American Culture

Why I'm not a journalist, or the inferiority complex of the modern media

By Martin Bosworth

Ever since I started writing professionally, my friends have asked me why I don’t go into journalism full-time. “You’d be great at it, they say–you’re a natural!” Now, maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. But even if it were, there’re a million reasons why I don’t want to enmesh myself in the modern media unless it’s on my terms. Shitty pay. Humiliating rituals of “dues paying” for newbies. Long hours. The utter vitriol and hatred of pretty much the entire free world and much of the not-so-free world.

Most of all, I wouldn’t want to be a full-time reporter because it disgusts me to see how the modern media industry has let its primary duty of telling the truth and informing the public be cast away in favor of empty snark, passive-aggressive cynicism, and the sycophantic banality of sucking up to everyone from editors to interviewees just for the sake of–what? Access? Prestige? Being the first to report on a big scoop?

There’s a truly bipolar attitude in how the media machine views itself and its relation with the world, where peevish journalists can get a video on CNN complaining about how hard it is to have to redeem rewards points for frequent flyer miles just to follow a campaign. I can almost hear Mr. 28 % 19 % saying something like “Journamalism–it’s hard work!” when I hear stuff like this…the sneering viciousness of feeling like they can make or break a politician’s reputation with a single stroke of a pen or click of a mouse (which they can), mixed with the frustration of realizing that they still have to suck up and deal with life’s everyday miseries just like the rest of us. You can even see a lot of this “entitlement viciousness” in the blogerati, many of whom are building media empires in their own right and often adopt a lot of the worst attitudes of their nemeses–witness this post from GNB’s Jesse Wendel on how the Obama campaign was a cult because the Clinton campaign treated him better.

At the same time, you have to feel a measure of both pity and scorn for anyone who would willingly put up with literally being forced to work next to a toilet–which is what happened to these correspondents on the Clinton campaign. What’s more shocking–that a candidate who desperately needs all the good press she can get would so callously treat people this way, or that so many respected pundits and journalists would so blithely accept the shit they’re being forced to eat? I’m a pretty easygoing guy and can put up with a lot, but damn, I’d turn in my notepad and call it a career if this were me.

But this is the inferiority complex of the modern media–the knowledge that just as they can shatter reputations and expose scandals with their prose and investigations, they can just as easily be cast aside and relegated to the dustbin. No one’s here to see them, after all. Who cares what they think?

That’s how you end up with the media crafting narratives like their sudden decision to go in hard on Obama after months of generally glowing press coverage. It’s a reminder that the corporate masters control what makes it into the story, and that they–not you or I–decide who gets to fit in the frame for the camera, as Denny marvelously illustrated just a few minutes ago. That edict passes down from CEOs to editors to the reporter walking the beat, which is how you end up writing poison screeds about a candidate that ends their career one minute, and sitting next to a urinal furiously typing away on deadline the next.

Both Sam and Denny teach or have taught journalism in their long and storied careers, and never hesitate to come down hard on the crappy state of modern news reporting. I’m a bit more sympathetic–I know how many hands a story passes through before it makes it to the front page of a paper or a Web site. But one thing everyone forgets in the media machine these days is this simple rule: It’s not about you. You aren’t the story. There are vast numbers of people on the planet who are born, live, and die without ever knowing or giving a fuck what David Broder thinks, or what Joe Klein thinks, or even what Martin Bosworth thinks. But they do care about the information, the story, the events–the crises and crusades that shape our times.

Journalists and reporters have immense power to shape those times. They just need to forget that they have it, and get back to the business of the story itself.

11 replies »

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  2. journalism as we “think” journalism should be doesnt exist in the corporate world — it cannot – it costs money. and the owners of journalism just want words to fill in the spaces (or air time) between ads…. and ‘journalists’ put people to sleep before they reach the ad

    the internet is the last bastion of true journalism

  3. I expect not every one of my commenters to be able to necessarily follow what I said that day. It was an election day, and people were heated up.

    But to have the respected Scholars & Rogues twisting my words? Shame on you.

    I didn’t say the Obama campaign was a cult. I said they were NOT a cult and gave two examples of why they were not a cult. I said there might be starting — key word, starting — to be a cult of personality around Senator Obama.

