I did my hipster talk for the music and politics panel the other day — it was fun. We even got a write-up in the Indiana University student newspaper. Though it always puzzles me what reporters take away from anything one says:
Ford added that although “hipsters” strayed from the mainstream jazz,
their final product still ended up being “good.” As he was talking,
Ford yelled “Charlie Parker was the man,” adding a little spice to the
I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen.
Back in the mid-1990s I worked for a few years as a PR flack at the University of Minnesota art museum. I spent my days sending out press releases and pitching stories to local journalists. I got along with them pretty well: they were just normal dudes with a job to do and not a lot of time to do it, which meant that they were very happy to have a reasonably literate person call them up with a story idea and a few decently-written paragraphs on the topic already handy. Most people who don’t have any working relationship to any news organization would probably be astonished at the number of stories that appear in daily papers, alternaweeklies, news radio programs, etc., that are basically just rewritten press releases.
I also learned that the relationship between the truth of a statement, what was actually said or meant, and the version that appears in the news is, at best, approximate. I always kind of roll my eyes when I hear about “media bias.” Political types see distortions of their pet ideas and assume that the reason has to do with malice borne of systemic prejudice. The simpler explanation is that ideas are to news what organized activities are to toddler birthday parties. They are necessary as structuring premises and points of departure, but they get pounded into a shapeless hash by the mad thronging scrum of events in real time.
And in any event, journalists don’t call them “stories” for nothing. Journalists need an angle, a narrative hook on which they can hang an idea. They structure their reports as narratives, stories that readers can relate to. Ideas — especially the tricky, complicated ideas that academics spend most of their time trying to wrestle to the ground — don’t necessarily have a tidy, shapely “story” embedded in them. They tend to be hairy,
complicated tangles of qualifications and on-the-other-hands. Academics value the complications, and it offends them to see their ideas presented baldly, shorn of their nuances. Scott McLemee once wrote that the problem with intellectual journalism is that the story for every new book is “book X is new, and it has ideas.” But this is not really a story. “Book X is new, and its author was a Nazi” — that’s a story. This is why academics usually emerge from their encounters with the mainstream press looking and feeling ridiculous.
This is also why NPR’s coverage of classical music — the occasional story about a classical performing artist that might appear in their flagship news programs like All Things Considered — never has much to do with the classical world as a music-lover would recognize it. I remember a story I heard a couple of years ago about an opera singer who belonged to the first generation of South African blacks who could pursue a career in opera. The thing is, the singer just wasn’t very good. But being good wasn’t what was going to get her a spot on All Things Considered. Opera lovers wouldn’t care all that much about the singer’s socio-political situation (unless there was a meaty gossip angle to it); they’d care mostly about the quality of voice, what roles she sings, where she’s singing, etc. — the kind of inside-baseball stuff that’s basically of no interest to anyone outside that world. But for the drivetime listener whose knowledge of operas is pretty much restricted to Andrea Bocelli, a narrative of opera and the transgression of racial barriers is probably more interesting (certainly easier to follow) than the question of whether someone’s technique in handling her middle register break is flexible enough to let her sing Norma convincingly.
Those of you who covet the mantle of “public intellectual” might want to consider this. There’s a place for our ideas in the mainstream cultural conversation, but we don’t get to set the terms of that conversation. The most successful public intellectuals have been those, like Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan, who had a strong streak of the bullshitter in them and were basically OK with the peculiar distortions that media scrutiny would introduce into their ideas, or who (in Mailer’s case especially) could make a performance of themselves that would itself become the “story.” They could absorb the mediated image of themselves back into their work. They could could capture their images and ride them out like a surfer catching a wave — a rather complicated professional skill that very few contemporary intellectuals have managed. (Maybe Zizek?)