In another world, you may have heard of Eric Deggans the rock star. But life presents choices, and we chose certain paths that lead to different ends. Deggans’ path to becoming a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times (which officially becomes the Tampa Bay Times in 2012) was full of choices. The Gary, Ind., native grew up in the same town where the Jackson family first made its mark on American pop music. At Indiana University, he studied journalism and political science while making time for his funk music group, The Voyage Band. Though successful in their own right – touring the Midwest and recording an album – the band wasn’t the path Deggans ultimately chose. He took his journalism education and ear for music to Pittsburgh and New Jersey, reporting and eventually becoming a music critic. That opened a pathway to sunny west-central Florida and the Times. And though you likely won’t hear The Voyage Band’s music on the radio, you could very well hear Deggans’ voice pumping out of your car stereo during one of his occasional NPR commentaries.
You called out certain commentators and outlets for using the term “lynching” referring to media treatment of Herman Cain and sexual harassment allegations against him. What do you think those commentators were trying to accomplish with such language?
Different people use that for different reasons. Part of it was a classic misdirection scenario, trying to distract from that fact that Herman Cain was not answering these questions well. I get a sense that a lot of people don’t understand the concepts behind how people like me talk about race. I constantly find myself telling conservatives that just because a black man is accused of sexual harassment, that doesn’t make it racist. I feel like the use of the term (lynching) should be reserved for just that – just like I wouldn’t use the term “rape” for anything other than rape.
I imagine if “Glee” were renamed “Lima 90210” to better reflect its location and content, you would have an opinion about it. If you’re able to speak to this, I’m curious how you think the St. Petersburg Times name change (to Tampa Bay Times) will go.
I don’t think it’s ill advised. I think it makes sense. It’s part of trying to transition to this new economic reality. Business-wise, we cover the Tampa Bay area aggressively. So I think we’re changing our name to reflect what we’re already doing. It’s just another sign that competition between newspapers is heating up.
You once called NBC the “Nepotism Broadcasting Corporation,” and you seemed to reiterate it after the recent announcement that the network had hired Chelsea Clinton as a special correspondent. Why is that a bad thing? I don’t think too many major media outlets are known solely for hiring people on pure skill.
I would say it’s the job of the critic to push. My gig is to push for the best possible circumstance. Broadcast TV news at the network level is struggling for audience and credibility. The last thing it needs is to be bucked up by people whose qualification is not because they’re famous but because of who they’re related to. I think it does a disservice to the person who gets hired.
It’s not fair to viewers. It’s just a quick ratings hit. I don’t think it really helps anybody.
How many hours of TV do you watch in a given week?
That’s impossible to know. I watch a lot. I get stuff by DVD. I have a TV on in my office all the time. I’m always watching stuff online, too. There may be times when I have my two TVs and a computer going. At any one moment I can have three things going at once. Really, it’s all about trying to stay abreast of the interesting corners in media.
Is it a little overwhelming sometimes?
I guess it can be, but for me it makes it easier, because there are so many stories out there. The worst thing for a columnist or writer is to come in and have nothing to write about.
For me the biggest challenge is figuring out the best use of my attention. What can I bring to a story that others can’t? I want to say something that’s interesting and unique to me.
So, best TV show of all time, other than “Seinfeld,” of course? At the moment?
I wouldn’t even try to predict that (of all time). I can’t even say what’s the best show right now. Television has never been better than it is right now. It’s so fractured. On HBO you have shows that are cast like movies. So a show like “Boardwalk Empire” is one of the best shows on television. “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” all these shows on cable are all well put together.
And the worst or most ill advised?
I could pick out some, but that is even harder, because there is so much bad television.
The most worrisome trend for me is reality TV. The very way it’s made is such that it’s a documentary where the producers are openly manipulating the story. With some of these shows, it’s obvious that many of the scenes are contrived. The fact that someone like Snooki can make as much money as she has made tells you something. It’s misdirection on top of manipulation. I think it plays off a lot of stereotypes of people.
Do you have any thoughts on the life of Andy Rooney? Did he or other commentators influence you?
He wasn’t really an influence for me, though I liked his work, particularly when I was a kid.
Andy Rooney, on the one hand I think he’s done great work, and it’s easy to take shots at him and lampoon what he did. But for a long time he was the everyman, the voice. The thing that I find unfortunate is that someone does that job really well, but there’s no development of another voice to follow him.
Just like there are constant calls of “journalism dying” and all that nonsense, there seem to be more death watches for broadcast TV news. Do you buy into that at all – that so many cable and Internet options will be a death knell?
Number one, I wouldn’t be so quick to shrug off the death of journalism. There is a historic change underway in all media. I think it’s important for people who care about journalism to keep an eye on these trends and to keep an eye on ethical decision making. I will always be critical of the reality TV way of telling stories.
What’s happening is the traditional way of funding all these journalism enterprises is quickly coming apart. When institutions get desperate about how they’re going to make money, that’s when they make their worst decisions. The problem with the network news is that its audience is getting older and that audience is fading.
What is the course or path to becoming a TV and media critic?
The problem with the transition we’re in now is that the pathways to these sorts of jobs have been erased. I feel like I’m one of the last generation to pursue a relatively good newspaper career and on the side develop stories in the vein of the job I wanted next. In Pittsburgh, I was writing on the side about music to get my job as a music critic. I do still think it’s important to get the traditional news experience. I think the weakest element of younger critics is that they don’t have the reporting thing down. I would still tell people to get that reporting experience.