Stunting journalists

In a piece for this month’s Spectator US, I review a book about the “girl stunt journalists” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of whose work really did lead to good social reforms. These were women who sometimes went undercover, to expose labor abuses or various social inequities. We have too few journalists like this today.

The closest thing I can think of more recently was Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed, where she attempted to go on the job market. She used her maiden name and brushed down her resume, and joined the ranks of seekers attending job seminars. These were people who had held white collar jobs, who had degrees, and who had been led to believe that they should be able to get decent jobs quite easily.

Journalism itself has moved in the last century to a white-collar, credentialed job too. Things were different back when they were called reporters. The “he said, she said, How-do-you-spell-that”, press-pass-in-the-hatband school of reporting. It was a blue collar job and people worked their way up. Joining a paper as a cub reporter at the age of 17 was a path to a career.

Now of course, people come out of not only university but often a J-school degree (and the student loans to go with it). And they are journalists, which has in many ways changed the tone and focus of our newspapers. When we think back more than 100 years ago, how often pieces were un bylined. They were simply reporting current events. Of course there was bias and skew, and the illusion of impartiality was often that: an illusion.

Now everything is bylined (with the exception of a few holdover publications like The Economist), and journalists have an identity: a brand. And indeed the opinion section - with its branded columnists - has expanded itself to take over much of the modern paper. I'm sure this is partly an economic aspect, it is much cheaper to pay someone to write opinion pieces in their pajamas than it is to maintain a bureau in Kabul. But in the great days of American journalism that the stunt reporters operated, budgets seemed to be unlimited. Heck even more recently than that, I've heard tell of Condé Nast sending limos for editors, and makeup and stylists to their homes before they attended events.

A world where freelancers got $5 a word. Ha.