02 January, 2008

What's wrong with journalism

Why is quality journalism so lacking these days? Jack Schafer over at Slate thinks it can all be traced back to the lack of alcohol on the job.

He argues that heavy drinking, drug use, sexual escapades and general fast living are essential attributes of the good journalist's psyche -- or "occupational mythology" as the sociologists have it.

The journalist likes to think of himself as living close to the edge, whether he's covering real estate or Iraq. He (and she) shouts and curses and cracks wise at most every opportunity, considers divorce an occupational hazard, and loves telling ripping yarns about his greatest stories. If he likes sex, he has too much of it. Ditto for food. If he drinks, he considers booze his muse...Deny the journalist his self-image as a rule-bending individualist and you might as well replace him with a typist.


Schafer's target is the PC-era ban on in-office alcohol consumption, smoking, and general racuous behaviour. To him, this ban represents the journalist's ultimate emasculation, to use the gendered turn of phrase. Journalists specialize -- or should -- in questioning the status quo and challenging those in power, not toeing the line like all you little people. And so Schafer rebels against his tee-totaling supervisors:

I keep a bottle at my office for the same reason—not to drink but to symbolically cast off the petty rules and restrictions that I imagine thwart me from doing my job. If my job is to kick authority in the shins, how can I resist doing the same to the powers that cut me a paycheck twice a month?...Wise editors know when and how to encourage newsroom insubordination, as opposed to squelching it, because they appreciate Bob Woodward's aphorism "All good work is done in defiance of management."


I sympathise. It is hard to imagine my journalistic role models -- Orwell, Hunter Thompson, David Halberstam, Christopher Hitchens -- bowing to such petty tyranny. On the other hand, Schafer is a libertarian, so in that light its up to you to decide how annoying his self-righteousness is. He finishes:

The wise editor understands that quality journalism requires a bad attitude, foul words, a brawl, and sometimes a drink afterward.


I think I may have found my calling.

5 comments:

spencer said...

In this way, journalism is a much more honest profession than history or political science.

But can anyone pull this off in a non-ironic way anymore?

Cassady said...

Spencer, I'll bet you could pull off the hard-drinking sexaholic economist angle. Only you are such a bad boy, Spence.

Elliot said...

Why more honest? Only more openly self-aggrandizing, maybe?

spencer said...

More honest because thay are all concerned with narratives and stories and the honest way to tell a story is with a drink in your hand, not from a cubicle.

Elliot said...

Well said -- I'll drink to that. But I'm not sure you can pull it off non-ironically anymore, since nowadays most of the drinking will also take place in a cubicle.

In his office, I bet Schafer is more of the wierd, full of himself, kind of creepy guy (a la Anchorman, I imagine) rather than the endearing rebel. But perhaps such is the price of being a prophet.