Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Self-Inflicted (Writing) Wounds"

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 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:

“The Choice”

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.


Mark Caldwell said...

Go for it. Your just creating an opening for young, aspiring, sycophantic writer who won't shoot themselves in the foot by writing something like that.

Fred said...

Well, for one thing you are complaining about getting only commentary and no news but you yourself give only commentary and no news.

Seems a little hypocrytical.

Diann said...

Don't do it! Although I'm totally with you - one of my fears for our society is that the practice of real journalism will be lost because it is not as "exciting" as listening to dubious authorities debate topics with great bias and without much accountability. I would like to see a fact checker on "news" station commentary - like they do for debates during elections.

Use your blog to get it out of your system. I would like to read your political articles as well as your blog.

p.s. I think it is "loss leader" not "lost leader". To describe the situation in which a company is going to lose money by selling at a loss, but will make it back because it will bring people in to shop for other things. Unless I missed the intentionally sarcastic or ironic application of "lost leader" which is entirely possible.

Rebecca said...

Okay, how about this?

That would be an excellent thing to submit if you were a journalist, and you were explaining why they should hire you. Because you would be a true journalist and find out the facts then report them.

But you should NOT submit that, because you will be providing commentary and one of the things you want to display is that you can be relied on to find something on which to comment. Biting the hand that is offering to feed you will make them wonder just how short you are on topics to comment upon.


However, I could not agree with you more. And I would add another topic to that list, the financial crisis. As Jon Stewart asked Jim Cramer in the link below, why did all the financial journalists just take Bank CEO's at their word when they said everything was fine? Some real journalism might have saved this country from the mess we find ourselves in mostly due to the money spent on the war and reckless speculating.

growingupartists said...

My favorite pieces are the ones that involve you working on a show. It allows the reader to live vicariously through you and your "connections", plus they're always super insightful and funny.

Max Clarke said...

I'm not clear on what they're expecting from you, Earl. Are they expecting a comedy writer to cover national issues?

It's a news and politics site. Even commentators are supposed to present something fresh and interesting about news and politics.

I see you pointing a finger at journalism for not covering big stories and even the John Edwards affair, and it reminds me of a Cheers episode, I On Sports.

Sam Malone gets to try the sports anchor spot for a week at a Boston tv station. His first commentary is a plea for Red Sox fans to cut down on booing. His next commentary is a firm stand in favor of natural ball park grass over synthetic grass. By the end of the episode, he's brought a dummy to the station, Sam Junior, and his commentary is an argument with the dummy over the price of tickets to ball games.

I just looked at the Politics Daily site, and the writers are mostly reporters or political types. They're inside the game.

Since you're outside the game, I wonder what they want you to do. If you could present a funny view of the news and the political stories, that would be worth reading. Otherwise, it'a a puzzle how you would fit into their format.

Brian Scully said...

That state of network news now is embarrassing, at least compared to what it was in the 1970's. I don't expect so-called "journalists" to be in the same mold as Walter Cronkite, but geez, how could anyone consider the likes of Anderson Cooper or any of the whorish reporters on CNN to even be in the same profession as Cronkite or Chancellor or Murrow. CNN has turned from being a responsible news service to a show business/celeb driven tabloid and the only two REAL reporters that have my respect and seem to be the real deal, are John King and Joe Johns... the rest, are Entertainment Tonight rejects and I include Wolf Blitzer and 95% of the anchors they have "cast" for their news shows in that generalization. Earl, you would be a welcome break from those morons because you are less show business than they are.

dodz said...

are you journalist man? so keep it up

growingupartists said...

Or, you could just be a comedy writer covering national issues.

James said...

A maybe a dumb question...

What's your alternative?