I’ve been in this situation before. The person-in-charge asks for a writing sample. In the situation before, it involved NPR’s All Things Considered. They were considering me for a slot as a regular commentator.
What did I submit to impress the heck out of them? A commentary about how NPR’s commentary delivery process was deceiving, because the audience was actually being read to, rather than being spoken to directly, as they were trying to make it appear.
That was my big gripe. People were reading their commentaries, and the listeners, at least consciously, were unaware they were doing it.
This, in part, is what I wrote:
“I’m not talking to you right now; I’m reading to you. When I said, “I’m not talking to you right now; I’m reading to you”? I was reading that. When I said, “I was reading that”? I was reading that too. “I was reading that too”? I was also reading that. I’m reading this entire thing!”
They didn’t care for it. Too smart-ass, they explained. I was undermining the commentary-reading tradition. In time, I came to realize that that submission was a mistake. Inexplicably, considering my objective, I was making fun of the thing I wanted them to hire me to do. I was also calling them deceivers. Not a good idea.
I’m worried I’m about to make the same mistake again. There’s a website called PoliticsDaily.com. It’s a news and commentary website, similar to the Huffingtonpost. After corresponding with PoliticsDaily’s Editor-In-Chief, Melinda Henneberger, I was invited to submit a writing sample for possible publication. What I’m dying to send her is this:
I understand the impulse.
I worked in network television, both in Canada and in the U.S., for thirty-five years. I know what it’s like to drive through studio gate to my specially allotted parking space. I’ve felt the exhilaration of seeing my name printed in giant letters across a television screen. I’ve experienced the satisfaction of receiving an award in front of the cameras, smiling at the possibility that my snooty high school contemporaries were watching, scratching their heads incredulously, as their lips form the single word,
I understand the hunger for the spotlight. My craving for it persists even in retirement, writing a daily blog, and seeking greater attention through ancillary outlets. The seductive siren song of celebrity, I would call it, if I were into alliterations, which I’m not.
That’s me. That’s how it is. And being relatively normal, I imagine it’s not that different for others.
I will now change the subject. But I will bring it all home. I promise.
When it began, the television news business was a dull and stodgy operation. Men in tweed jackets read from sheets of paper they held in their hands. We didn’t expect much from the news back then. “Just tell us what happened, who won the game, and if it’s going to rain tomorrow.” As they said on “Dragnet”, “Just the facts.”
The people who gathered those facts were hard working, invisible and, from what I’ve read about journalism, seriously underpaid. They appeared to be dedicated. Why else would you work hard invisibly for an undersized paycheck?
Television news back then was seen, even by its providers, as a service to the community, a quid pro quo for an unpaid-for slot on the public airwaves. Then, with the arrival of one show, everything changed. The TV news business was about to receive a transformational makeover.
“60 Minutes”, with its exposes, celebrity profiles, “Common Man” commentaries, and its “tick, tick, tick…” debuted and quickly became hugely popular. And “hugely popular” in television, and everywhere else now that I think about it, means hugely profitable.
Emerging from that “shop”, “60 Minutes” demonstrated that the once “loss leader” news divisions were capable of making substantial amounts of money for their networks. And from that point on, they were required to.
Incrementally, the “tipping point” was reached, it inevitably tipped, and broadcast news became “Welcome to the circus.”
Cable news was simply the next generation. Call it “Makeover 2.0.”
Cable news must be profitable; the shows’ hosts are paid millions. Also, in mine ‘umble opinion, the programming appears to be mislabeled. Cable news networks don’t actually deliver much news; they primarily offer commentary. From an accuracy standpoint, MSNBC, for example, should really be called the “Cable Commentary Network.” But it’s not. And it’s a little confusing.
Journalists, many of them highly respected, regularly appear on cable news programs. I don’t know how long it takes them to travel to the studio, get made up, and wait in the “Green Room” to go on, but it must consume a substantial amount of their time.
I understand why they want to do it. See: above. I’m sympathetic to the impulse. I’m also sympathetic to the idea of maximizing your financial opportunities. Still, I can’t help feeling that when you make the decision to become a journalist, understanding the sacrifices that choice will entail – what can I tell you? – you gotta be a journalist.
There are stories that need to be covered. Not little stories, like whether the president bowed too deeply while greeting the head of state of another country, important stories.
Forgive me for exhuming ancient history, but it still bothers me. I’d really like to have known whether Iraq really had WMD’s, and whether they were responsible for attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know people were on that story at the time, but we never got the facts till it was, unfortunately, too late.
John Edwards could arguably have become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. In retrospect, I’m thinking – hopefully, without bursting a blood vessel – we really should have known more about this guy. Because if his secret had come out after he was nominated, it would have elected the other guy, and if it had come out after he was elected, it would have brought down the government. The “Inquirer” had the “scoop”, but nobody listens to them, because they’re the “Inquirer.” So we didn’t know.
Two stories with monumental implications, and the public is totally in the dark. And I’m wondering, “Where were the journalists?”
Am I unfairly blaming the journalists? It’s very possible. I can imagine there are often powerful obstacles keeping them from doing their jobs. But since that’s another story I’m not being told, I can only guess at what they might be.
It comes down to this. I’m a regular person. I need the journalists out there doing full-time journalism. Otherwise, who’s going to be my champion, gaining access to places I can’t get into, uncovering information I would otherwise never find out? Who will rescue me from my ignorance, and let me know what’s actually going on?
It’s fun to be famous. I understand that, I really do. But Woodward and Bernstein also got famous. They did it the old-fashioned way.
They informed the public.
That’s what I’m thinking of submitting – a story to a journalists about how journalists fell down on the job. As the “Cowardly Lion” said in The Wizard of Oz,
Talk me out of it.