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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Death of Arthur Koestler and The Death of News

Arthur Koestler is barely remembered these days but in the mid-20th century, he was more famous, more often quoted and more debated than possibly any other journalist in either America or Europe. He was the Tom Friedman of his day.

Unlike Friedman, Koestler was a journalist who believed in political action as the necessary cohort of good journalism. Not for him was the ideal of journalistic neutrality as part of credibility. Au contraire.

Koestler believed that journalism could only be told and understood if it came from someone who was directly engaged in a cause. And Koestler attempted to understand the greatest causes of his era - war, peace, capitalism, communism, anti-communism and Zionism. His restless mind inquired into them all, usually by joining the cause and being part of the action. His acceptance and eventual rejection of ideas gave him a level of credibility that is hard to imagine in these days of "neutral" journalism where being "fair and balanced" (sic) is seen as the acme of journalistic integrity.

Today, Koestler would be denounced as a "naive partisan" or even a fool for his enthusiastic endorsement of his varying passions. Sometimes they could sounds extremely naive as when he explored extra-sensory perception or the notion that the Jews are descended not from a middle eastern tribe of Semitic nomads but from a forced conversion of central Asians known as the Khazaks.

Koestler was also an excellent political novelist in the manner of George Orwell with whom he shared much time, place and history. Koestler's best political novels is "Darkness At Noon," a scathing indictment of Stalinism and among his best journalism is "Scum of the Earth," his depiction of refugees in France (including himself) after the collapse of France to the Germans in 1940.

Koestler's various contributions to our culture are too numerous to mention here. But in reading Tony Judt's marvelous collection of essays called "Reappraisals," Koestler gets a chapter to himself. Judt's assessment is perfect and long overdue and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Judt doesn't sentimentalize his subject and writes about Koestler's disgraceful behavior toward the women in his life.

But Judt's book reminded me of when Koestler died in 1983. I was working as an editor and producer for the nightly CBC television newscast in Toronto. When the newswires moved the "urgent" that Koestler had committed suicide along with his third wife, I wrote a four sentence obit for the newscast and found a picture of Koestler in the archives to put up behind the newsreader. I assumed that Koestler would at least get a thirty second mention on the most important broadcast news program in the country.

To my amazement, the program editor rejected the story and wouldn't even use it for "padding" (something to add to the program if it show is running short).

"Who cares about a old Hungarian?" said the editor as he tossed my copy in the trash.

In a way, the editor was right. Television with its amazing lack of historical memory and its concentration on the newest news should not have "wasted" 30 seconds of precious airtime on Koestler. Because to do Koestler's memory any justice, an hour of airtime would not have been enough.

But it said a lot about the direction that broadcast news was going even back then.

So I'm glad that Judt has seen fit to revive Koestler's story (along with other often ignored cultural figures such as Albert Camus, Manes Sperber and Leszek Kolakowski) even if only for a chapter.


  1. I have been an admirer of Arthur Kestler ever since I read his three part biography. I recommend it to all who wish that they had a chance to experience life during the time of greatest human attempts and failures at being truly human. I do think that he had one of the greatest minds of the century and that his intellect,curiosity and courage has never been equaled .

  2. I discovered Arthur Koestler when reading a paperback in the early 1950's. He contributed an essay in "The God That Failed" critique of world communism. Subsequently I read "Darkness at Noon" and "The Invisible Writing". I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment. He had the courage to admit errors in judgement and the energy to attempt conversion of others yet unenlightened (even Mr. Begin in Israel). Was he a Mossad suicide? Who will ever know?

  3. I barely find out about him because i went to and he turns out to be my great great uncle. I know wow i had a famous uncle cool but you know its so very interesting to find out about all this.

  4. Koestler's theory of the Jewish/Khazarian origins has been substantially disproved, and the overwhelming majority of European Ashkenazic Jews are in fact of Semitic descent.