The Good, the Bad and the Butt-Ugly: NYU names its 100 outstanding journalists in the US in the last century

You know how every so often somebody will publish a list of the greatest rock bands in history? Those usually make for interesting reading. Beatles, check. Rolling Stones, check. Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix Experience, U2, The Who, Nirvana, Celine Dion, REM… Wait, what? Back up.

Always happens. You have your obvious picks, you have some fresh blood that may be just controversial enough to spark conversation (and site traffic), and then you have your moments of pure barking idiocy that completely annihilate the credibility of the whole enterprise. As it turns out, the same thing happens when prestigious university faculties go about honoring the greatest journalists of the past century.

The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University recently released a list of The 100 Outstanding Journalists in the United States in the Last 100 Years. I want to begin by applauding both the ambition of the project and the often surprising quality of the final list. It includes many of the obvious suspects (Beatles-level journos, if you will), like Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, David Brinkley, Bill Moyers, HL Mencken, and so on. The committee acknowledges the roles played by New Journalists, as well, including Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gay Telese, and of course, Dr. Gonzo himself, S&R hero Hunter S. Thompson.

The list also veers onto the road less traveled, if you will, and notes the significant contributions of those we may not think of primarily in terms of journalism. Hemingway, for instance. WEB DuBois. Garry Trudeau. Susan Sontag. Gloria Steinem. Langston Hughes. I’m also especially gratified to see Margaret Bourke-White and Gordon Parks, two important photographers who established their legacies with LIFE and helped redefine what it meant to be a photojournalist. And I was ecstatic to see the committee acknowledging Walter Lippmann, whose visionary analyses of communication and culture, written in the first half of the 20th century, often seem so immediate and relevant to our current condition it’s as though they were written yesterday.

For these reasons, I feel like this is truly and genuinely an outstanding effort. Granted, there are plenty of places to snipe. One colleague said “I stopped reading as soon as I got to David Broder,” and that’s understandable. Some of the honorees sport lighter portfolios than others (Baba Wawa has dedicated the last 20-30 years to dismantling her reputation and Ted Koppel only strikes me as a real heavyweight if we take TV news more seriously than it deserves to be). There are political objections to be had (William F. Buckley will offend some, no doubt). But let’s understand the nature of these kinds of lists. The Vatican probably couldn’t pull together a compilation of Best Saints of the Late 1840s without touching off fistfights in the College of Cardinals.

That’s the Good portion of the show. The Bad and Butt-Ugly kick in, in earnest, when we notice that link to the 300 nomineesOnce we pop over there, we’re initially happy to find more journos who, even if we decide they don’t belong in the top 100 proper, have nonetheless done important enough work to justify their nominations. Dan Barry comes to mind. Dorothy Parker. Jim Romenesko. Roone Arledge is certainly deserving for the ways in which he helped transform sports coverage, and Frank DeFord is one of very few people in sports these days who actually merits the term “journalist.” Grantland Rice, absolutely. And so on – in truth, the list of nominees includes a who’s who of whom J students ought to be studying.

But read the whole list, and…damn. The description of the nominating process is murky, at best: “Here is the list of nominees, plus write-ins, by the faculty at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University…” It suggests that everyone on the list was put forward by a faculty member. That thing about “write-ins” has me trying to envision how things actually went. And also, trying very hard not to say things like “did they let monkeys vote?” For instance. A number of the nominees are … well, here’s what I mean:

  • Erma Bombeck
  • Ann Landers
  • Dear Abby
  • Larry King

So, the term “journalist” includes “syndicated entertainers”? By that standard, people who know how to work yo-yos must be “physicists.” And hell, somebody put Oprah on the list. Now, I respect Oprah, but she belongs on a list of journalists like Albert Einstein belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Let’s see, who else? Nate Silver and Rachel Maddow have done some nice work, but we’re way the hell too early in their careers to be thinking about this kind of honor. Greil Marcus? Okay, but where’s Lester Bangs? Michael Moore is an important political agitator-slash-documentarian, but he’s not a journalist by any stretch. Tina Brown? Seriously? You get nominated for this list by freshening things up a little? No, that makes you a successful marketer, not a successful journalist (although these days it’s disheartening how many people in the media industries can’t seem to tell the difference).