    As for how I was treated, you’re the one who decided that is why I treated one campaign differently than another. That’s all your interpretation. What I said in my piece is, one campaign was professional, the other, not. One campaign took care of the press, the other not only made us wait outside in 40 degree weather with a wind for over an hour (after our call time), but then was consistently rude to us once we were inside. One campaign had professional staffers, the other had volunteers who appeared spaced out and wouldn’t even say what their last names were.

    Stop projecting your own basis on my article. I wrote one thing. You’ve twisted it into something completely different than what I wrote, in an attempt to make it fit your theory about how the press works.

    As I never wrote that Obama was part of a cult, and specifically wrote he was not part of a cult and gave examples saying so, you owe me a retraction, which I expect to see shortly.

  4. “[P]eople are free to, and they damn well are, projecting onto Obama all their hopes and dreams for a better future. He is their mother, their father, their lover, confessor, their priest, their shining city on a hill.”

    Sounds like an obamanable cult to me, the way you describe it, Jesse. Thanks for the heads up! I’ll vote for Hillary instead; her style is impetuous, her defenses impregnable; she’s just ferocious. She won my heart. Plus her team will see to it that my tushie is warm as I wait earnestly in line to touch the hem of her pants-suit.

  5. No. It’s not a cult.

    A cult is different. That’s why I said specifically it is NOT a cult.

    I said this was approaching a cult of personality, which is very distinct from an actual cult. To say someone is a cult member is normally consider defamatory. I did not say that. For you to say I did is libel.

    See Sara Robinson’s piece at Orcinus a day or so after mine, which lays out clearly the 15-18 distinctions of what a cult is.

    I mentioned a couple of those distinctions in my article (using other words), e.g.: a) people being out in the world, and b) having their own lives. In an actual cult, people get cut off from their friends and family, from anything which could give them any authority with which to measure what is valid or not valid, except the voice of authority coming from the cult figure. Which leads to my second point, having their own lives. In an actual cult, people move to live at the cult compound or cult city/town, so as to keep them as isolated as possible from the rest of the world. The cult leader would only want them listening to official cult news sources, talking to other people in the cult, and so on.

    I said specifically that NONE of that was happening, and that thus it was obvious that the Obama campaign was NOT a cult.

    But the Scholars & Rogues writer above clearly has failed to read what I wrote in my article. He read the word CULT and stopped reading. “Jesse said cult. That must mean, he thinks the Obama Campaign IS a cult”… never mind the word NOT in front of it and the specific examples Jesse gives to explain why the Obama Campaign is NOT a cult.

    I said what I meant and I meant what I said.

    What I said was, cult of personality.

    Lots of people have cults of personality. I gave harsh examples, to force people to really confront the issue: Werner Erhard and George W. Bush. But who can deny that GWB has (or at least had) a cult of personality around him. It wasn’t an actual cult. No one was moving to Texas to live outside the ranch with GWB wrist bands and worship him. No. It was a cult of personality.

    Same with Werner Erhard. It wasn’t an actual cult. People didn’t move to San Francisco to worship him. He was greatly admired and people went to his seminars. Same with Steve Jobs of Apple. There’s a cult of personality around him. Just go to any Apple Store and say, “I had a meeting yesterday with Steve Jobs” and watch what happens.

    That is what I suggested what happening around Obama, and that is was going to be an issue, if it stayed at the heart of his campaign.

    Guess what? It’s a month later, and Clinton is attacking him hardball on PRECISELY this issue. That Obama is all sizzle and no steak. That people are emotionally attached to Obama without any real policy substance to him. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m saying that is what I was left with, after one public event. And surprise, surprise, I’m not the only one.

    I demand a prompt retraction and apology for your libel, your false claim that I said the Obama Campaign was a cult. I did not.

  6. Some time ago I watched Obama and Clinton being interviewed. She put forward the view that Obama was not being asked difficult questions and suggested that he was being given an easy ride. To the extent where she commented that she was half expecting interviewers to ask him whether he was comfortable enough and did he require a pillow or blanket.

    I thought then she wanted to be loved by America like Obama…but she doesn’t. That strange emotion love so quickly can turn to other things.

    Good luck to Mr Obama I hope he wins the nomination.

