Q: How did you get into journalism?
I studied communication, English and mathematics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I would’ve been a math major, but I was working hard to get As and Bs, and math majors didn’t have to work hard for those grades. I have no doubts that I could turn really good writers into B students in calculus. The two thought processes are not alien. In proving mathematics, you’re building a case step by step. If you flub up a step, people will call you out. I think that’s true in journalism as well, though I don’t think I could turn math majors into journalists.
I got into journalism as a freelancer in Los Angeles when I started freelancing for alternative weeklies and a political magazine called the Libertarian Review. The minute I had any success, I left the country to travel. When I came back I went to Inquiry, which is now defunct and that’s what brought me to Washington, D.C. When I started writing, I realized I had something to say that I didn’t think anyone else was saying.
Q: How did you become a media critic?
Inquiry magazine folded in 1984. So I was freelancing, writing a lot about drugs. Some of my first best stories were revisionist accounts of the war on drugs. In the summer of ’85, I became editor of the alternative weekly Washington City Paper. I tried to hire someone as press critic, but no one would do it because they thought it would end their chance at working at The Washington Post. I had no aspirations to work at The Washington Post so I decided to be the press critic. (The Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive now owns Slate.)
Q: Slate just passed a milestone — 10 years on the Web. What’s the biggest change (if any) that you’ve noticed in traditional media’s view toward new media?
I don’t think there was ever a group prejudice against online journalism. I think from the beginning established media judged fairly what people were doing in this new medium. In the summer of ’96 when Slate launched, washingtonpost.com also launched. It’s not as if we were a decade ahead.
Q: What prompted you to join Slate?
Mike Kinsley was one of the only people I wanted to work for. I was a year into an editorship at SF Weekly when the opportunity arose. Working for Mike and playing around with new media proved irresistible.
Q: Describe your writing process. How many papers, blogs, magazines etc. do you read in a day (and in what formats) and how do you formulate your columns?
I read three dailies in newsprint — Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. I read The New York Times online and look at both newsweeklies. I graze the monthlies and read the political weeklies. I watch BBC World News twice a day. I’m a big fan of (the blog) Boing Boing and have RSS feeds for a lot of topics of interest such as methamphetamine. There’s nothing special about my news appetite; it’s just a big one.
Q: You often back many of your criticisms with your own sometimes-extensive reporting. How much time do you spend reporting for your columns?
It’s deceptive on drug stuff because I’ve been writing about this beat for so long it’s just stuff I know. People who know how to use the Web well can be pretty efficient in finding the reports and data for stories. For example, (a recent) pharm party piece (on teens partying with pharmaceuticals) I think I wrote the day I read the piece in USA Today.
Other stories may be on a backburner, and I may be gathering string for months. Like every reporter, I triage what I have going at any given moment. I wrote a piece yesterday about an alleged $48 billion ID fraud costs. I had already researched and reported out the ID theft story based on a New York Times piece, but then read a well-done piece in Business Week and followed up with another column.
One of biggest things I worked on was a two-part magazine-style feature on the movie Good Night and Good Luck. In that piece I congratulated the creators of that movie on capturing the look, tone and feel of the era, but also at having distorted history to make their political point. I saw that as press criticism because I went back to the historical documents even though it was a movie review. I’m as proud of that as anything.
Q: What column has garnered the biggest backlash from colleagues?
The most hostile response was when I wrote about a friend, Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette. I said she was squandering her talent with a– f—ing jokes. Only in recent months has she been a little friendlier, but that really ended the friendship. How much of a break should friends get? I’d be lying if I said I never cut a friend a break, but it’s not that big a break.
(New York Times reporter) Peter Landesman told (blogger) Daniel Radosh he’d have me fired the next day (after criticism of Landesman’s article on sexual slavery appeared in the Jan. 25, 2004 New York Times Magazine). I think he’s the only person to threaten to have me fired.
Q: You tend to be critical of trend stories. Why? And what are some of your other journalistic pet peeves?
Whenever a civilian reads a news story about something he knows a lot about, he’s appalled at the thinness. I try to approach every story with skepticism I think a civilian expert would have. Whenever you write a trend story, show me the data. Don’t show me the press release. Show me some demonstrable uptick in usage or occurrence. Where there is no data, it doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a story. Some are anecdotal stories, but that doesn’t always make it a trend.
I do like to write good stuff, too, like a piece about David Von Drehle’s 1989 Hurricane Hugo coverage and how it defies cliché and an appreciate of Marjorie Williams as a profile writer after her death.
Writers are the people I’m beating up on, but surely the editor bears some blame, particularly in the handling of the Duke rape story and the New York Times WMD coverage.
I’ve been gratified by the way the press turned around on the issue of anonymous sources; at least they’re paying lip service to reducing them. (Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter) Dana Priest is a good example of how to use anonymous sources. When she’s breaking stories like the CIA black prisons, she says this is who I’m interviewing without naming names. There’s a specificity to her reporting that makes it hard for government officials to knock it down.
Q: What is the role of a media critic in society?
To satisfy his editor. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to define it too narrowly. Is Jon Stewart not a media critic? He makes a point with humor, but he’s sending up the news media as well as people in news. The Onion is another journal of media criticism.
Q: What advice do you have for young journalists?
Be skeptical. I’m surprised at the lack of skepticism for our own stories, because we’re always skeptical of others. People don’t really seem to ask hard enough questions. You can’t teach skepticism. If it’s not part of your character, then it’s very hard to acquire.
Good journalism is like good science and should produce reproducible results. Science is my inspiration when I’m writing my pieces and building in links. That’s why I’m so critical of insider anonymous sources. It’s much easier to believe a story if you give great specificity.
Tagged under: Freelancing