Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Shoptalk

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Shoptalk

Article excerpt

2001: PAGING ORWELL

As a journalist, famed novelist shows how to cut through illusions

The American Society of Newspaper Editors recently published "The Newspaper Credibility Handbook," subtitled "Practical Ways to Build Reader Trust." It has a lot of good advice, but I'd like to make just one more suggestion: "Read Orwell."

Orwell is familiar to most of us over 50, but I suspect younger journalists erroneously think of him as the guy who wrote a popular but self-destructing book that no one has had to read since 1984.

So, for the record:

George Orwell, the son of a colonial policeman, was born Eric Arthur Blair in India in 1903 and died in London in 1950. He was a journalist all his writing life, but his fame among general readers rests on two novels. The political satire, "Animal Farm," was published in 1945; "1984," his grim warning of what the future might hold, was published a few months before he died, leaving behind a suddenly rich widow.

It may be that he will be forgotten, except for an occasional mention in an academic course on "Representative British Writers of the 20th Century." But I hope not, for Orwell was a great journalist -- and reading his journalism can enlighten, entertain, and serve as a model for many decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, acknowledged that Orwell may write about events "now far in the past," but added that he lives vividly for the reader because he conveys "what matters most of all," a "sense of the man who tells the truth."

What makes for truth-telling in journalism depends on what we conceive journalism to be. For an Orwell, it is neither a social science nor a social service, dutifully going about its chore of furthering a well- ordered society. Good journalism defies the system-building mentality. And its goal of an explainable, predictable universe. Journalism is about the unending new, the unique, precious, and unrepeatable, that is the life of men and women. It is made up of this combination of circumstance and people, that conflict or achievement. It is about these songs, that no-hitter, what makes for this culture and that politics. In short, journalists seek to convey what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called simply "a sense of reality," as tangible as the newspaper in our hands.

Faithfulness to reality means avoiding garish sensationalism that distorts events into cheap stereotypes. Perhaps more difficult in daily journalism, it also means a realization that what is too easily written off as routine news represents the grit of how we cope, or fail to cope, with daily life. …

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