In a piece entitled “The Girl Who Loved Journalists,” Eric Alterman wrote about Stieg Larsson and his fiction characters’ impact on the debate over the future of journalism. Alterman is a distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY School of Journalism. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a columnist for The Nation, the Forward, and The Daily Beast. Excerpts from the article follow. To read the whole article on “Stieg Larsson’s posthumous gift to an embattled industry,” click here.
For a profession whose entire raison d’être is communication, American journalists sure have done a lousy job of explaining why the slow-motion disintegration of the business model upon which their livelihoods have depended for the past three hundred years might have significant negative consequences for the country. The arguments one hears tend to sound like high-school civics lessons that people automatically tune out. And those are from the serious journalists. The unserious ones—the ones whose ranks are booming—present a daily argument for saying good riddance to newspapers and the like—with the Murdoch empire’s recent phone-hacking scandal being only the most gruesome.
Ironically—and apparently somehow below the radar of most journalists in America—the profession was recently blessed with what could have been, and still might be, the most effective propaganda vehicle for the societal significance of journalism I could imagine. His name is Mikael Blomkvist, and the paunchy, forty-year-old, lady-killing, black-coffee-and-bourbon swizzling, cigarette-smoking, crusading, feminist, Swedish journalist just happens to be the hero of perhaps the best-selling book series in the world. The late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—have already sold upward of fifty million copies worldwide, and spawned three pretty decent Swedish films. MGM’s release, over Christmas, of David Fincher’s $100 million Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with yes, James Bond (Daniel Craig) playing Blomkvist, is no doubt driving those numbers even higher.
Blomkvist is too good to be true. He works for Millennium, a profitable, do-good, investigative business magazine of which he is part owner and editor that has no imaginable analog in American journalism. (It is modeled after the tiny anti-racist magazine, Expo, that Larsson helped found in 1995 and for which he continued to labor until his fatal heart attack in November 2004 at age fifty, just before the publication of Dragon Tattoo.)
Blomkvist lives and works in a journalistic environment about as far as possible from the kind of politics-as-entertainment/entertainment-as-politics that dominates American mainstream news—particularly business news, where Larsson’s billionaire villains would, until very recently, likely have been treated as akin to super-heroes. As the business writer Chrystia Freeland has mused, “You don’t have to be a fictional Scandinavian social democrat to wish that business journalism in the United States was more about afflicting the comfortable and less about cozying up to them.” But if highbrow American journalists would look up from their decaf soy lattés, they might find much to cheer, or at least to ponder, in Larsson’s trilogy. For in addition to earning its bona fides as a first-rate, albeit decidedly implausible, murder mystery series, it also is among the most nuanced and thorough fictional demonstrations ever written of the importance of journalism to a democratic society…
The trilogy’s plot, while impossibly complicated to describe, much less condense, frequently turns on matters of journalistic propriety of the kind that are rarely discussed outside badly lit newsroom cafeterias and gloomy university seminar rooms. We see Mikael and Erica struggle with love and danger, but also with questions of proper sourcing in a magazine article versus a book, a little magazine versus a powerful (and compromised) newspaper. We see the drudgery of research, of interviewing sources, and building a story one detail at a time; of trying to figure out who’s lying and why, how to publish what one knows without giving away what one doesn’t, and then how to manipulate the numbskullery of television to build the biggest echo chamber possible for one’s work.
Along the way, almost all of the (frustrating) details of the profession are laid bare. Read more.