What Henry Fairlie Learned About Journalism: “Avoid Celebrity at All Costs.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.49.33 PMFrom a Q and A with British journalist Henry Fairlie in the April 1989 Washingtonian:

Q. When did you first feel at home in America?

A. I was in Houston in 1973 or 1974 and I began to think of America as my home, not England. I felt a certain sense of treason or betrayal.

One night a Texan asked me, “Why do you like living in America?” Sometimes you hear yourself answer a question like that in a surprising way; it’s the first time you say it, but you know it’s been inside you a long time.

I told him this was the first time I’ve felt free. I feel free from class. There’s no class system in America as in England. That gives America its informality.

Q. You found that attractive?

A. Yes, I came from a society where you could tell someone’s class by whether they say “Hello” or “Hallo” or “Hollow.” You can’t tell anyone’s class from “Hi.” Once I went to see Paul Moore, then the Episcopal bishop of Washington. When I went into his office, he extended his hand, “Hi, Henry.” And when I went to see LBJ, the emperor of the Western world, he put out what to me the biggest hand in Christendom. “Hi.”

Q.What have you learned about class in America?

A. The broad middle class is no longer so confident. The professional middle class is making so much more now that it has removed itself from the ordinary middle class. When I went into journalism, we made little more than the ordinary middle class. Those were the days of dirty-raincoat journalists.

Q. Why are more members of the media now stars?

A. This comes from journalism in Washington, not elsewhere. Washington journalism has created something that to me is absolutely embarrassing and outrageous: an arrogant elite. It started with Watergate. The idea that the Washington Post did something so very remarkable in Watergate swelled the heads of Washington journalists. They soon learned that if they appeared on these television talk shows, they got invited to lecture to trade associations at enormous fees.

Q. What about the relationships between journalists and government?

A. It’s much too close. When I arrived, I was startled at the coziness between columnists and politicians.

Q. Do Washington journalists do a poor job as a result of this commingling?

A. They are not inclined to dig deep into the connection between money and politics in Washington. If it becomes a scandal, they’ll go after it. But the fact that it goes on all the time doesn’t make them keep it before the people. I don’t see how they can when they’re so close to the money side themselves.

Q. Does Washington still hold the attraction to you that it once did?

A. No.

Q. Why not?

A. Because of this link between journalism, power, and money, journalists are less free than when I came. There’s no real speaking the mind and causing a nuisance. Now they’ve all become terribly pompous, and see themselves as the fourth estate.

But I still love Washington as a place to live. It has greens and woods. And it has convenience.

Q. Should a young person go into journalism?

A. Yes, but not in Washington. They should go to a local paper and start general reporting. If young journalists start in general reporting, they’re never going to fear being fired since they can always go back to reporting.

It’s terrifying to see people straight out of a university who want to go to the Washington Post or New Republic and write opinions. They have never been reporters. They haven’t covered the courts or a fire, reporting that gives you the best education in the world.

Q. Looking back on all your experience, give us some broad lessons.

A. Women are more interesting than men because they’re more realistic. They’re funnier, which goes with being more realistic. And they relatively independent. They have real friendships.

American men don’t really have friendships with other men, to really talk about everything. They don’t seek one another’s companionship unless they’re doing something else, like golfing or watching football or hunting. They don’t do what is commonly done in England which is for two males to just walk or meet for a drink to talk the same way women do.

One reason American women complain that American men don’t talk to them is because American men don’t talk to one another.

Another thing learned: Take what you do seriously but never take yourself seriously. Never stop reading good books. Be aware that the main reason for being a journalist is to go on learning; that’s the main pleasure I get out of it.

Finally, avoid celebrity at all costs. It’s especially death for a writer or a journalist. Celebrity has become the main threat to journalism, especially in Washington.
Here’s a post from two years ago about how money has changed journalism with reference to a piece—”How Journalists Get Rich: And Why That Money Is So Corrupting”— that Henry Fairlie wrote for the Washingtonian in August 1983.


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