Milvain. The former is a high-minded chap determined to make his reputation as a serious novelist and refuse to compromise with the world of “commercial” fiction or newspapers (Gissing was just the same). The latter is a shameless, money-grabbing opportunist, who knocks off articles as though on a production line. “Your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman,” he tells his sisters. “He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising.” It’s a battle of the hack versus the heavyweight. When Reardon, on the brink of financial ruin, tries his hand at a schlockly novel, he is too “good” to make it work, his fortunes dwindle further and his wife Amy leaves him. Milvain gets a job on The Current and marries Amy. In the struggle between Art and Hackery the latter triumphs, to loud boos from the reader.

A direct descendant of Milvain is “Books” Bagshaw in Books Do Furnish a Room, the 10th book in Anthony Powell’s 12-volume roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time. Bagshaw is the apotheosis of the hack journalist, omni-competent in mediocrity of all kinds: “He possessed that opportune facility for turning out several thousand words on any subject whatever at the shortest possible notice: politics; sport; books; finance; science; art; fashion – as he himself said, ‘War, Famine, Pestilence or Death on a Pale Horse.’ All were equal when it came to Bagshaw’s typewriter. He could take on anything, and – to be fair – what he produced, even off the cuff, was no worse than was to be read most of the time. You never wondered how on earth the stuff had ever

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Related: Is Journalism worth dying for?


Final Dispatches

By Anna Politkovskaya

Translated by Arch Tait. 468 pages. Melville House. $19.95.


Anna Politkovskaya, the fearless Russian journalist who was shot and killed by an unknown assailant in Moscow in 2006, wrote about the dark side of Vladimir V. Putin’s reign: the brutal war in Chechnya; the top-to-bottom thuggery and corruption; the lack of an independent judiciary; the “bureaucratic black magic” that could poison, or snuff out, a life at a moment’s notice.

Ms. Politkovskaya — she was the mother of two, dead at 48 — wrote sentences that fit her subject: her prose was mostly hard and balefully direct, wormy with unpleasant truths. A not-untypical moment in “Is Journalism Worth Dying For?,” a new collection of articles she wrote for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, describes a young Chechen woman scraping her father’s brains “from the walls into a bag in order to bury them.” This book, at times a catalog of inquisitorial horrors, is not for weak stomachs.

“Is Journalism Worth Dying For?” is moving on multiple levels, and one of them is for the glimpse it provides of the writer Ms. Politkovskaya might have been if she had made her career in a different time and place. Her warmth and gregarious humanity flood the margins of this volume, placing the horrors she witnessed in an even more appalling light.

During a short trip to Paris, for example, she met a publisher named Robert Laffont and found a Nabokovian delight in his aesthetically pleasing name. “The uvular trill of the ‘r,’ twice. The lilylike ‘la’ where a tender ‘l’ merges with a kiss from the lips delicately forming that special ‘a’ to produce a sound close to the la-la-la of a toothless babe.”

Observing an Argentine tango company, she delivered this deadpan verdict on romance in her own country: “Passion Russian-style is a trip from A to B. At A we kiss, and at B we saw away at the bed-frame.” Life with a favorite dog was like having “an intravenous drip of love,” especially since that dog, Martyn, learned to protect her from the ill-intentioned.

“Is Journalism Worth Dying For?” is a book of sustained moral witness; its lighter moments are relatively few. You put these bits in your pocket, however, to see you through the bleaker passages.