America’s Best: The Classics

There’s a pretty clear difference between old style journalism and the kind that exists today. When you go way back, you get articles like Harold Littledale’s indictment of the New Jersey prison system, which is essentially a list of facts, lathered with some quips that sound remarkably like opinion. You get an obituary written more like a nonfiction piece than an article, with bigger paragraphs and a loose writing style. You get Ernie Pyle referring to himself and his interactions with the soldiers he’s covering.

But, of course, these are all incredibly well written articles, and were staples of the profession at the times when they were published. While any of these would be sent back to the reporter today with a note to revamp the story, they worked back then. I guess that’s testament to the fact that any concept or entity like journalism grows and develops with time.

Ernie Pyle was one of the most effective print journalists of all time. He was killed in action during WWII.

For example, Pyle was one of the greatest journalists that ever lived. There’s almost no debate about that—he was certainly right there with Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite as some of the best WWII-produced journalists. And while both Murrow and Cronkite did amazing things in their own rights—for radio and television, respectively—Pyle shaped the was a print journalist covers war forever. He made the story about the soldiers, he made them human. His articles weren’t just news bits from the front lines. They were stories about the men who were fighting the battles and their families and where they came from.

So while the writing, as it’s looked back on now, isn’t a style that would run today, it can be appreciated for what it is. I guess that’s what the ASNE editors were trying to do here, because there are so many articles and journalists that deserve praise before the 1977 creation of the writing awards.

For example, White’s obituary for his daughter barely reads like one that would run in any newspaper today. It’s almost coldly written, not with the sound of a father’s voice reflecting on the death of his daughter, but more ruminating on the ideas of her death. It works, in some ways, like early twentieth century literature in that way, without such starkness and more discussion about the facts. That doesn’t make it less powerful, of course, but if this essay were to be written today, it would likely be more heartbreaking for any reader, written in a way that would amplify the feeling.

And so when you look at these stories in context, their meaning grows immensely. Perhaps that’s what’s really nice about having the introductions to each story, because it provides that background and understanding about the stories.


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