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New Times: Journalists in Bars

New Times Magazine appearing biweekly

By Dan Swanson

A HYPOTHETICAL situation: a pivotal Midwestern district in the United Steelworkers Union is holding an election for the district presidency. A young black reformer is running against the old boss's hand-picked successor, and the race has attracted national attention. Time magazine sends its Chicago correspondent out to cover the story. The correspondent spends two days in the district, interviews the wrong people and misspells half the important names. The weekly newsmagazine's New York headquarters adds further errors in editing, and steelworkers glancing later at the brief story gape in amazement. Time has a circulation of over 4 million.

Meanwhile, The Nation makes a few phone calls and locates a veteran journalist who has lived in the district and edited a labor newspaper there for 20 years. The journalist gets to work, and two weeks later The Nation publishes a long, accurate article which describes the union election in terms of the district's historical background. The facts are right, the interpretation is informed and sensitive and no one's name is spelled wrong. Twenty-five thousand people read The Nation's account of the dispute.

New Times, the new biweekly, glances over its masthead of superstars, selects one who worked for a paper in the district ten years earlier and sends him out. He immediately winds up in a bar outside one of the steel mills, bending elbows with the locals and satisfying himself that he still talks their language, that he throws around enough 'shits' and 'motherfuckers' that they don't see he is a high-priced journalist working for a slick new magazine in New York, far away from the smoke belching out of the blast furnaces.

His piece two weeks later is full of personal reactions about 'returning home,' a few great quotes (some of them made up) from steelworkers explaining them to the rest of us, and some preaching about how it's no fun to be a steelworker. Scattered through the brief article are hints that some sort of election is actually taking place here, that it means something to these people--but they are merely hints. Too much information might interfere with the story.

New Times really doesn't have to perform so poorly. Among its contributing editors are some of the best and most progressive journalists in this country: Marshall Frady, J. Anthony Lukas '55, Joe McGinniss, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Nicholas von Hoffman. In addition, the magazine lists some 66 correspondents scattered around the country--most of them apparently younger journalists in places like Richmond, Va. and Bozeman, Mont., many of them working for small, independent local weeklies. If its masthead were any indication, New Times would be covering a variety of interesting and important local stories with sensitive and informed understanding.

Thus far, though, the new venture has been an almost total bust. After five issues, New Times is still sputtering away aimlessly with no clear idea of how to use its vast potential. Its articles are short, ill-conceived and often prey to the worst excesses of the New Journalism's self-indulgent impressionism. As one reader wrote in the letters column several issues back, "I just finished issue no. 2 of New Times and I feel like I've been eating the centers of several Hostess Twinkies. Who needs it?"

The answer is that we all need it and we are not getting it. The past decade is littered with the wreckage of previously successful magazines: Look, Life, The Reporter, even The Saturday Evening Post. None of them were very good but they at least provided some antidote to the relentless drone of television; they at least marked out a conception of the world less fleeting than a half hour of network news sandwiched between vapid and escapist situation comedies and cop shows. Now they are gone, and we are left with a choice among Walter Cronkite, Time magazine and the local newspaper with its wire service copy. We are fed an increasingly standardized and bland diet of news and comment, and the portions of hard-core information are getting steadily smaller.

Into this wasteland steps New Times, which has the talent but has thus far lacked the sense of direction to succeed. Marshall Frady, for example, is a skillful and sympathetic veteran Southern journalist: His book Wallace is a wonderfully revealing portrait of George Wallace and the Alabama that produced him. New Times sent Frady to North Carolina to hang around with Sam Ervin, and Frady wrote a brief, pointless description of the senator, and of a recording company producing a record of Sam reading old folk tales and the lyrics to popular songs.