Andy Rooney? Bitch, please.

If only his brand had been about finding things he didn’t understand and then, you know, learning about them. Instead, he made a mint as TV’s version of the crotchety old geezer that we probably all know, the pissed off 150 year-old fossil shaking his cane at those damned kids to get off his lawn and venting a closet full of opinions that are as strongly held as they are ill-informed. Shit my granddad says. Times a hundred.

And check this. Some asshat nominated Geraldo. Fucking. Rivera. No, really. They did. Go look.

I wish those were the only floats in this particular parade, but the esteemed faculty also lobbed up Anderson Cooper (who’s okay, I guess, but worthy of being named one of the 100 greats?); Wolf Blitzer, who helped define what’s wrong with the 24-hour news cycle; and Katie Couric, former Chief Cheerleader for the CBS “News” division. There’s Pat Buchanan, who is to journalism what a donkey show is to true love. And David Brooks. You know how they say that in some languages the word for “stranger” is also the word for “enemy”? Well, in those languages the phrase for “David Brooks lies like a cheap hairpiece” is the same as the phrase for “David Brooks’s lips are moving.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t get any worse than this. Oh, wait, yes it does. They nominate Arianna Huffington, whose primary contribution to journalism is the way she’s applied advanced business principles from the pimping and sweatshop industries to the emerging world of online media.

Then we have this list of luminaries:

Seriously – how did Ann Coulter and Orly Taitz not make this list?

It’s actually a little embarrassing to have to include those names in the same post with the likes of Murrow and Thompson and Michael Herr and Anna Quindlen and Randy Shilts and John Steinbeck. Put simply and charitably, Drudge and BillO and the rest of that crowd are not journalists. On the contrary – this syndicate of fixers and daytime hookers has worked, with every fiber of its being, to destroy journalism, to destroy the very possibility of journalism, in America. The framers of the Constitution assured the Fourth Estate’s rights so there’d be someone around to oppose cynical politico-corporate apparatchiks like them.

Finally, the ultimate indignity, the most credibility-destroying affront to the integrity of the whole project: about 60% of the way down, just above the listing for the aforementioned Walter Lippmann, we find the name of Rush Limbaugh.

If I gathered together a group of people and said folks, we’re going to put our heads together and come up with the ultimate, definitive list of the 100 greatest bands and artists in rock and roll history, I’d begin by telling everybody to give me their top 50. We’ll consolidate the lists, rank them, and then we’ll meet to talk it over. Guaranteed, someone is going to nominate an act that I don’t think belongs there – say Hall & Oates, whom I respect, but don’t know about top 100. And I might rank U2 higher than some of the others would (in fact, I can just about promise you this one). And we’d haggle and compromise and bitch and finally reach a consensus that nobody would be happy with. Such is the spirit of collaboration.

And what if one of the people I invited nominated Justin Bieber? That’s easy – I’d throw him/her out the nearest window, followed by his/her list. But, but – it’s subjective, and Bieber is really popular, and SHUT THE FUCK UP. I asked you for the greatest rock stars of all time and if you said Justin Bieber you are by definition too stupid to understand the question and I’m sorry I wasted your time and mine by inviting you. OUT! There will be no rationalizing and no discussion. If we can base an entire republic on the idea of self-evident truths, we can damn sure do the same for a greatest rock stars list.

Same goes for the NYU greatest journalists project. I’m glad that, by and large, they kept the embarrassments out of the final list. I’m guessing that maybe they had one idiot FOXophile adjunct whom they were obligated to invite and he/she put all the anti-journalists in the hat and the adults in charge had the good sense to simply ignore them. If that’s the case, great, but the organizers really, really, really should have kept the 300 nominees page to themselves or figured out a way to honor the worthies there without vomiting all over their pants.

Failing to do so has tarnished what would have otherwise been an admirable effort by one of America’s more prestigious institutions.


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