  7. Jesse:

    I went back and re-read your post when I saw the flare-up here because the controversy is about what was technically said. I’ve been presented as saying things I didn’t say before and tend to be sensistive about the importance of authorial intent, so I want to give you every benefit of the doubt.

    Here’s what I see. The word “cult” appears six times in the post, and it’s interesting how the issue is framed.

    Some folks have suggested Clinton operatives are pushing “Obama as cult” around the press. Please don’t tell me I’m being told to think this about cults. I hadn’t read Krugman’s article when I came to the same conclusion about Obama as a cult of personality. And I did so all on my own.

    In appearance #1, the frame is established according to what Clinton’s people are allegedly saying – Obama = cult. I don’t think anyone with an IQ over 60 is using the term literally – do we have examples of people sacrificing virgins to Obama, or accusations of such? No, the term is always being used in a figurative sense and I think we all know that, regardless of which side of the fence we’re on. In any case, that’s the first use in text (it also appears, as “cult of personality,” in the header, which is important). Textual usage #2 is about cults again, as distinct from CoP.


    I’ve been around cults, religions, and high-dominance authoritarian institutions much of my life.

    Now we’re around to your framing, not Clinton’s, and the first use of term in this sequence unambiguously points to real cults. The next sentence begins with:

    While I won’t go so far as to call the Obama organization a cult…

    This seems to place the literal and figurative on a continuum, as though real cult and cult of personality are varying degrees of the same actual thing. Which isn’t accurate, of course – CoP, as your comments here suggest you’re using it, is a metaphorical construction that has no place on a continuum with “cult.” The “while/but” construction is also a device that sets us up a certain way and leads us to expect a stronger implication to follow shortly.

    You make clear in your comments that there is a clear difference between the two things, and I think that’s absolutely correct. But that’s not how it’s handled in this section of your original post.

    This at the least, approaches a serious cult of personality, and perhaps more.

    Jesse, what are you saying here? “At the least” again reinforces the continuum idea and makes clear which way your accusation is leaning. “[A]nd perhaps more” is hardly language that disavows the literal end of that continuum, is it?

    Look, I think we’ve already made more of this than it merits, and if you want to clarify your intent here by saying that “cult” and “cult of personality” are different things and that you meant the latter, not the former, I can accept that easily enough. But what you actually do in the post is, to this student of rhetoric, a lot less clear-cut than your comments ask me to believe. The confusion here stems fairly directly from the fact that you’re doing two things with the terminology – in one spot treating two terms as more related than they are and in another asserting that they’re different things completely. When you do that, it’s hard to defend yourself when a critic seizes on one and not the other.

    After reading my analysis here I’d hope your reaction would be something like “okay, I see your point, and if I had it to do over again I’d handle my terminology a little differently.” I know I can accept that (and frankly am willing to accept your comments here as reflecting what you currently mean).

    But in no case can I see any justification at all for your use of the word “libel,” which seems more driven by the emotion of the moment than by the actual record of what was said in your original post, which I think is more than open to Martin’s interpretation.

  8. Jesse,

    I can’t really add anything to Sam’s excellent analysis of your charge as to whether or not you claimed Obama was a cult, and that wasn’t the point of my piece.

    The point was that there is a dangerous tendency among media professionals and amateurs alike to embrace both the egomania of believing you can shape the dynamic of events, and the sycophancy of sacrificing both integrity and accuracy just to maintain access. It’s a very passive-aggressive bipolar dynamic.

    I mentioned your piece specifically because I saw it as an example of how bloggers, who are rapidly augmenting and usurping traditional media structures for reporting, analysis, and opinion, are more than capable of picking up on these bad habits. You had a negative experience at an Obama event, and it’s pretty clear from your work that you felt like they should have treated you better because of your status as a well-known blogger. As a result, this shaped your opinion of the event and you described it and the things you found through a very negative lens.

    But it’s as I said–the reality is that the world does not revolve around us. Not you, not me, or any other bloggers/writers/reporters we know. We contribute to the dynamic, we can shape it, but we are not the core of it. We’re there to share information, offer opinions, and give our views, so that people can listen to what we say and make up their own minds.

    I’m sure you looked at what I wrote and felt like I was going in hard on you, but it’s worth taking a step back and seeing how you reacted. The argument about the Obama cult was not only a microscopic-thin hair split, but it also didn’t address the point of my piece–and claiming I was libelous and demanding a retraction actually proved my point better than anything I could have said. The natural tendency of many writers is to have egos–we have to, because otherwise why would we care enough to share our work? But that doesn’t mean we are immune from criticism, critique, or reconsideration.

