Status anxiety

Chasing Pulitzers has ruined American journalists. That’s why they're edited by Brits

US journalists think they're public servants. We know we're hacks – and we're good at it

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

I was interested to read a story by Michael Wolff in USA Today saying that Graydon Carter may be about to step down as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Carter has been at the helm for 22 years and was my boss during the three years I spent there between 1995 and 1998. According to Wolff, himself a columnist at the magazine, the runners and riders to take over are nearly all British.

Wolff thinks this is mainly because power within Condé Nast, the publishing company that owns Vanity Fair, has shifted from New York and towards London, home of Condé Nast International, a subsidiary that is now more profitable than the mother ship. No doubt there’s something in that, but the bigger reason must surely be because British journalists are so much better than their American counterparts.

You can get a sense of what American journalists’ priorities are from looking at a 96-page report that the New York Times has just produced about… the New York Times. I’m not talking about the words, obviously, which are far too boring to read, but the pictures. On page three of the report, there’s a photograph of the paper’s top brass gathered around a computer terminal, having just discovered that the Grey Lady has won yet another Pulitzer prize. The staff are gathered around them on the stairs — hundreds of them — and one of the editors is looking up and humbly applauding them: ‘Well done, folks. You knocked it out of the park… again.’

That’s what most American journalists care about — winning prizes that affirm just what noble tribunes of democracy they are. In Britain, we have less lofty ambitions. For us, it’s all about selling newspapers and — pathetic hacks that we are — producing stories that people actually want to read. Our Yankee counterparts preen about, congratulating themselves on upholding the highest ideals of the fourth estate, whereas we focus on the bottom line and pride ourselves on keeping our papers afloat. For them, it’s a profession and its members are expected to observe a highfalutin code of professional conduct. For us, it’s a trade and, to be honest, it’s more about not getting caught. If you said the word ‘ethics’ to most British hacks they’d think you were talking about the birthplace of Kelvin MacKenzie.

Yes, yes, we’re ghastly knuckle-dragging troglodytes and, when it comes to man’s inhumanity to man, about as sentimental as a bog brush. The foreign correspondent Edward Behr once overheard a colleague ask the following question at a scene of carnage and devastation in some far-flung hell hole: ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’ (Christopher Hitchens described that as ‘the standby slogan of the Express foreign desk’.) As we in the trade can testify, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is probably the most accurate work of reportage a British journalist has ever produced.

Yet we also have an unerring nose for what will pique a reader’s interest, what we call ‘news sense’, and it’s this that makes us the best journalists in the world. Not ‘the best’ as in the most worthy of praise — we leave that to our American cousins — but ‘the best’ when it comes to spotting stories. That’s why, wherever you look in the American media, whether it’s editing a New York tabloid, running a prime-time talk show or sitting at the top of Vogue, you’ll always find a Brit. We might not be much good at winning prizes, but we know what’s going to capture the public’s imagination.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote from my time at Vanity Fair that perfectly illustrates the shortcomings of American journalism. I remember being in Graydon’s office when the shock O.J. Simpson verdict came in. Against all expectations, he’d been found innocent. The magazine was about to go to press, but there was still time — just — to pull Dominick Dunne’s column and replace it with a new one about the verdict. Dunne had made a name for himself by writing about the trial in the magazine and, if we moved fast enough, we could publish his thoughts about the verdict in the issue that would be on news stands the following week. By my estimation, we would sell at least 250,000 extra copies.

‘Nah,’ said Graydon. ‘That’s not Vanity Fair’s style. Nick can write about that in the next issue.’

The next issue? The next issue?!?  For any British journalist worth their salt, there is no such thing as the next issue.

I’m amazed Graydon has lasted this long.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Shinsei1967

    I lived in NYC for six months a few years back and the most disappointing aspect, by far, was the lack of any decent newspapers. The NY Times is extraordinarily dull. The only bits my NY friends ever looked at, apart from the sport, were the hugely amusing wedding engagement pages.

    The Times, Telegraph & Guardian are leagues ahead of anything that NY has to offer.

    • wyclif

      I went to university to study the Early Modern period of English literature, and I’ll explain it to you this way: it’s not that Americans don’t appreciate good writing and news, or even newspapers. But that was once upon a time. The US is the home of the famous Silicon Valley, and American newspapers have been forced to choose between embracing the digital age or die. My 75 year-old father still loves getting his morning edition quaintly delivered to the front door, but almost everybody in the 18-35 year-old demographic prized by advertisers gets their news on the Internet. Nobody young and smart really cares about newspapers anymore. That is why there are no decent newspapers in the US—there used to be, but they’ve all been hollowed out by the Internet Of Things.