J. Anthony Lukas expanded his compassionate description of the Greenwich Village counter-culture into Don't Shoot, We Are Your Children, a book which carefully portrayed the mood of the late sixties without departing into sycophancy or sensationalism. Lukas went to Baltimore for New Times in the wake of Spiro Agnew's resignation--although his brief, three-page report had some interesting background about the flourishing Maryland contracting industry which caused Agnew's downfall, it centered heavily around the proverbial scene at the local bar.

THE EFFORTS of Frady and Lukas have not been New Times's worst material. An utterly useless story about a Pittsburgh Steeler halfback whose only claim to fame seems to be the size of his wardrobe somehow made it onto the cover of the second issue. A group of profiles of potential 1976 Republican presidential candidates--each one page in length, each accompanied by a full page color photo of the person in question (Who doesn't know what Ronald Reagan looks like?)--read like a spruced-up version of Evans and Novack.

Part of the problem with New Times is purely technical--it does not seem to allow its writers the time or the space to develop their articles. To begin to explain the background of an event, a dispute or a development should take two pages--an article which combines background, the significance of current events and likely prospects for the future so briefly cannot help being meaningless.

Also, New Times is not using its people well--two of its best, Studs Terkel and Nicholas von Hoffman, have yet to be heard from, while Bob Greene, an insignificant Chicago columnist, has already weighed in three times. The fleet of local correspondents does not seem to have been used much yet either, and they are potentially the magazine's greatest strength.

But beyond these problems, New Times suffers from too close an identification with what has been called the New Journalism, which is really not new, but an updated version of the worst aspects of the old journalism with a heavy dose of the first person thrown in. Both are flashy, sensational and often untruthful. The New Journalism, like the tabloids which preceded it, seizes upon scandal and intrigue with total lack of discrimination, not because it is desirable that the truth should out, but because scandal sells. New York magazine, the flagship of the New Journalism, seems to have profiled every pimp and prostitute in the City of New York at least once: it serves as the Daily News for the swingers.

Flashy graphics and scandal for its own sake are only part of the problem with the New Journalism--it also lies. Lying and distortion of the news are hardly new (Time magazine has been getting away with it for years) but that makes it no less acceptable, Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism's chief drumbeater, wrote Radical Chic and omitted mention of his friends who attended the Bernstein's party; the New York articles about the pimps and prostitutes turn out to be composites, with some of the quotes and facts made up to tell the story better.

The New Journalism's only innovation, the heavy injection of the writer in to the story, is generally uninteresting and detracts from the real issues at hand. Norman Mailer can get away with it because he is a public figure whose reactions are interesting, but no one much cares what the recent journalism school graduate thinks of bars or workers or pimps. The primary role of journalism is to provide a basis for the reader to make his own judgment, a role which is sacrificed if the reader has to wade through dozens of 'what I thoughts' and 'how I felts.' (Mailer is careful here too: his Armies of the Night, even though relying heavily on his personal experiences and impressions, had an entire section, "The Novel as History," in which he dispassionately described the 1967 Pentagon march and the events leading up to it. Similarly, George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, talked about the background of the Spanish Civil War in addition to recounting his own experiences at the front.)

NEW TIMES does not completely submit to the New Journalism but the temptations are there. A potentially informative piece about the Irish Republican Army in the November 30 issue degenerated into a runny first person--"If Seamus killed the soldier, I thought, I would have no choice but to grab the rifle and shoot the other three," writes Richard Boyle, who then fails to explain either factionalism within the IRA or the great number of White Papers and Amendments and Laws to which he constantly refers. The reader learns almost nothing of Northern Ireland, or the intricacies of Irish politics. All he does learn is something about Richard Boyle.

Perhaps it is too early to judge New Times. It may yet lenghten its articles, make better use of its contributing editors, and start to rely on its local correspondents. It may yet see that in a nation where journalism is increasingly an empty choice between television, Time and the Associated Press, its first duty should be to report and analyze important news and developments honestly and fully. We cannot afford the outpourings of frustrated novelists so long as this function--journalism's most basic one--remains unfulfilled.

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