On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review March 17, 1999/ 29 Adar, 5759

Robert Leiter

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder

LAST WEEK, A LIST OF THE HUNDRED GREATEST WORKS of journalism was published in The New York Times, joining recent lists of the hundred greatest works of literature and the hundred greatest films of all times. As with the earlier compilations, the new list is quirky indeed.

Done under the aegis of the journalism department at New York University, the list "ranks the best works of 20th-century American journalism."

Most of the first 10 titles in the NYU list seem unassailable, but what is John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World doing there? This is journalism? It's more like fantasy - and dangerous fantasy at that.

But it's the next 90 titles that cause the real trouble.

Another dangerous entry is I.F. Stone, who in the 1930s distorted much of the truth in service to Stalinism and whose incessant anti-Americanism was always shameful.

And why is Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem here? This is one of the great works of journalism in the 20th century? It's more like one of the most overrated works of anything in the last 100 years.

The same goes for Michael Herr's Dispatches, Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Greil Marcus's Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

Now if the argument is purely one of influential works, I imagine that some of Tom Wolfe's books should be here and Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism - but only if you're arguing from influence, not quality.

And why is Gay Talese represented by Fame and Obscurity? He's written far better books than that one.

One thing is indisputably clear about the NYU list: the committee that did the choosing leans indubitably to the left. There isn't one work that has even a whiff of conservatism to it.

Still, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you might agree that there are obvious lapses here. If Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, which mixes fictional techniques with factual material, can be on the included, why then isn't Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, which blew the whistle on Stalinism.

Or how about The God That Failed? Talk about changing minds.

Then there's Whittaker Chambers' great autobiography, Witness, one of the central documents of our time. Or why not any of Chambers' many profound writings?

I could go on and on.

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


©1999 Robert Leiter