America Could Do With a Few Feral Beasts

There is a thin line between respectable and supine, and US journalism is on the wrong side

There is, it seems, a limit to how much celebrity trivia a person can take. I have yet to find mine, but I like to think that's because my brain is atrophied by pregnancy. Mika Brzezinski, on the other hand, is a woman in full command of her journalistic principles - as she demonstrated this week on live television.

Brzezinski presents the news on the popular US cable breakfast show Morning Joe. On this particular morning, however, she simply could not bring herself to present the lead item chosen by her producer: Paris Hilton's release from jail. "I have an apology," she began, "and that is for the lead story. I hate this story. I don't think it should be the lead."

While the programme's host, Joe Scarborough, berated her with vague, panicky insults - "That's a cop-out"; "Take control of your life" - Brzezinski wrestled a lighter from another co-presenter and attempted to set fire to the hated script. When that failed, she ripped it up and crumpled it into a ball. But her trials were not yet over: she was simply handed a fresh script, with Paris still at the top. "I'm about to snap," she declared grimly. "My producer is not listening to me." She then stalked away from her desk and proceeded to feed the script through a paper shredder.

It was only a partial victory - Scarborough insisted on running the footage of Paris mincing coquettishly out of the prison gates, while the despairing Brzezinski buried her head in her hands - but it was enough to turn her into an overnight hero. An edited clip of the show on YouTube has been viewed 518,000 times, with the viewers' comments suggesting near-ecstatic public approval.

"Mika Brzezinski, I want to let you carry my babies," swoons one admirer. "She has to be the most intelligent woman on earth," proclaims another. There is much righteous agreement on the need for more "real" news. One dissenting voice suggests that the whole thing was a set-up - isn't it a bit suspicious that there was a paper shredder on the studio floor? - but even if that were true (and it's hard to trace the logic behind such a conspiracy), the incident still speaks volumes about the angst at the heart of American journalism.

The British long ago accepted that their press is, as Tony Blair would have it, feral. Journalists in this country are despised, and we know it. Indeed, we embrace our lowly status with a perverse, distinctly British pride: we call ourselves "hacks", lest anyone should think we take ourselves seriously, and delight in Fleet Street legends of debauchery and low cunning. British journalism - both the profession and the end product - is tough, unscrupulous and, at its best, riotously good fun.

In America, different standards prevail. When I went to work at a current affairs magazine in New York a couple of years ago, my editor warned me that I was in for a culture shock. "American journalists," he said, "believe they belong to a kind of priesthood. Ever since Watergate, we have seen ourselves as guardians of the truth. That," he added ruefully, "is why our newspapers are so boring."

Until you have tried ingesting The New York Times with your breakfast, you do not know the meaning of ennui. Nicknamed the Grey Lady - as a term of endearment - and boasting the priggish motto "All the news that's fit to print", it is the sine qua non of sober, morally upright journalism. And this respectability is its greatest weakness: it is far too polite to be subversive.

When President Bush was making the case for the invasion of Iraq, The New York Times - supposedly a fierce critic of this administration - swallowed the White House propaganda as if it were medicine from Mary Poppins. As it later admitted in a hand-wringing editorial, it simply accepted what it was told about WMD, because it came from "official" sources.

So did some in the British press - but there were at least plenty of sceptical, irreverent and downright belligerent voices making themselves heard. Our broadcast media, too, acquitted themselves dispassionately - at least by contrast with the feel-good patriotism that saturated the American TV news. There is a thin line between respectable and supine, and American journalism has settled on the wrong side. Our own press is no less obsessed with celebrities, but we specialise - too much so, you might think - in tearing them down. In America, to be famous is to be worshipped unquestioningly. Hollywood stars demand copy approval, and get it - which is why you will never read an interesting celebrity interview in an American magazine.

It is also why the public loves Mika Brzezinski. Americans suspect that something is rotten in their Fourth Estate. They listen to the anodyne newsreaders, with their big hair and Colgate smiles; they munch through the dry, cautious news that's fit to print - and they wonder if they are being told the whole truth. They imagine that what's missing is "seriousness", but that isn't quite it. They need a press that is generally fiercer, more anarchic, less obedient. The word we're groping for, I think, is feral.


(c) 2007 The Independent

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