Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Ugliest Guckling: reflections on what makes a journalist tick

One of the most frustrating moments of my career in publishing happened over what should have otherwise been one of those perfect moments sharing wine and pizza with your colleagues. I was working at the Nashville Scene, a grandpappy of an alternative weekly. A the time, 10 years ago, the Nashville Scene was coasting on what little outsider cred it had, being "alternative" only amongst the Christian Music fapsters living in the suburbs. I was just figuring this out.

The early years of the Scene were marked by outing "business pigs;" the mid-years were spent groveling for entré as said "business pig;" now the entity that owns the Scene now owns the Village Voice and the LA weekly. If success is measured in dollars and cents, the Scene hasn't done bad.

If, on the other hand, success for an alternative paper is measured in valuing journalism for the people, the Scene falls somewhere between the Wall Street Journal and Better Homes and Gardens. The trajectory of being a successful capitalist always confronts the trajectory of being a successful journalist. Every little publication -- every journalist -- will face this fact sooner or later. You can either be a successful voice for your community or a successful business. When you lean to one side, the other fades away.

Illustrating this devolution is the Scene's special WAR issue they did Bush went to war in 2003, called, WAR? Scene Writers Opine. Nineteen Scene writers and editors got three paragraphs each to present their arguments FOR or AGAINST the war. Seven argued FOR the war, 11 against, and one took a pass while instructing readers to visit Counterpunch to make up their own damn minds. It broke down like this, folks who covered culture argued elegantly against the war citing international law and lack of evidence of a link to terrorism. Those who cover the news beat were overwhelmingly for the war.

You might say, that's good, the doves won. But, not so fast. After some nauseating name-dropping, the editor-in-chief, makes a three-point argument for his support of Bush's war: "First, I think the war can be fought with the loss of few American lives. Second, the Middle East is strategically important to us (oil). Finally, we're the world's superpower, Saddam is making life difficult, and we have to make him behave."

So, if someone has something we need, or they are annoying us, and IF it isn't too much trouble, GO FOR IT! I would like to end this with saying, "I wonder how he feels now," but I really don't care and I bet neither does he because since the buy-out, he finally got invited to join the Belle Meade Golf Club and probably doesn't spend much time worrying about anything more challenging than his swing.

My "most frustrating moment" in publishing was actually a moment of clarity and a blessing in disguise. The editor-in-chief had just brought his staff pizza to calm our hunger while we finished up the boards. Sitting around the break-room table, he regaled us with his take on the "state of journalism" and made the claim that stopped me in my tracks. Affecting a dramatic stare, he said "nobody makes it in journalism without a degree from Columbia." Journalism is a privilege offered to the children of money -- a vanity career for trust fund nerds.

I had never considered this, and initially wrote the comment (and the Scene itself) off as clearly "not my people." I was in debt to armpits from my Kudzu League education and still living with roommates trying to "make it in the music business." If pedigree were essential to success in this culture, why bother?

Fast-forward 10 years.

Here we sit in the midst of the Bushies' Velvet Coup with the groveling compliance of sycophants infinitely more connected than the small time capitalist pigs at the Scene. Checks and balances are a thing of the past right along with fair elections, and equal protection under the law. As the direct result of having no people of with values beyond being "in the club" we have a media that YAWNS in the face of an obvious gay Pillow Talk Affair involving the White House Press Corps. While the media gently sleeps, journalists risk prison fighting to protect the identity of sources for a story the didn't write. Our newspapers now display full-blown sleep paralysis in their insistence on letting NOVAK off scot-free, having compromised our entire Middle East WMDs intelligence operation. Lets hope they drown in their own drool as journalism evolves into a decentralized blogosphere, because we didn't "win" the Cold War only to be lectured by a Russian dictator on a FREE PRESS.

It's horrible to watch but from the standpoint of chewing on the cynicism of that old editor at the Scene, this is the only way these cards COULD have played out. The "crisis" of journalism as that editor opined 10 years ago would foreshadow the complete Materialization of Values in Journalism. For the Scene, the mission of a newspaper is commodification. It's just a business and it's goal is to make money. Journalism is done by other people with more credentials and a fuller rolodex. You can hire them and they will win awards for you, but in your heart you have no soul. That sir, is in your wallet.

Is anyone else reminded of Ivan Illich's rule of counterproductivity? That the passionate pursuit of a thing often leads to the undermining of the original goal. You don't need to know who Ivan is to understand how a "pretty young thing" might go to Hollywood to live her dream as a star only to wind up in the valley making fake porn for Marriot and Ramada Inns. Is it just too damn obvious to say we become what we hate? Or maybe that's too elegant. Maybe we simply don't have the backbone to follow our dreams.

Guckert didn't graduate from Columbia, but he made it to the White House Press Corps. The Scene editor wasn't born in the Cabbage Patch, but he's made a pile in "journalism." Somehow that seems right for the zeitgeist. Somehow that leaves the universe wide open for others to observe and write about it while everyone else is busy screwing each other.


Blogger elizabeth said...

And a good time for you to be picking up your pen with such force and diligence!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005 5:47:00 PM  
Blogger Brook said...

and where is your elegant pen, miss lisa? :)

don't make us haiku you!

Thursday, March 03, 2005 10:41:00 AM  

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