There are no Greek demigods among us, but Tom Wolfe gave us heroes—the men who dare deal with the crazy consequences of our modern freedom.
In a recent article in Daily Beast, conservative Ben Howe was justified in saying that, while there is “depth” and “talent” on the Right when it comes to opinion writers and essayists, the conservatives have “stopped being investigative, stopped being reporters and journalists.” As Howe pointed out, we live in a time when probing journalism is more needed than ever.
Conservatives have spent so many years pushing back against the coercion of the Left that they have forgotten to groom good reporters. There are exceptions—Howe points to the Washington Free Beacon and the Daily Caller, which have broken a few stories—but for the most part, the Right lags far behind the Left in hard journalism. An army of commentators is busy punching back against the Left-of-center arbiters of our culture, even as the Right is not training people in the hard work of reporting that can produce writers who affect the thinking of generations, not just this week’s Twitter outrage.
Wolcott and Wolfe
Then, too, ground-level training as a reporter can make someone a better pundit. Today’s grad-school-to-pundit pipeline on the Right has produced some dazzling thinkers, but even many of these lack depth. In his wonderful 2011 memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies, James Wolcott recalls how, 40 years ago, he started in the Village Voice’s mailroom, moved on to writing short notices, then became an acolyte of film critic legend Pauline Kael before coming into his own. Wolcott wanted to be a writer after reading Norman Mailer, the Village Voice co-founder and author of The Naked and the Dead and other major novels, who made frequent and colorfully pugilistic television appearances. Mailer covered the upheavals of the 1960s in trenchant reportage for Esquire and other publications.
Tom Wolfe, the conservative-leaning novelist who passed away in May, gained his reputation through training as a reporter. Known for his unique and pyrotechnic writing style, Wolfe turned down teaching jobs in academia in favor of life in the newsroom. At The Washington Post, Wolfe requested the city beat when the editors wanted him to cover politics. He won an award from the Newspaper Guild for foreign reporting in Cuba in 1961, and went on to write about Las Vegas, NASCAR, astronauts, yuppies, Phil Specter, architecture and modern art, to name just a few subjects.
No matter how outré the topic, Wolfe remained a reporter. “As a writer of novels and non-fiction,” one obituary noted, “he immersed himself in niche subcultures and made them come alive, from Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the trippy LSD odyssey The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to the adventures of the first astronauts in The Right Stuff. His first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was a sprawling, Dickensian epic tackling race and class, politics and greed in 1980s New York.”
Ease of Entry Isn’t Healthy
In the digital age, anyone can call himself or herself a journalist. This has been great for conservatives, who can launch websites and uploaded videos to YouTube that challenge liberal arguments. For those of us who left liberal journalism and found ourselves homeless, the Internet has been a godsend. We’ve been able to publish stories that would have gotten spiked or ignored in the mainstream media. The problem is that making a living this way is difficult. Financially there’s no equivalent to the profitable Washington Post, Tom Wolfe’s formative playground. But things are immeasurably better now than in the Dark Ages, when the bien pensant liberal gatekeepers decided who and what would get published. No one wants to go back to the New York Times and Washington Post setting the agenda for the entire country.
Still, the ease of the Internet coupled with the lack of hard reporting chops can make conservatives thinkers lazy and mistake-prone. Ben Shapiro, who has done so much work beating back political correctness on campuses, recently criticized the film Black Panther without having seen it. It’s impossible to imagine Wolfe taking on a similar work, one with important cultural meaning, and not bothering to see it before opining. Wolfe’s pride as a reporter would not have allowed it.
Steven Crowder, another conservative with a sharp mind, attempts to do research, but can come across as unprepared nonetheless. Crowder recently became completely unglued when challenged by an intelligent college student who got the better of him in an argument. Sensing he was losing, he peevishly started berating his opponent and asking for definitions of words—just like the social justice warriors he condemns. Good reporters are trained to listen, a skill that would have served Crowder well in the exchange.
There also Tomi Lahren, 25, who has millions of followers on social media and has become a star on Fox News. Lahren’s lack of rigor as a journalist has led to embarrassing mistakes. In a July 2015 “Final Thoughts” segment on the murder of four Marines by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, she argued that it didn’t matter that Abdulazeez hadn’t been linked conclusively to any known terrorist groups: “I’m sorry, but radical Islam is becoming the rule, not the exception. Yesterday’s moderate is today’s terrorist.”
It used to be possible for conservative personalities to break real news. In the presidential election of 1972, after South Dakota’s Senator George McGovern won the Democratic primary in Massachusetts, Washington reporter and columnist Robert Novak (1931-2009) phoned Democratic politicians around the country to get their take on McGovern. He reported to the readers that an unnamed Democratic senator had talked to him about McGovern. “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot,” the senator said. “Once middle America—Catholic middle America, in particular—finds this out, he’s dead.” McGovern became known as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid,” leading to his defeat in November in a 49-state landslide loss.
Novak’s work ethic and sleuthing instincts kept him relevant for his entire 50-year career. In 2002 he was at the center of the “Plame Affair.” CIA officer Valerie Plame wrote a memo to her superiors recommending her husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson, for a CIA mission to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had arranged to purchase and import uranium from that African nation. Novak published a column revealing Plame’s identity. It was classified information he’d picked up, not from Twitter or Facebook, but from one of his hard-won sources, State Department official Richard Armitage. (What stories will Tomi Lahren be breaking in five decades?)
Novak’s 2008 autobiography should be read, along with All the President’s Men, by all starting journalists. He was ideologically conservative, but his experience also gave him a free-thinking mind. “Mr. Novak had nothing in common with the partisan water-carriers who pass themselves off as conservative ‘journalists,’” The Economist noted about the man nicknamed “the prince of darkness.” In an obit that ran in the left-wing magazine The Nation, John Nichols observed that “the important thing to recall about Novak is that, at his best, he was an ideological rather than a partisan journalist . . . Novak would eventually declare himself to be a ‘right-wing ideologue.’ But his columns and comments were often as rough on the Republican establishment as they were on the Democrats.”
Novak argued against the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thirty years before Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias (2001), Novak wrote a long piece detailing the media’s leftward slant. The fact that he adhered to no party line made his pronouncements more credible to the public. He had interviewed thousands of people, travelled, and read widely. He wasn’t a kid in his mom’s basement hooked up to Skype.
From the 1980s right up until his passing in 2009, Novak was a fixture on the political talk shows. But his television fame came only after decades of hard reporting. He often said it was his inveterate practice to try to include breaking news in every single column that he and his longtime collaborator, Roland Evans, wrote. As he told Washingtonian magazine in 2003, “We followed that rule for 30 years. I still follow it. Sometimes it is some little triviality, the kind of story that creates a sensation in Washington for 24 hours and then you wipe the garbage up with it. But I just loved those kind of stories when I was a young reporter, and I love them now.”
Conservative foundations pouring money into identifying the next big television-screen face would to well to also look for the next Robert Novak.