      • LucieCabrol

        I’m reading this on the internet.

      • Wmn04Ken07

        I was bereft when my newspaper of choice stopped delivery to my small town. I subscribed to another that was closer and it stopped delivery as well. It was the best thing that ever happened to me because it forced me to the internet. I am one happy camper.

  • higgins1990

    Q: What’s the difference between a crack whore and a US journalists?
    A: A crack whore may have some integrity.

  • JimInCalifornia

    News publishers and broadcasters are in business for only one reason. They take to their media to promote their point of view. Just look at anyone who took to the press and you will recognize that their first purpose was to spread their points of view. Journalists are hired to add fluff to an otherwise biased self-interested publication and any thoughts a journalist may have about doing independent or unbiased reporting are quashed from the beginning. At that point, they either have to agree to be used by their overseers or they have to quit. If they haven’t quit, they are not independent. That’s not a bad thing, insofar as our consuming their news. It’s just important that we recognize that what they produce is biased. It may be factual and it may be accurate, but it isn’t necessarily the whole story.

  • Fed Up

    Chasing Pulitzers is the least of American journalism’s fault. Try examining the obsessive protectionism and failure to expose even the slightest deficiencies of the most destructive presidential administration of the republic’s long and proud history. Then you will actually have something to write about.

    • Wmn04Ken07

      Pulitzers mean nothing today. It is a liberal progressive cabal that awards only those who have paid their dues to the liberal progressive’s that sit on the committee. In other words, a Pulitzer ain’t what it used to be.

  • PDQuig

    US journalists don’t think they’re public servants: they have contempt for the public. They think they are DNC propagandists. They will resume their role as the 4th Estate as soon as a Republican is elected. Until then, they will continue their role as a 5th Column.

  • rmkdbq

    Journalists here have been co-opted by the government to be more propagandists than truth-seekers. The truly sad thing is that we have a free press here, yet they have chosen to be little more than shills for the government. We need real journalists but all we have are sycophants.

  • emersonushc13

    American journalists are first and foremost political activists who include, exclude, and fabricate at will to advance their agendas, careers, and social standings.

    • LucieCabrol

      And guardian and Independent journalists aren’t?

      • emersonushc13

        I’m surprised you didn’t ask about journalists from Slovakia, Gana, and Laos in your attempt to deride what I wrote. Saul Alinsky called – he wants you to read him again without being drunk.

        • LucieCabrol

          You are too deep for me, I’m totally lost.

        • Rick McGinnis

          It would probably help if you spelled Ghana properly. Just saying.

    • Wmn04Ken07

      Wannabes on steroids.

      • emersonushc13

        Thanks for noticing I lift weights, but I’m all natural except for the special white protein powder I snort before hitting the gym.

        • Wmn04Ken07

          Snorting are you? Hmmmmm.

  • Nomennovum

    Just who the hell do you think you are Mr. Young, calling American journalists pompous, boring, and corrupt narcissists? That is an insult! I think all the pompous, boring, and corrupt narcissists of the world have a cause of action against you for the malicious libel of associating them with the likes of Arthur Sulzberger.

  • achtung14a

    Because the media in general [and the NYT in particular] are DNC press shops, I am inclined to agree with any critique of the American media scene. But the failures of Tina Brown and Piers Morgan cut against your thesis.

    • bobruark

      Piers was not selling newspapers over here. However, like the author of this article is an arrogant Brit who still thinks we should still be a ‘colony’…the absolute arrogance of a Brit is truly insufferable.

      • achtung14a

        Brits are arrogant but, insofar as this topic goes, they have much to be arrogant about.

  • bobruark

    There are no American journalists.

  • JungleCogs

    Dumbest degree ever.

  • JFKDem1

    Pulitizer Prizes are nothing more than the navel-gazing New York City media giving each other awards. American “journalists” write to please each other, not the public.

  • Abiss

    “Journalists” are universally insufferable. There hasn’t been a decent one in 50 years. What’s left are just the maggots on the corpse of a once important institution. When you say ‘journalist’ the rest of us appropriately think “propagandist” and immediately set out to pay you no mind.

