Wednesday, March 11, 2009

As if Writing Is Charity

One of the reasons I enjoy reading James Lileks so much is that he helps me cut through the bull that liberally veins the journalism industry. Not that it’s all bull, but even after ten years in the business I could see myself that there was a fair amount, and that the amount of bull I allowed myself to produce was increasing. He admits, too, that there are many people in the journalism business who are altruistic and do what they do because they love it. But check out the last two lines in this excerpt. I know a few people like this, and one of the reasons I left the business is that I didn’t want to become one of them. Here's what he had to say today (no link, he apparently doesn't believe in permalinks):
I interviewed a Famous Columnist once who trotted out the “comfort the
afflicted, afflict the comfortable” line - he was quite comfortable himself,
which made you wonder if he went home and pinched himself until bloody
half-moons appeared on his forearms - and he said he had a deep-seated need to
throw snowballs at the guys with top hats. So . . . you’re a 30s urchin in

At heart, probably. G’wan, ya swell! Go eat sum oysters, why
First he writes the story about scrappy urchins who throw snowballs
at top hats; the next year the style section writes about the decline in top-hat
popularity, because of the snowball problem - which is understandable, given
income inequality, and really, they are a bit passe - and the next year the
columnist writes a story about the guys who are out of work because the top-hat
factory closed. Meanwhile, the business section has a big story on a new
straw-boater factory. But it’s the columnist grousing about the factory closing
that people remember.

You can’t avoid being tagged as habitual downers when you’re in the
news business, because the Truth Hurts, or at least Hurts Someone Else -
but sometimes I suspect many people in the news business are
temperamentally predisposed to miserabilism, because the idea of an unjust world
run by monied smileys explains why the cheerleader turned them down for a date
in high school. But I know too many who don’t fit that mold. So ignore the
above, except when it seems to explain something. Except when you read someone
who seems to think that by afflicting the comfortable, the afflicted are
automatically comforted. As if writing is charity.

I’ve got to admit that of the stories I wrote for various papers, the ones that brought me the most pleasure weren’t the ones where I was figuratively putting my finger in somebody’s eye – even if their eyes deserved to be poked for some reason. The stories I remember with the most fondness had nothing to do with comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, but, in many ways, those that dealt with smileys (monied or not) who weren’t out to get anybody, weren’t out to be gotten or otherwise looking for some false charity from someone who got into journalism To Make the World A Better Place. There’s the couple who married, despite the fact they both have Down Syndrome. There’s the little girl who made and marketed fudge so she could afford a horse – and who had offers of three free horses once the article appeared in the paper. The article about the guy who turned a hobby of learning how to survive in the wilderness through flint–knapping and other bohemian pursuits into a full-time business that included consulting with Hollywood. Those are the ones I remember. If I’d been able to do more of them, I might have stayed in the business longer. But we were Out To Make A Difference. Which is fine. Absolutely fine. But once and a while, I think, we made a difference without branding it as such. Those are the stories I remember the most.

The Internet, of all things, is beginning to lift that veil., for example, has been running reader-generated stories on how the sour economy is affecting people. Generally, the media is pretty good at getting at the big picture on this kind of thing, but typically fail at getting to the little guy who is actually being afflicted, aside from getting a few quotes from a fired factory worker and such. I know. I fell into this trap all the time as a reporter. Then you have people like the New York Times, who write about people with six-figure incomes who are now struggling due to the bad economy. That just doesn’t ring true with most folks. Now, I’m not saying that everything these “little people” produce for their own story is all that compelling, or interesting, or unbiased, but at least there’s a fundamental honesty at the bottom of it all. There’s nobody filtering what they say to make sure the afflicted are comforted and the comfortable are afflicted in the official journalistic sense. The Internet is helping to break down that Fourth Wall between the news purveyors and the news readers in a way that letters to the editor and phone calls after a story is published can never accomplish. News outlets that seize upon that opportunity are the ones who will thrive.

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