Reporting the Counterculture.
At his best, writing on the transitory promises and lasting inanities of pop culture, Goldstein finds his way into some of his characters-and then extricates himself just in time. A case in point is his treatment of one Steve Paul, a once-renowned New York club owner, who delivers himself of flawless "epigrammatic gems that go nowhere but look great," like "I refurbished this place by adding myself." (Goldstein dryly notes that Paul watches to see that written down.") Goldstein's own sensibility serves as a resource: his willingness to serve, for a moment, as Paul's foil testifies to the man's powers and gives some insight into how the pop business works. Likewise, in his most arresting political report, Goldstein recreates his epiphany as a would-be revolutionary, telling how he came to yell "Pigs eat shit!" from the steps of the Art Institute during the Chicago Democratic Convention.
But no reportorial theory or method rises to all occasions, and "struggle for subjectivity" misrepresents what Goldstein actually does. His writing comes alive when he sees with binocular vision: one eye watching the scene, the other watching himself, each eye wide open. "In the sixties," Goldstein writes in his introduction, "it was easier . . . to sparkle and sass than to expose what lay beneath-in my case, doubt." When he buries that doubt, what he gets is one shallow fact after another, as in some unmemorable reportage of the 1968 Colum- bia University uprising, or blind rage, as in an uncritical report of the 1971 Marin County trial of Ruchell Magee and Angela Davis for the killing of a judge and the maiming of a prosecutor in an attempted prison escape. Operating on its own, subjectivity oversimplifies the story. The facts that passion sees aren't necessarily deeper than the facts that passion screens out.
Goldstein has a nice, flamboyant way with phrases. "Show business is such a squid," he writes in the course of a profile of Tiny Tim. "Tao on tap," he calls the massification of hip. "Churchmen and social workers in mufti eyed each other suspiciously like rival CIA agents assigned to the same cell," he writes of a Haight Ashbury meeting. "The cop you are likely to meet on the [Sunset] Strip stands next to his bike like an erection in navy blue." But the flip side of flip is glib, and Goldstein does succumb. Subjectivity is still a subversive act," he writes today. Oversimple again. If you take a sassy Voice style, freeze it into the form of the pop profile, add a lot of money and 20 years, you get Vanity Fair.
The truth is that "the struggle for subjectivity" was won, but the war was lost. Alongside the inverted pyramid, we now have the inflated ego, and neither by itself will do. That's why old-style New Journalism cannot be resurrected. As Goldstein perceptively writes, the techniques of New Journalism "were refined at the moment when we first began to grapple with the power of mass media to standardize experience, and its embrace of subjectivity was an attempt to resist this processed consensus." But tactics that worked in the sixties today have curdled into the automatic and mindless first person or the canned eccentricity of a Geraldo Rivera. The smoothly tailored pseudopersonal voice that fills today's slick magazines might as well be machine made-a voice devoid of critical selfawareness, a voice as ignorant as it is smug. Now that many reporters have adopted the spiteful kvetch as their voice, the question isn't whether subjectivity in journalism is a good idea, but what kind?
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1989|
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