For the past six months, I have been playing God; or, at least, as near to God as any journalist is likely to get. I have appointed myself editor of The Paradise Times, and have been busily selecting my staff from among every journalist who ever lived.
This apparently deranged project is research for a book called The Great Reporters which will profile the 20, all-time best.
But whom to include? Having toyed briefly with conducting a poll, I decided the best method was to imagine I was editing a paper competing against Mr Dante's Inferno Telegraph, and ask myself whom I would want covering events.
Some of the earliest recruits virtually selected themselves: Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for instance - so useful for investigating if there's any diabolical dirty tricks going on; Nellie Bly, the young American reporter who feigned madness to get inside New York's Blackwell's Island asylum in 1887 and so exposed conditions there; and J A MacGahan, the Irish-American correspondent who revealed the Bulgarian Atrocities of 1876 and climaxed his report with: "The harvests are rotting in the fields, and the reapers are rotting here in the churchyard."
Hard, too, to omit Marguerite Higgins, the little blonde Californian who looked, and spoke, like Marilyn Monroe but was as tough as old army boots (when US officials ordered her out of Korea because she was a woman, she simply refused to go and then fought her way back in). She, the first reporter into Dachau, was the ultimate story getter, and had not the slightest scruple about begging, borrowing, stealing, or even seducing to do it. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting.
I'll also need a couple of good hogwash-spotters. Step forward P J O'Rourke of Rolling Stone, writer of one of the neatest first paragraphs I know: "My friend Dorothy and I spent a weekend at Heritage USA, the born-again Christian resort and amusement park created by television evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker. Dorothy and I came to scoff - but went away converted. Unfortunately, we were converted to Satanism." Neither do I want to do without A J Liebling, chronicler of wars and low-life for The New Yorker. He it was who, when asked how he rated himself, replied: "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." But my favourite is not a man who wrote gags, or covered great events, but who reported everyday events in his city. His name was Meyer Berger, and for 30 years he occupied a desk in the middle of The New York Times newsroom, from which he went out to cover crimes, heatwaves, animals escaping from circuses, funerals, festivals and fires. He did so with a skill for phrase (his report of soldiers' bodies returning in 1947 began: "The first war dead from Europe came home yesterday. The harbor was steeped in Sabbath stillness as they came in on the morning tide"); a talent for the pithy first line (a story about a blind man who fell to his death in the subway began "The sixth sense that had preserved Oscar England from harm through the thirty-four dark years of his life betrayed him yesterday."; and a breath-taking efficiency (when a crazed former soldier shot 13 people and himself in New Jersey, he retraced the gunman's steps for six hours, interviewing nearly 50 witnesses, and then, in less than three hours, wrote a 4,000-word account for the first edition, not a word of which was changed.) The story won him the Pulitzer Prize, and he duly gave the $1,000 prize money to the dead killer's mother.
So far, you may have noticed, no Brits, and therein lies a problem. Sure, I'll hire James Cameron, William Howard Russell (of the Crimea), Robert Fisk, Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail, and sports writer Hugh McIlvanney, but after that, I'm scratching around for homegrown reporters who measure up to America's best. Have I not looked hard enough? Maybe, but I suspect the imbalance (only five Britons versus 13 Americans) reflects the way we do journalism here. In Britain, our ultra-competitive press places an emphasis on editing.
That, with few exceptions, is where the status, and big salaries are to be found. (A book on great editors would, I reckon, contain far more Britons than Americans). And there is another factor at work: our provincial press by and large tries to imitate mass market tabloids, whereas in America, it aspires to be The Washington Post and The New York Times. Over there, lots of little potential Woodwards and Bernsteins; over here lots of wannabee 3AM girls and breathless exposers of welfare scrounging. The wonder, I suppose, is that we produce even the few great reporters that we do.Reuse content