Would Norman Mailer have fallen for the UVA rape hoax?

The answer, of course, is no. Journalist Sabrina’s Erdely’s “expose” of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, an expose that was published in Rolling Stone magazine to great fanfare in December 2014, was almost instantly recognized as a hoax. Rolling Stone has since retracted the story. And were he alive and editing Rolling Stone, Norman Mailer would most certainly seen the problems in Erdely’s reporting before the story saw the light of day.

I bring up Mailer, who died in 2007, because the great German publisher Taschen has just published JFK:Superman Comes to the Supermarket, a deluxe, oversized version of Mailer’s 1960 Esquire magazine essay about John F. Kennedy.

“Superman Comes to the Supermarket” is now regarded as an early example of the New Journalism, the lyrical and personal form of storytelling that replaced the older and more dull “Who What When Where Why” school of reporting. Rereading Mailer’s essay, which remains both brilliant, exasperating, and pretentious—but never dull—reveals exactly what is wrong with modern journalism. The problem today is not just political bias, but something that precedes bias. Unlike most other professions—and unlike journalism for a lot of its history—modern journalists no longer have to endure a period of serious apprenticeship.

The rise of the Internet, the deification of young fresh voices instead of the experienced, the imperialism of the “hot take,” the desire to score cheap and easy political points rather than reach for deeper meaning—all of these things have resulted in journalists who have little empathy for or curiosity about subjects onside of their area of “expertise.” They start as bloggers and endure no honing period, no rookie season under the watchful eye of an editor (or two) where they are on their toes and know that a major mistake could end their career. They find their niche and hit it hard, and even brazenly make mistakes, often without punishment. (Erdely has not lost her job at Rolling Stone). That old and dull journalism, at its best, taught reporters skepticism, good writing, and exposure to a wide rage of people and experiences; until recently, most reporters did not come from the ranks of the elite educated classes. Because today’s practitioners lack the skeptical instincts and formal and informal controls of their profession, their journalism likewise suffers. It also breeds a kind of historical blindness; whatever his arguments with Christianity, for example, Mailer saw it as a real historical force. With his anemic descendants, we get the same annual “Did Jesus Exist?” articles by reporters with no apparent recognition that these same tired articles have been written for years.

Things used to be much different for journalists, even during the era of New Journalism that Mailer helped usher in with the publication of “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” The New Journalists added personal opinion, psychological insight, and even fantasy to their copy, which they wanted to be read as literature as much as reporting. Notable practitioners other than Mailer were Hunter S. Thomson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe. These writers were hugely influential on generations of future journalists, who saw nothing wrong with injecting literary techniques and opinion into their copy. One is tempted to call the New Journalists early bloggers.

Yet what is often forgotten is that prior to their periods of fame and the techniques that changed the game, the new journalists spent years in the trenches learning their craft. Hunter Thompson was a reporter for several newspapers, and once typed out The Great Gatsby to learn the hard mechanics of good writing. Joan Didion spent two years as a copywriter at Vogue. Though Wolfe was offered teaching jobs in academia, he opted to work as a reporter. In 1956, while still preparing his thesis, Wolfe became a reporter for the Springfield Union. Wolfe was later hired by the Washington Post, in part because he didn’t care about politics. The Post’s city editor was “amazed that Wolfe preferred cityside to Capitol Hill, the beat every reporter wanted.” Wolfe also won an award from the Newspaper Guild for foreign reporting in Cuba in 1961. Mailer studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard before being drafted into World War II. After the war Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead, a novel about World War II. It was a critical and commercial smash. Mailer would go on to write books about the space program, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Gary Gilmore, the CIA, Mohammad Ali, and Lee Harvey Oswald. And that doesn’t even take into account Mailer’s dozen novels, or the fact that Mailer also helped found the Village Voice newspaper. “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” deserves the deluxe edition it has now received because the writing is the fruit of years of hard labor in the field and behind the typewriter.

Today there are millions of blogs and Internet sites where anyone can set themselves up as a “journalist,” not matter how little experience they have. In one sense this is a great thing; the Internet has fostered an environment of total freedom and instant accountability; a story can be checked as soon as it is posted by an army of self-appointed fact checkers and parties looking to root out bias. Anyone can launch a blog and say anything they want, a phenomenon that has a very democratic and populist appeal. The drawback is that some journalists get elevated to positions of visibility and authority when they are not ready or deserving of it. This most frequently happens with liberals, who tend to valorize their own and give out awards for anything, which fosters the sense among recipients they are important people despite having never done noteworthy work.

Why, after all, was George Stephanopoulos ever allowed to get away with calling himself a journalist? The former Clinton administration flack grew up in Massachusetts, where he studied theology and political philosophy. There’s no record of Stephanopoulos ever writing for a high school or college newspaper, for example. Stephanopoulos went right from law school to Democratic party politics. And from there he slipped seamlessly into the role of chief political correspondent for ABC News and host of their show This Week. To be surprised that Stephanopoulos has been caught giving money to the Clintons is like expressing shock that a man who never went to medical school botched an operation.

In fifty years, what journalist who is working today will be given the deluxe treatment that “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” has received? Ann Coulter? Dana Milbank? Ezra Klein? Klein, for example, is a popular blogger who worked at the Washington Post before founding his own website, Vox, to great fanfare, in 2014. Like so many of his contemporary colleagues in the fourth estate, Klein never went through journalistic boot camp. He started blogging in 2003 and for his entire career has held fast to writing in defense of liberal politics and policy. You never read Klein writing about a jazz band. Or a religious cult. Or a sports team. He writes in defense of liberal policy coming out of Washington. To envision him living with the Hell’s Angels for several months, the way Hunter Thomson did, is impossible.

Yes, a majority of Americans don’t like journalists. But journalists’ blatant biases are only partially to blame for the mistrust the profession has engendered. Even prior to bias is the suspicion that these persons who have set themselves up as the interpreters of our culture have simply never learned their craft.  

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C.