Book Review: Norman Mailer and the Return of New Journalism
Words: Elisabeth Sherman
In 1968 Norman Mailer published Armies of the Night, a third person chronicle of the October 1967 march on Washington D.C. in protest of the war in Vietnam. The book was a revelation–Mailer’s eyewitness accounts of the event and its ensuing consequences fused his personal experiences with his reporting, and the result was a punch in the stomach for traditional journalism’s stoic adherents. Mailer managed to melds together fact and truth, where lived-experience was paramount to the story. 44 years later, journalism students are still reading Armies of the Night, and Mailer’s techniques ignite that ever-intriguing debate over the nature of truth versus fact. Mailer was at the forefront of the New Journalism movement. This form of writing infused dramatic literary techniques and subjectivity, where the writer’s own opinions, reflections, and experiences are central, with rigourous reporting.
The form borrows heavily from techniques generally associated with ficiton: the story is told not in historical narrative, but rather in scenes, dialogue is used in full rather than disjointed quotations, and the story is told form the point-of-view of a specific character. Though New Journalism had literary elements, the reporting remained factually accurate. The point was to tell true stories that weren’t weighed down by the burden of objectivity.
In the wake of the Occupy Wallstreet movement, this style of journalism is making a much-needed comeback. Mailer’s style is just as important now as it was in 1968, not just in classrooms but in newsrooms themselves. The New York Times, still clinging to an archaic (and arguably unrealistic) standard of objectivity, claims that it must protect the “impartiality, accuracy and integrity” of journalism. An admirable goal mired by the fact that its code of ethics maintains that “Our greatest strength is the authority and reputation of The Times.” Mailer was not concerned with reputation. The code continues, “Our goal is to cover the news impartially and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly…Our fundamental purpose is to protect the impartiality and neutrality of the company’s newsrooms.”
Being fair wasn’t in Mailer’s perview, but telling the story as he saw and interpreted it, was. The lofty goals of papers like Times turned their so-called “unvarnished truth” into a dishonest manipulation of fact in the name of “authority and reputation” and “impartiality and neutraility.” Without those liabilities, Mailer was able to write vivid, personal stories, in which he didn’t bother to show both sides of the story–he didn’t pretend he could see from all sides of the issue. Mailer’s technique of presenting news through a personal lens is becoming the norm among Internet savvy would-be reporters. Journalism is beng forced to change by the monstrous power of social media like Twitter as a platform for news aggregation, while the Times stubbornly adheres to the principles the company believes are the only thing keeping journalism alive. Newspapers can resist all they want, but the role of the reporter is visibly shifting toward Mailer’s New Journalism.
This is an environment where everyday people are capturing historical moments from a individual viewpoint–a video camera that records a hurricane, or a politician’s sexually suggestive snapshot leaked to Twitter–and then distributes those personal recollections en masse. Eye-witness accounts and first-hand reports from partcipants and observers, who took up the mantle of “reporter,” on their own terms, formed the basis for the spread of information about the movement. Their stories made it to the news networks, the newspapers, the covers of magazines. What was once the perspective of one, is now the truth for millions.
Mailer intentionally mashed up his personal history with his historical moment. Even though Mailer makes himself a character in Armies of the Night, the story isn’t about him. The protestors involved in the Occupy Wallstreet were doing the same thing as Mailer, whether they realized it or not. News reports on the movements’ activities circulating on personal blogs and Twitter accounts ended up on trusted news sites. It was up to the event participants to be the reporters–like the students who filmed riot police in California pepper spraying their fellow helpless student-protesters. Mailer, who sometimes referred to himself as the “Participant” in Armies, often relied on first-hand accounts from observers to tell the story of the March on Washington, including one especially gut-wrenching scene in which a Hunter English professor watched a police officer beat a female protester with the butt of his rifle.
Each protestor who shared information and stories with the public was a character in the story of Occupy Wallstreet, and though that individual was often at the center of his or her experience, it was clear that purpose of the story was to recount the trimuphs and trials of the protests. What could be more in Mailer’s style than to rely on those people at the center of the event as our trusted informants? The new reporter is an unreliable narrator, but her personal version of events screams louder than Wolf Blitzer’s flashy but cold CNN info-graphics. The most iconic scenes of the Occupy Wall Street movement are snapshots of intimate moments in individual lives–an elderly woman’s face dripping with pepper spray, a couple kissing in the street surrounded by police—not distanced accounts of a movement marked by its insistence on adhering to its participants’ personal beliefs.
Occupy Wallstreet would have been an appealing subject for Mailer’s discerning eye. People were more interesting to him than the mere fact that an event had occurred: he spends as much time describing the people involved in the march, like the black protestor he spots carrying a sign that reads “no vietnamese ever called me a nigger,” or the hippie band The Fugs performing an excorcism on the Pentagon, as he does describing the march itself. There is no doubt that Mailer was reckless in his reporting, often sliding off into incoherent rants. In one notorious scene at the book’s start, he details his inability to aim his unrine inside the toilet bowl before performing a drunken impression of Lydon Johnson to a group of his peers.
It is the moments that focus on the characters surrounding him arethe most powerful. His tense stare down with a young skinhead in the back of a police paddy wagon comes to mind. The scene rips open the tension between the two men, opposed to each other as individuals but tied together by the movement, literally locked in a battle between Jew and Nazi, while outside the battle rages on between police and protestors, politicians and dissidents. Though Mailer’s self-indulgent impulses are sometimes difficult to push through, the passages of crystalline reflection and observation serve as a model for future news makers. Sitting on the sidelines and waiting patiently for an answer to questions are skills no longer sufficient for a journalist. Take note of Mailer’s signature arrogance: His prose not-so-subtly maintained that he was consistently the smartest man in the room, and while that attitude isn’t always appealing for a narrator, it did always grant him a compelling perspective on the events and people around him–his arrogance made him free to speculate on the inner thoughts of his subjects, unraveling their actions and words. He was fearless, always at the front lines of the action.
As journalism continues to morph in both methods and in significance, that attitude is worth revisiting. The end-game here is not to make professional reporting obsolete, though that might be the outcome no matter where journalism ends up falling in the next five years. Our current crop of Times indoctrinated reporters are immobile observers. Shifting the role of the reporter to an active participant in and influence over the political and societal events around him, seems more appropriate, a survival mechanism to keep the form afloat.
Mailer tirelessly watched his surroundings and wasn’t afraid to put his own spin on what he saw. The result is a vibrant world of diverse characters ranging from the upper class intellectual poet to the radical black student activist, co-existing on a page that is never static—his prose is unpredictable and full of chaotic movement. Mailer knew that his perspective was just as relevant and interesting as the neutral, if not dispassionate, one the news sources would be dolling out, a lesson that all writers should take heed of.
Newspapers in 2012 seem to be in the same stubborn state that Mailer actively pushed back on in 1967, and the elusive shadow of objective journalism still haunts reporters like King Arthur’s Holy Grail. Talk about lack of focus. If Mailer easily lost his train of thought, then journalists have lost sight of their most important purpose: to tell the truth. Mailer’s ultimate goal was to do just that, even if he had to sacrafice tradition along the way. That turned out to be a worthy sacrifice, though—one that today’s reporters should be looking back on with admiration, and the courage to revive his journalist techniques, instead of the kind apprehension that could leave journalism permantely crippled.