Tom Wolfe's Revenge

By Harvey, Chris | American Journalism Review, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Tom Wolfe's Revenge

Harvey, Chris, American Journalism Review

AFEW DECADES AGO, FEATURE writer Tom Wolfe was pilloried in print for having "the social conscience of an ant" and a "remarkable unconcern" for the facts. Only a visionary could have predicted his impact on journalism would be lasting.

Yet today, elements of the New Journalism that Wolfe so tirelessly promoted have become as commonplace as the pie chart in many newspapers, ranging from the New York Times to the Oregonian to the weekly Washington City Paper.

Practitioners don't call it New Journalism any more. They prefer the terms "literary" or "intimate" journalism or "creative nonfiction." But their stories are marked by the same characteristics that distinguished Wolfe's work at Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune: They're written in narrative form, with a heavy emphasis on dialogue, scene setting and slice-of-life details.

Jon Franklin, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes at the Evening Sun in Baltimore, says the growing interest in literary journalism can be explained as easily as a pendulum swing. Now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, he says that just as the 1980s ushered in USA Today and its emphasis on the "news bite, the infobit [and] the nonsense statistic" as tools to lure readers back to newspapers, the 1990s are being marked by a renewed interest in narrative.

"Suddenly this light bulb seems to be going off all over...that people want more than USA Today provides," Franklin told journalists in Spokane in May.

It didn't hurt, Franklin and others say, that a 1993 study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors confirmed what many of Wolfe's adherents had already come to believe. When stacked up against other types of newspaper stories, including the traditional inverted pyramid, the narrative was generally better read and better at communicating information.

But the renewed interest in the narrative is resurrecting old concerns about sourcing and accuracy. Some question whether newspapers should encourage the literary techniques, which critics argue have the potential to distort history and sow mistrust among readers.

Wolfe-like narrative stories are often told from the perspective of one or more of the main characters. Readers become privy to a character's thoughts but are not told how the thoughts were discerned by the reporter.

Sometimes, as in Bob Woodward's recent book about the Clinton administration, "The Agenda," entire meetings or scenes are reconstructed, with no clues given about the source of the information.

"One of the big problems our profession has is people questioning the validity...of what we're writing," says Francis Coombs, assistant managing editor of the Washington Times. "The minute you get to the point where the reader can't see where Bob Dole said it or Tom Foley said're getting into a murky area."

Even advocates concede there is tremendous potential for abuse in the narrative form. "These are real sophisticated techniques," Franklin says. "If you're going to use them dishonestly you're going to use them powerfully."

Adds Norman Sims, a former wire service reporter who is now a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, "You cannot verify characterization. You frequently cannot verify dialogue. So forms of literary journalism that depend on those kinds of storytelling present more of an unknown factor."

But Franklin and others argue that most literary journalists are no more likely to falsify quotes or stray from the truth than their colleagues writing in the inverted pyramid style. In fact, some say that because journalists writing the long story are more likely to be veterans, they are less likely to fudge quotes or embellish a story. They have hard-won reputations to safeguard.

"The temptations of narrative aren't like the temptations of heroin," says Mark Kramer, a journalism professor at Boston University who has collaborated with Sims on a new edition of an anthology of literary journalists. …

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