Newsies

Phil Ford

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
lecture.

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?)

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to Newsies

  1. Jonathan says:

    Re the last ‘graph: how does that work with Umberto Eco? I don’t see much of the bullshitter about him.

  2. Andrew W says:

    Amen to your comment about most newspaper articles being rewritten press releases. Indeed, I think it’s even more the case in arts reporting than in other kinds of reporting.
    This also got me thinking about how it seems that the other big angle for reporters to cover the arts is around the business of some organization – the yearly budget and whether or not they ran a surplus.
    There appears to be a tendency to reduce arts organizations to corporations, because this is a way, perhaps the only way, they feel that people can relate to them.

  3. LOL. Phil, I understand you were also wearing a funky hat and doing a little dance around a piano from time to time. (Let us not forget the same paper once quoted the vocal group Straight No Chaser as saying they’d been influenced by “Felonious Monk”)

  4. Aisha says:

    Yeah, I got the feeling that the whole colloquium went way over that reporter/kid’s head, so he was trying to grasp onto something to fill space. How that *thing* became you yelling about Charlie Parker, though, is beyond me – I think I would have remembered that!

  5. ADA says:

    Following on Jonathan’s query about Eco – most of the “public intellectual” work he’s done (that I know of) in the general press has been in his own “commentary” columns in Italian weeklies like L’Espresso, which as many of you may know are a somewhat more intellectual version of Time, Newsweek, etc (with of course some gratuitous topless pictures of an anonymous young model thrown in somewhere on the cover — it’s Italy, after all.) In any case, I think he found a way to control (mostly) his own content, as long as he kept it an appropriate length and an appropriate “accessibility” level. And as an evil PoMo kind of guy, I actually think that Eco (whose work I really like) is entirely brilliant in his manipulation of and capitalization on his intellectual image — not so much “faking” it as “catching the wave”, as Phil so aptly characterizes it.
    Now my question would be, how would Taruskin (arguably the most truly widely-known and widely-read “public intellectual” US-based musicologist these days) fit into this media-manipulation mix? But perhaps he’s really still too specialized to matter as broadly as someone like Eco has… also, I guess, I wonder how “public” Eco is in this country; in Italy, for sure, yes, but… ?
    Andrew

  6. Bob Judd says:

    Hi Phil, How about this for a possible gauntlet-toss: Prepare a press release for the article you publish, and send it out to the local paper? Silly, maybe; but I think you’re right in that there’s a lot more chance of a story in the wider media if you do that than if you do the typical academic abstract. (I wonder how many articles could actually generate a press release?) I like the idea of the ‘public intellectual’ and think it’s actually an important activity scholars should take up; so, how best to do that? If what you say is true, there may actually be some journalistic stories to arise from this tack. I was glad to see the story in the IU paper, and figure it does good in getting what musicologists do in front of a different audience.

  7. Scott McLemee says:

    You have me writing “that the problem with intellectual journalism is that the story for every new book is ‘book X is new, and it has ideas.'”
    But I never did.

  8. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Scott —
    This was a badly-written paraphrase. My recollection of what you had written was something to this effect: the real “story” for any given new book is, or should be, the ideas contained therein and the way they relate to existing work in the same field. I recall you saying somewhere (can’t remember where, maybe I just misremembered it? this was written a while ago) that such a story was not usually the sort of story angle that newspapers are interested in, because the arguments for the unique intellectual aspects of this or that book come down something like “this book has new ideas,” whereas what is usually wanted is something else, maybe a personal-interest angle on the author.
    I apologize if I got this wrong. That would be ironic, given my bitching about accuracy in reporting.

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