Periodicals Extract from an article by Doris Lessing
British Journalism Review - January 29, 1990.
In fact, only a minority of journalists are any good
It is not that I despise newspapers. I read two a day and the posh Sundays and subscribe to various weeklies. I am a compulsive newspaper reader. Some would say: a print absorber. I am of the generation which was somehow persuaded that not to know what is going on everywhere is irresponsible and must lead to worse. But surely there is something amiss when, meeting a friend after a profile of me appeared in a serious newspaper, he remarked how much he enjoyed it, while knowing that half the facts were wrong.
Hearing me protest this, he seemed embarrassed by my pedantry. "Well, it's all good for a laugh." Exactly. Profiles, interviews, news about the famous and the infamous are taken as entertainment, not as fact.
There are two main pressures that manipulate newspapers and we don't often examine them. One is what we may usefully call the Zeitgeist. Thirty, 40 years ago, would a serious newspaper have published yards of speculation about the sex life of T S Eliot, even if described as Literary Criticism?
Sylvia Plath is the alter ego for innumerable women who need to see themselves - at least part of the time - as helpless and brutally treated victims. Fifty years ago, how would Plath have been presented? Would women then have wanted to identify with her? I think not; we had robuster expectations for ourselves.
The other is that when a journalist writes a profile or an interview, the result is as much a portrait of him or of her.
One will want to know about your political experience, the next about "mysticism", a third about early life in Africa, another about your love life, assumed to be the same as whichever one of your heroines she is identifying with or, if a man, finds attractive. This "portrait" will be printed as a total picture.
"Did you actually say so and so?" I am often asked. The reply is nearly always, "I did not."
The fact is, with journalists as with every profession, only a minority are any good.. Most repeat what others say. This process can be observed in all kinds of context. An exciting bit of music is used to introduce a hundred programmes on television: or an opinion, a catchphrase, taken up, and used to death.
In my case there has been a sequence, thus: she writes about "the colour bar", then communism, then women's liberation, then mysticism; then came science fiction, social welfare and now we are back to politics. "She is of course a political writer."
The subtle censors are as important, usually part of the assumptions of the time. The best place to see these mechanisms working is abroad, when the British press can seem like a web of tacit agreements to exclude certain news.
When I was being a journalist on behalf of the Afghan refugees I learned more than was comfortable about unconscious censorship. Anything I wrote that contradicted our preferred idea of the Mujahideen as brutal and bloodstained fanatics, tended to be cut.
Not because an editor said, I'm not going to print something I don't agree with, but because, pressed for space and needing to cut something, this is what went. We do not know what our prejudices are. We are lucky if a friend from another culture considers it worthwhile to tell us what they are.
We have an inner truth governing our expectations. I would read a profile about a solid, not-much-in-the-public-eye person - civil servant, mayor, businessman - expecting 90 percent to be true. A piece about someone involved in scandal - perhaps 10 percent.
When we come to writers, difference ingredients enter the brew, not least because everyone is a writer, plans to become one, or wishes they were. Writers are seen glamorously. That is because, particularly since the proliferation of prizes, we attract, arbitrarily, spotlights.
Also because more and more we are expected to sell our books for our publishers. This involves becoming the opposite of a writer, private and mostly solitary, transforming oneself into a Personality. But that is a different, still unwritten article to be called "On Joining One's Publisher's Sales Department".