Where Journalism Shouldn’t Be

Satire doesn’t need explication. But satire, on occasion, can also provide a useful starting point for clarifying poins. Erik Wemple’s column on Chris Cillizza’s Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) does just that.

Cillizza is a forty-something “journalist” of the worst contemporary sort. That is, he’s less of a reporter or investigator than a promoter of his brand. He’s a CNN star, currently near the top of the heap of this new profession of (to use Philip K. Dick’s old description) “news clown.” Because he pretends to journalism and exhibits so much of what has come to be seen as the worst of the profession, real reporters seem to loathe him. Evan Hurst of Wonkette snarkily describes him as “Chuck Todd [and later as David Brooks] without the dripping sex appeal.” In Salon, Taylor Link writes that “it is Cillizza’s reporting style, which barely covers the surface on most issues, that has enraged colleagues and media consumers alike.”

Wemple’s send-up of Cillizza’s AMA consists of “six reasons that’s a great move.” They are also a concise list of what is wrong with so much journalism today and why so many within it feel such frustration concerning their profession [I’ve taken the snark our of Wemple’s list, for my intent is not to be funny]:

  1. People of real significance, including Barack Obama, have been AMA participants. To be a successful news clown, one needs to pretend to that level of importance (Jim Briskin, Philip Dick’s news clown, actually runs for president). The perversion, for a journalist, is that this turns the traditional role inside out, making the journalist the story—something no real reporter should aspire to be.
  2. The timing is perfect, if one is building one’s brand with the intent of peaking during the 2020 election campaigns. Cillizza is more interested, Wemple implies, in promoting his brand than in investigating possible news stories. A real investigator puts timing aside, patiently working to unearth a story rather than positioning oneself for a story that, in many respects, is only going to need a stenographer, someone to record it as it unfolds—not someone going out and finding the story.
  3. Being open to questions can build one’s reputation as a street fighter, someone quick on one’s feet. It show, according to Wemple, that Cillizza has a “thick skin to stick around in the public square.” It shows he can take criticism. For a real journalist, though, the toughest criticism comes (or should come) in the newsroom before the story is published—and it is not of the individual but of the work.
  4. The audience is not journalists but news consumers. This bypasses the necessary constraint generated by knowledge that one’s professional colleagues are watching—and judging. If the only thing that matters is “eyeballs,” professionalism goes out the window and the news clown triumphs.
  5. “Civility rules.” Being polite is more important than addressing tough questions. Cillizza wants to “further his popular perception as an analyst who can appeal to both sides of the media divide.” In other words, he wants to make sure he is perceived as a softballer, as someone who will never pursue, let alone ask about, tough concerns. That’s what a public-relations person, not a journalist, should be about.
  6. Keep yourself in the media eye. To build a brand, one has to take advantage of ‘moments’ and make sure that one is not forgotten through inattention. A stunt like the Reddit AMA keeps Cillizza as the focus of news stories—and of blogs like this one—making sure his name recognition remains high. For a real journalist, though they all appreciate bylines, that should always be a secondary consideration.

When Edward R. Murrow, during the Battle of Britain, “reported air raids from the streets and rooftops,” it was the story, not his antics, that was the focus. He became famous, but that was an ancillary result, simply a side-effect to his work as a professional journalist. He liked it, I am sure, but that was not his purpose.

For a news clown like Cillizza, that’s always the purpose.

 

 

 

A decade or more ago, at a faculty party in New York City, I listened in as a diverse group of faculty spoke casually of “hillbillies,” “rednecks” and “white trash.” I reminded them that they were speaking of my own people (my ancestry is completely Appalachian) and that they shouldn’t really be demeaning any group, anyhow. I was met by fisheyed responses and the comment, “Well, you left there.”

My experience was not unusual. The writer Anne Shelby comments in an essay “The ‘R’ Word” for Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes Dwight Billings, et all, eds.):

If you happen to be from eastern Kentucky, as I am, then other people’s stereotypes of the place you are from are as much a part of your landscape as the hills themselves. They can loom as large and seem as permanent. You have to find your way over or around them. But unlike the mountains, which can be seen from some distance, stereotypes jump out at you in ambush—at parties and meetings, at dinner with friends, from movies, from magazines and newspapers, from your favorite TV show. Even in college classes.

I am reminded of this by the report in Yale News about Yale University’s Pierson College Dean June Chu. Apparently, she “published controversial reviews of local businesses on her personal Yelp account, on one occasion referring to clientele of a restaurant as ‘white trash’ and ‘low class folks,’” According to The Washington Post, Chu has since apologized: “My remarks were wrong. There are no two ways about it. Not only were they insensitive in matters related to class and race; they demean the values to which I hold myself and which I offer as a member of this community.”

Personally, I am skeptical—not that I have ever met Chu or know anything about her. My skepticism comes from what I have seen on university campuses since returning to teaching less than two decades ago. Nothing I have said in defense of the Scots-Irish based mountain culture of my own ancestry has met much more than shrugs and lack of sympathy for even the poorest of the hollers. Few of my colleagues expressed any interest when I tailored an introductory literature class around the art of Appalachia. Only the rare other understood what I was talking about and those only because they, too, had backgrounds in white American cultures that had become fair game for disparagement in most urban American settings.

 

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