Journalists don't have many heroes, because the profession is anonymous by design, and even in journalism schools, the names of the best-known reporters get used as cautionary examples. ("We don't need any Tom Wolfes in this class.") Still, the names alone make astute students sit upright. Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and their contemporaries changed what a reporter can be. In Marc Weingarten's book The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, those names pop up early and often, along with the names behind the names: Truman Capote, Lillian Ross, John Hersey, George Orwell, and all the way back to Charles Dickens. Weingarten is after nothing less than an all-encompassing salute to exemplary non-fiction.
As such, The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight is disappointing only in that it's so short. A cursory glance at the index reveals names that are either missing or under-represented: David Halberstam, George Plimpton, Hugh Hefner, and even new journalism-influenced critics like Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Instead, Weingarten focuses on a few of new journalism's biggest stars and most important articles, as well as tracing the rise and fall of the zeitgeist-capturing magazines Esquire and New York. Gang doesn't contain much new about how Thompson wrote Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, or how Wolfe enraged New York society with pieces like "Radical Chic" and the New Yorker-bashing "Tiny Mummies." But Weingarten puts both those writers into a larger context, considering what it was like for them to file complex, literary stories on deadline while their rivals were challenging them with their own work, and while the shifting fortunes of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's presidency were making their words look like prophecy.
Weingarten sounds a few cautionary notes, making a point of describing the old guard's reaction to all the new techniques of compositing, interior monologues, and satire—all of which sometimes came at the expense of facts. Gang ends in the mid-'70s after New York reporter Gail Sheehy gets skewered for inventing characters in her story about the city's prostitution rackets; had Weingarten gone on for another 300 pages, he could've roped in the Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair scandals, not to mention the Orwellian "we report, you decide" tactics of Fox News. But too much dirt would muddy up the book's honorable goal of remembering a time when magazine journalism was as entertaining, artful, and important as any novel. If read by the right people, The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight might inspire a new generation of journalism students to irritate their professors.