Criticism w/o Critique

Why some media writers aren't allowed to opine while others get to speak their minds

The Jimmy Breslin flap—call it Quotemarkgate—pales before other fabrication scandals that have plagued the press. But these days any infraction is worth belaboring, especially if you can undermine a celebrity in the process. In Breslin's case, the gossip was much more newsworthy than the error. He reported a comment by the homophobic Reverend Lou Sheldon to the effect that gays kidnap men in order to turn them queer. Breslin put quotation marks around this remark, though it had been uttered 12 years ago and he was recalling it from memory. Sheldon denied he'd ever said it. Newsday reprimanded its star columnist in an editor's note, and there the matter rests.

Of course it's important to represent people correctly. Breslin should have paraphrased wording he couldn't be certain of. But is his sin worse than the distortions that frequently grace the New York Post? You be the judge—unless you're a press critic.

Once upon a very different time, press critics weighed in regularly on the larger meaning of journalism. (Think of the legendary '60s journal [More], if you go back that far.) But what most editors want from media writers today is industrial reporting, which means hiring, firing, backstabbing, bottom lines, and schadenfreude-producing errors. This beat has become Celebrity Justice for journos. It's one thing for a media writer to also be a media operator, as Michael Wolff, formerly of New York and currently of Vanity Fair, has been. It's quite another for a press critic to criticize.

I know many journalists who would like to comment on the deep structure of their profession and its suck-up to advertisers, not to mention the dominant social order. But their editors won't let them. And don't tell me about The Washington Post's media arbiter, Howard Kurtz. I've yet to see him tackle a question of fundamental bias, such as: Why do words like savage and animal appear frequently in tabloid accounts of black mothers charged with killing their babies, while such words are rarely used when the killer mom is white?

Rachel Donadio's piece about the Breslin affair, in the New York Observer of April 19, broke the rule by offering a meditation on its subject's place in journalism. The reason she got away with this speculation, I suspect, was Breslin's celebrity. Then, too, her piece was a feature. (The paper's "real" media column concerned itself with the cosmic question of crediting a competitor for a scoop.) Under this loose rubric, Donadio was free to argue that Breslin's techniques have become so commonplace in reportage that they no longer constitute a "New" Journalism. I don't agree. New Journalism, the real thing, is an intricate adaptation of (usually naturalistic) literary devices, animated occasionally by the first person. When I was in J-school and I wrote such pieces, they'd be returned with comments like, "I don't know what this is, but you owe me a story." Many newspaper editors would now agree, but back in the day it was possible to publish such stuff in a daily, not to mention an alternative weekly.

Most writing that passes for New Journalism today has a whole lot of color and a notable absence of authorial fire. Breslin remains an exception to this rule, which is why he makes a good retro icon. Of course, there are young practitioners of Breslin's craft, but you won't find them in many newspapers. Most alternative papers are as dedicated to service as any hooker. And even in higher-minded publications on slick paper, the line between reporting, reflecting, and opining is much more rigidly defined. Pieces in the first person are usually labeled as such, and you have to be a marquee writer before most editors will trust you to speak your mind.

I'm afraid the same is true for press criticism. True, there are people who rant about the media's slant, but nearly all of them are on the right. Progressive media writers report while the conservatives get to comment. This is part of a larger phenomenon, in which liberal publications must prove their objectivity, but right-wing venues are free to spin, which makes them a lot livelier. For that matter, there are hardly any hardcore progs on the nation's op-ed pages. The spectrum of opinion in American papers goes from pale left to paleo right.

You'd think it would be different for press critics, but it isn't. Editors who force them to stick to just the facts are doing what editors always have in conservative times: keeping faith with power.


Cynthia Cotts is on vacation and will return next week.

 
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