Seven Smart Things Henry Fairlie Said About Journalism in Washington

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 5.09.05 PM1. The primary activity of Washington is no longer the government of the country through its political institutions; it is now the sustaining of the illusion of government through the media and in obedience to the media’s needs and demands.

2. The people of the media are today the wheelers and dealers. Point to any others so skillful of using the machinery of Washington, and so protected from any public challenge or scrutiny.

3. The media compete in size with the political community—the 100 senators, the 435 representatives, and their staffs. This explosive growth in the media community has taken place simultaneously with the similar inflation of the legal profession. In such numbers, both are parasitic. No capital can long remain true to itself with two plagues whose common symptoms are cynicism and cant.

4. The media are not just an extension of journalism. That is why the term had to be invented. The media trade not in substance, but in celebrity. The celebrity at the top is bought, and sells himself, for large sums. He is not selling any work. He is selling only himself.

5. The effect of this on the profession is obvious. Fewer and fewer young journalists are willing to be and to remain just good reporters. It is not the reporters who get lifted to this celebrity; and we as readers begin to overlook them.

6. Television is only a step to the real goal, the lecture circuit. There is the big money for utterances that require a minimum of thought or creative work. The fundamental principle 0f the lecture circuit is simple: to make much the same speech to organizations that wish to hear much the same thing.

7. The effect on Washington is that, trading in celebrity, the media trade also in the wealth surrounding the celebrity. The very profession that should be the acid, relentless critic of the affluence and cynicism of Washington is not the most ostentatiously affluent and cynical profession in the city.

—From an article, “How Journalists Get Rich,” by Henry Fairlie in the August 1983 issue of The Washingtonian.
Henry Fairlie was born in London in 1924; his father, James, was described as “a heavy-drinking editor of Fleet Street.” Henry studied history at Oxford, then started his journalism career at the Manchester Evening News. In 1950 he joined the staff of The Times of London. In 1954 he became a freelance writer. Here, from the book Bite the Hand That Feeds You, is background on Fairlie’s life in the United States:

“Fairlie was an anomaly in Washington, a Tory whose unique brand of conservatism frequently left him more sympathetic to the Democrats than the Republicans. These heterodox politics helped him find a perch at The New Republic, where he was a regular contributor from the mid-1970s until his death in 1990. In the mid-1980s, when he was unable to keep up payments on his apartment, he was even reduced to living in his office there, sleeping on a couch next to his desk.

“Fairlie devoted much of the second half of his career to trying to explain America to Americans. Between 1976 and 1982, he wrote ‘Fairlie at Large,’ a bi-weekly column for the Washington Post. In those pieces he often abandoned political subjects to write about American manners and morals: for instance, why Americans would do well to give up showers in favor of more contemplative baths. His romantic attachment to the possibilities of American life found its fullest expression in a long essay titled ‘Why I Love America’  which the New Republic published on July 4, 1983.

“In the winter of 1990, Fairlie fell in the lobby of the New Republic, breaking a hip. After a brief hospitalization, he died on February 25. His ashes were buried in the family plot in Scotland.”
If Henry Fairlie was distressed at the state of journalism in 1983—reporters increasingly appearing on television and giving paid lectures—what would he say about today’s age of social media where journalists increasingly are judged by their number of Twitter followers?

Wouldn’t it be fun to read him on David Gregory buying a home in Washington, D.C., for $5 million just as he was being replaced as host of Meet the Press. Or going after the Twitter feeds of journalists who seem to spend more time being celebrities—”Why no explanation from the airline for my flight from Boston to DC being delayed?”— than working as real journalists?

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