Over drinks not long ago, a friend summed up the way journalism had changed over the course of his career. “Journalists used to act like cynics but at heart we were idealists,” he said. “Now we’re often cynics masquerading as idealists.”
I thought of that line twice last week. The first time was on Wednesday, while reading, against my better judgment, about the abrupt resignation of Jeff Zucker as president of CNN. The second was on Sunday, after learning that my friend John Vinocur, the former executive editor of The International Herald Tribune, had died in Amsterdam at 81.
In these two stories lies the difference between the kind of journalism Americans used to venerate and the kind we have today.
The news about Zucker is that he was purportedly pushed out for failing to disclose a romantic (consensual) relationship with a senior colleague. Except hardly anyone at CNN seems to think that was the real reason, since the romance was common knowledge. This, in turn, has fueled suspicions that the explanation for the resignation is its own piece of cynicism masquerading as idealism — a show of moralistic propriety that, as some at CNN believe, is part of a legal strategy connected to the former anchor Chris Cuomo’s potential suit over his severance package.
But it also leads to a deeper set of questions: Why should the private lives of media executives be a matter of public interest to anyone? Who turned the news business into an extended act of navel gazing? When did “me,” “we” and “us” become the news media’s preferred pronouns?
One journalist who was not much for navel gazing was Vinocur, whose column in the I.H.T. was the one thing I would never miss when I was a graduate student in England and later when I worked as a journalist in Brussels and as an editor in Jerusalem.
From reading him over the years, I gleaned that Vinocur had covered, so it seemed, everything. The Biafran war. The Munich massacre. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Stroessner regime in Paraguay. Spy games in Germany. The Mitterrand monarchy in France. He was almost absurdly well sourced, thanks to years spent as The Times’s bureau chief in Paris and Bonn. And his prose — confident and confiding, energetic and endearing, intimate in detail and Olympian in scope — was, by far, the best in the paper.
A vintage Vinocur lede from a column of 25 years ago:
Such lines might struggle to pass editorial muster today. Too old school and pejorative. Hints of a colonialist posture.
But they made the morning paper a joy to read. And they gave a young journalist a sense of what his vocation might be like when practiced at its best: adventurous, literary, significant. As I read John in my 20s, I figured out what I wanted for my own career: to see the world without illusions — but without losing the ballast of personal ideals.
About 10 years ago, I got an unexpected visit from John in my office at The Wall Street Journal. Would I, he asked, give him a job? He was retired from The Times. But he still knew everyone, he had plenty to say, his skills were intact. In this way I became his editor, he became my mentor, and we became friends.
For the next several years he delivered a string of columns that look only better with the passage of time. From a 2015 column on the Minsk agreement, which helped set the stage for the present crisis in Ukraine: Its holes, he wrote, were “so gaping as to allow Russia to drive tanks unhampered through an open Ukrainian border for next to forever.” From a 2017 column raising alarms about Berlin’s increasingly neutralist foreign policy: “Is there a kind of German complicity or reflexive softness involving Russia that permits Moscow’s blatant (and strategic) lying without anything resembling serious retaliation?”
For many readers, these topics may have seemed distant. They didn’t trend on Twitter. They didn’t have the gossipy salaciousness of a newsroom scandale.
But they mattered. They looked outward. They dwelt heavily on the inner mechanics of politics and diplomacy. But they did so not for the sake of the game itself, but for the large things at stake.
I last saw John in Florida, shortly before the pandemic began. We had a gloomy conversation about the state of journalism. But when we parted, he said, “It’s a noble profession.”
It is. We should do more to live up to his example.
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