Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

Nuance: still small voice of journalism

    When I first started work in the Observer newsroom in 1996, I remember expressing my view in an editorial meeting that a certain story demanded a degree of nuance. I don’t remember the story but I do remember the reaction of a senior colleague, an experienced foreign reporter. “Nuance”, he spat at me. “There are the good guys and the bad guys. We are against the bad guys. That’s all you need to know.”

    It was a rather less poetic version of the classic adage from the American humorist, Finley Peter Dunne, that a newspaper “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” I thought about this when I heard about the death this week of veteran Washington reporter Helen Thomas at the age of 92.

    Thomas’s achievements as a pioneering woman reporter were immense — she held 10 presidents to account through five decades as a White House correspondent.

    It was her great tragedy that a distinguished career ended in disgrace when she was asked by David Nesenoff, a rabbi and film maker, for her advice to Israel. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine”, she said. She compounded this by saying that Jews in Palestine should “go home” to Poland, Germany and America.

    In a world without nuance, there must always be bad guys and good guys. And, for Helen Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, the Israelis were always likely to be the bad guys.

    For some, Helen Thomas is a hero of liberal journalism. But she is also emblematic of the casual antisemitism so common among hacks who seek out cartoon villains.

    It is worth revisiting that quote from Finley Peter Dunne. It is often quoted out of context. The full quote, put in the mouth of Dunne’s bar-room philosopher, Mr Dooley, betrays a more sinister vision of the newsman’s trade: “The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptises the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.”

    The phrase, so often used as defence of journalism, was part of a speech cautioning against the abuse of its power.

    On Twitter this week, campaigning film maker Michael Moore paid tribute to Helen Thomas: “While a compliant press did nothing, one WH correspondent refused to be a tool.” Meanwhile, Philip Klein of the conservative Washington Examiner wrote: “The thing I'll always remember most about Helen Thomas is that she hated Jews.” To adapt yet another journalistic cliché: the nuanced truth probably lies somewhere in between.

UK News

Strictly Orthodox Ukip candidate 'should not run for office'

Marcus Dysch

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Strictly Orthodox Ukip candidate 'should not run for office'
Special Reports

Dublin benefits from overseas aid

Barry Toberman

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Dublin benefits from overseas aid
UK News

Luciana Berger troll driven by 'fierce antisemitism'

JC Reporter

Monday, December 5, 2016

Luciana Berger troll driven by 'fierce antisemitism'
UK News

Government drops pledge to aid 3,000 child refugees

Rosa Doherty

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Government drops pledge to aid 3,000 child refugees
UK News

Limmud: Food for thought at session on 'ethical eating'

By Simon Rocker

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Limmud: Food for thought at session on 'ethical eating'
UK News

Local MP blocks visit from David Irving's 'secret tour'

Rosa Doherty

Friday, December 2, 2016

Local MP blocks visit from David Irving's 'secret tour'
UK News

Anti-Israel conference faces delay

Lee Harpin

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Anti-Israel conference faces delay
UK News

Commission criticised over inquiry into 'antisemitic' charity

Daniel Sugarman

Monday, December 5, 2016

Commission criticised over inquiry into 'antisemitic' charity
UK News

Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs dies aged 86

JC Reporter

Friday, December 2, 2016

Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs dies aged 86