    Give what I said here some thought. This isn’t a slam on you personally or GNB in the whole, but this particular issue goes very much to the larger point I was making–that we ain’t all that, and it behooves us to remember it.

  9. Dr. Slammy –


    Let it be.

    I withdraw my accusation.

    Not because my emotions are less involved, but because it’s a strong word and author’s intent isn’t a defense.

    I just want to beat my head into a wall over that damn post, which is no doubt why I reacted as harshly as I did.

    Thank you for your patience. You’re absolutely correct in that this has taken more time than it deserves. It’s been the bane of my life since it was posted.


    I over-reacted. I thought this was finally — finally — put to bed, and here, on a site I respect so much, someone was dragging it all out again, and with such a brutal interpretation. In the moment, it was simply too much.

    What you got, was not just my upset, but my intent, as clearly as I know how to have written it. Call it, the post I wish I had written. *laughs*

    Here is the background…

    Not that it would have helped. I tried writing what I said to you above, over and over and over in the comments on “the day”, only to be cursed and reviled and told that Yes I Had Too called Obama and his devoted ones, Cult Members. The attacks moved into hate mail, chat, all over comments, phone calls, and even though I barely posted for the next four weeks, I got more of the same including veiled threats, for over a MONTH.

    They have just died down in the past week to 10 days.

    It REALLY messed me up. I’ve only been returned to myself for less than a week.

    So I was, pardon me, damned, if I was going to let anyone, accuse me again of having used the Cult word against Obama and perhaps start up that cycle again. Just not gonna happen.

    That was the background against which I reacted. I apologize to the extent which it was an over-reaction.

    The one thing I will say — and you’re perfectly fine in having your own interpretation about what I said; I won’t attempt to change your mind. I add this simply to give you food for thought. — is that I am disabled. I walk with a cane and am unable to stand for longer than about ten, perhaps 15 minutes without needing to sit. I also can not walk long distances without a great deal of pain.

    The Clinton Camp had someone looking for me, led me in through the crowd and made things easy for me. They took care of me as a disabled person and were very gracious to me in this regard. The Obama camp told us when to show up, and we did. Then they made us stand outside with no where to sit but the ground in near freezing temperatures plus a biting wind for well over an hour without even an apology, followed by another 30 minutes of security sweeps, standing.

    Did it impact my coverage? Who can say… What I am sure of is, by the time the Obama campaign came around and asked me to move from where I was finally sitting over to a different place, I was in no mode to do them any favors. So I didn’t. And if that meant having to pull my national status on them, then so be it. My leg hurt like hell and if I hadn’t thought it unfair to the candidate, I would have gone home and put my leg on ice instead of waiting around for the rally. My complaint isn’t how I personally was treated; it is how all the press were treated.

    Had I been on the campaign trail with the Clinton Campaign a few days ago, and they’d asked me to work from the men’s room, I’d have told them no, hell no, and either you fix this or you get no cooperation from me or my network. I don’t work under conditions like this.

    That’s kind of how I am. I say this, again, not to change your interpretation of what I said, which I agree is a valid way of looking at what I wrote, but to tell you what was there for me as I wrote it. Call it the, “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” school of writing. *smiles*

    Best wishes,

    Jesse Wendel, Publisher
    Group News Blog

  10. Jesse:

    As far as I’m concerned, then, it’s all put to bed. We respect you and the work you do and I know I speak for everybody in saying that we’re honored to hear the words of praise you have for us.

    Maybe it’s the curse of thoughtful, progressive minds to be so perfecting in their pursuit of a better world that they sometimes wind up arguing over the .01% that they disagree on instead of building on the 99.9% they agree on.

    I look at John McCain and think hey, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 🙂

  11. “I am disabled. I walk with a cane and am unable to stand for longer than about ten, perhaps 15 minutes without needing to sit. I also can not walk long distances without a great deal of pain.”

    Wasn’t aware of that, Jesse. Please forgive my earlier snark. And as for the veiled threats you’ve received, well… wow. No goddamned excuse in the world for that. Hang in there.