  • Julie Quan

    We need less “journalism” and more old fashioned reporting! We need fewer journalist and more hard hitting newspapermen. Also, news was not traditionally unbiased. Newspapers came out openly in support of one part or the other. Then newspapers supposedly became professional, unbiased sources – that is when they really became pushes of their own biases. Hiding behind supposed neutrality, news organizations are now much more successful at pushing their political agendas. This was true with the “professional” men in the 50s through the 70s. Read about Concrite and Murrow and study their political opinions and agendas and how they influenced their stories and delivery. There is much to be written about the contrast of today’s journalism and yesterday’s newspapermen and todays “neutral” media with yesterday’s declared biased media. And were the professional commentators and journalist of the 50s-70s truly unbiased or just better at hiding it than the blatant leftists of todays media?

    • ptsargent

      The media was co-opted and turned into WH megaphones by FDR during the ’30’s. FDR, a liar non pareil except for Obama, wooed, cast a spell over, entertained royally, bribed with gifts what passed for media back then. And if a reporter failed to respond, FDR complained and threatened his boss with IRS audits and the like. He even brought reporters into the WH as flacks and flunkies, and went so far as to marry off one of his relatives to one of them. He got highly favorable press throughout his wretched reign all of which managed to prolong the Great Depression for 11 years. FDR’s and his corrupt administration are poster boys for the damage that can be foisted on the public by a corrupt single party rule buttressed by a bought, paid for, and corrupt media. I swear Obama studied this model and adopted it for his own administration. God help us.

  • Curnonsky

    And who taught the Brits how to trawl the gutters for juicy stories? The Aussies, that’s who!

  • sukietawdry

    I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that most British journalists don’t come from schools of journalism. I’m willing to bet further that most didn’t go into the field because they wanted to “change the world” or “make it a better place” which are the top reasons cited by American journalism students for their choice of career path. I do know that British journalists do some of the best reporting in the world and we Yanks often have to go to the British papers to find out what’s going on in our own country. Please keep up the good work.

    • Jeff Sulman

      Agreed. Most of my news comes from the Brit press, not American.

  • LucieCabrol

    British journo’s are just as shite as the US ones…don’t worry.

  • Loosgravel

    Having worked in a closely related field to the major print media I have to say yes, I agree with the Brit’s argument. However, I think there are other factors involved as well. Many of the journalists in the field today have been dumbed down right along with the general public. Besides suffering from a second class educational outcome, many are lazy and cowardly. It is much easier to reprint a government new release and get patted on the head and given a treat if they get along rather than risk displeasure from government leaders for exposing the truth.

    • royw


  • kay2861

    US journalists are more interested in selling an agenda than reporting the truth. Even worse, they aren’t “curious” at all, and don’t bother to do research, other than a quick search of Wikipedia. Nothing but progressive propaganda. I personally find out more news from reading British outlets.

    • jdk47

      Yep. Brits still allow an opposition point of view to be seen. No such thing in the mainstream american media.

  • Ismael Tchift

    Yeah, that Piers Morgan sure knew how to run a talk show. He could really teach old Limbaugh a thing or two!

  • Benton H Marder

    There’s another reason why we Yanks like you Brits. Your reptiles are impartial. You savage all parts of the political spectrum. You don’t play favourites like the sycophants here do. Besides, you can make your savaging amusing. My prime favourite example is your coverage of David Blunkett and the lady publisher of the Spectator. It was better than a show—-even the play that was written and staged. I wish that our reptiles were so savage against their own favourites, but we can’t have that, can we?

  • maisy

    Who even reads Vanity Fair? I can say Dominic Dunns work would inspire a read but that’s about it anymore.

  • Wmn04Ken07

    Graydon Carter is an elitist prick. I subscribed to Vanity Fair during the early years of the Bush administration. I am a southern gal and I enjoyed the magazine because it gave me peek at how the “other half” lives. However, I soon began to see a trend. Each and every month Carter wrote a little ditty and each and every month the little ditty was an insulting screed about GWB. It became redundant and petty. I suppose he was speaking to his liberal progressive base and not this southern gal who just wanted to live vicariously through the pages of the magazine.
    I am wiser today and know that Vanity Fair could care less if the likes of anyone like me subscribes to their rag mag. The southern air I breath isn’t as rarified as theirs. Thank goodness for that. I haven’t missed it.

  • disqus_mfERPWUv3H

    Why is it that the Brits are able to print the truth and the lap dog American media can’t seem to even find the truth?

    I appreciated the British articles and opinions. Thanks Brits!

  • royw

    American “journalists”?

    Name one.

  • Terry Field

    Yes, and there is an association with the life of the American academic, whose tenure often depends upon churning out massive quantities of books, research notes, articles and learned codswallop.
    The British tradition is for much less output, but when the output is achieved it is worthwhile.
    A different culture.