Some readers might question the sanity of anyone who would place themselves within arms reach of a horrific disease—unless they were one of the selfless few whose mission is either to treat people affected by it or help contain its spread.
But journalists, as with soldiers, humanitarians and first responders, are often the ones running into a danger zone instead of away from it, whether that’s the frontline of a war or a small town teeming with highly infectious pathogens.
The latest Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 1,000 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria, while sickening hundreds more, is no exception.
Various western news outlets have put boots on the ground in the epicenter, where there’s a delicate, potentially fatal balance between staying healthy and bearing witness to an unprecedented epidemic that has alarmed and captivated the international community.
It was business as usual down in the Financial District on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Wall Street wags were clustered al fresco on their lunch breaks. Ferries docked and departed from their creaky slips at Pier 11. Tourists clogged the cobblestone corridors of South Street Seaport. And on the second floor of an East River office tower, the editors of America’s most notorious tabloid sat around a conference table picking out their next victims.
Matt Lauer was in the crosshairs thanks to a photo, displayed on a flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall, of the embattled “Today Show” anchor boarding his “love boat” with a “mystery woman.” Tom Cruise was the target of new “nightmare rumors,” as The National Enquirer would squawk the following week, “involving same sex love affairs.” Not even Michelle Obama had escaped the scrutiny of the sensational celebrity scourge, which assigned one of its reporters to compile a list of the first lady’s current and former aides. A certain blonde bombshell of yore (you’ll find out who soon enough) was on the story budget, too, having agreed to “strip down to a bikini at age 67,” as the Enquirer’s new editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard, boasted.
An impish grin washed over his face as he turned to features editor Casey Brennan for more details: “Two bikinis or one bikini? I think it should be two bikinis.”
This season brings at least four new novels with journalism baked into the plots, from a roman-a-clef about a young magazine reporter cutting his teeth in a dwindling medium to a newspaper noir that follows a fresh-faced tabloid stringer into the hermetic world of a Hasidic murder probe.
These novels are some of the latest examples of what you might call reporter fiction, a literary sub-genre unto itself and one that spans the decades, from Evelyn Waugh’s classic 1938 foreign-correspondent satire “Scoop” to more recent entries like Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists,” a 2010 release that pulls back the curtain on the existential tribulations of a faltering European paper’s motley newsroom.
Stories like these play into the tired old narrative of journalists as a pack of navel-gazing know-it-alls who love nothing more than to read and write about themselves.