Reporting about the reporters

November 25, 2012 8:00 pm

“Personal example carries more weight than preaching”, says a Chinese proverb. This sentence best summarizes the aim of David Randall’s The Great Reporters.

The book is suitable not only for people interested in journalism. The style is easy to follow even if you don’t have background knowledge. The introductions are written creatively, but you are not left with the feeling that the author has tried too hard to do so. On the other hand, extracts from actual articles make it a trustworthy evidence of the lives of the reporters.

The 13 small novels are like 13 fables with their own morals about the job and the life as a whole. William Russel’s story for example teaches that journalism is not only for research, prevision and coolness. It’s for moral courage. Nellie Bly is the illustration of what adventure is: she leaves her safe job in a newspaper and goes to New York. She is the best undercover journalist in history, according to Randall. She circles the globe and during her whole lifetime she has an unshakable faith in the power of reporting.

Of course it is even easier to learn from bad examples and the mistakes of the others. George Seldes tells a German actress who he is interviewing that she is ekelhaft. Her reaction? A slap in the face. His question? “Why?” The answer? Instead of telling her that she is beautiful (wunderschön), he had told her that she is disgusting. The moral future journalists should take from this story is to be careful with languages. And the lesson from the life of Hugh McIlvanney is that unless you are a genius like him, you should be punctual.

However the very best 8 pages in the book in my opinion are the story about McGahan. This brave man has changed the history of Europe and should be remembered for long. He was sent from Daily News to check if their Constantinople’s correspondent’s reports about the Turkish bestiality on the Bulgarian territory (still part of the Ottoman Empire) are true. The picture he sees in the town of Batak is more than brutal. More than 15,000 people are killed, including women and children. There are bones everywhere, because the 1,500 survivors can’t manage to bury all the bodies. McGahan talks with eyewitnesses from the whole region. Thanks to his reports Great Britain, that has always been pro-Turkish orientated, is forced to admit what is going on. A great public pressure is created in the UK and as a result the British government can’t support the Ottoman empire after the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war. Russia wins and Europe’s map is never the same again. Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro are free and the Turkish brutality against the Christian population is put to an end.

Negatively, the book doesn’t include a bibliography. That makes it very hard if you want to further your reading about the reporters or their work.

To be a journalist, you need talent. But that is not enough. You need real personality power, a little bit of charm (as Ann Leslie) and you should always fulfill your promises. As Edna Buchanan did. In school she promised the only teacher who believed in her that she will devote a book to her. And she did so 40 years later. The Great Reporters is a great beginning for understanding the personality of the journalist. Or at least the personalities of the great journalists.

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