Thursday, April 02, 2015

My journalism requires free alcohol

My first reaction to journalist Ken Silverstein's piece in Politico on why he hated his last employer was: Thank the good lord I said “eh, no” when editors asked me to write something like this after leaving Vice, which in my self-serving defense at least entailed questions about ~ethics in journalism~ but, even still, who wants to read a white guy complaining about his dream job not working out? Oh, boo hoo. And check that privilege. My god, man.

My second thought: Nobody loves stories about journalists as much as other journalists, which leads to their proliferation in the media, but why, when the author himself says there was no “editorial meddling from the top,” must we be subjected to thousands upon thousands of words about “epic managerial incompetence”? At least the former has the benefit of at least ostensibly being a story about something other than thoroughly typical inter-personal drama; of being about Issues, not just office politics. This, though? If First Look Media were an Applebee's, Silverstein would staple 8 sheets of paper from a yellow legal pad to the comment card on the table detailing, precisely, how the entire damn team working that Wednesday night, from host to busser, was incompetent and grossly unprofessional. His complaints might even have the merit of being true, but we would all have a good snicker at the entitled guy freaking out over a lukewarm mozzarella stick on a dirty plate.

This is even worse that, which we would read only after the busser leaked it to Gakwer: It's as if Silverstein read that comment card back to himself and said, bewilderingly, "Let's get long-winded whine that makes me look angry and petty and difficult to work with out there so everyone can read it." We've all been tempted to write something like it, and some of us have blogs where we sometimes do, but this is the sort of situation where a friend, family member or editor should step in and say, "You're upset and we get that it's totally justified but maybe sit on this for a few weeks or, perhaps, until the end of time."

Silverstein's piece does, however, speak to what I think is a generational divide in journalism: The expectation that one's job isn't supposed to suck is not one that those under 40 have ever really had. To get at what I mean, here's Silverstein, complaining:
Employees were initially told that we were free to spend whatever we needed for our reporting and the company simply asked that we spend its money responsibly, as we would if it were our own. But soon new orders came down from management that made it difficult to pay for a source’s drinks—and to report, at least in Washington, it is pretty much required that you be able to take sources out for drinks to have discreet, relaxed conversations. Over time, management began closely scrutinizing expense reports. Some of us became so frustrated, and intimidated, that we decided to simply stop expensing some legitimate reporting costs because it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to get reimbursed.
The next nine words, in bold, are sincere: Silverstein has a done a lot of good journalism, if not so much at The Intercept (EXCLUSIVE: PROSECUTOR SAYS HE GOT THE RIGHT GUY.). He was a reliably good read at Harper's and I have no reason to doubt some of that good journalism was indeed helped along by a source drinking seven Manhattans on the company dime. But most journalists – I want to say the vast majority of journalists, including those in Washington – are expected to churn out journalistic content, including “exclusives” that can go “viral,” without any sort of expense account and usually without health insurance or even a business card on which the words “staff writer” are printed. I have had outlets offer to publish stories that could get me sued but which declined to offer me any legal protection; they were happy to take the clicks, but the liability was to be all mine. Freelancers in war zones are paid as little as $50 a piece and it isn't much better in more peaceful places with higher costs of living. Reporters are expected to take all the risks, getting the story however they can, a process made harder by the fact no one just hands scoops to journalists who lack reliable access to major platforms, with the expectation they will be paid primarily in exposure. (“And maybe that will lead to something,” every freelancer's mother says on the phone when they aren't in the mood to broach the subject of law school again).

Silverstein is certainly right to knock a billionaire for being a cheapskate – just pay for the god damn booze, Pierre – but his complaints are remarkably tone-deaf in an age when most of his peers would gladly trade the hassle of filling out an invoice every time they write a $150 article for the extreme hassle of saving receipts from the bar. I don't blame anyone for wanting the free drinks and editors who will just hit “publish” on whatever one sends in, but you can tell he comes from the shrinking but comfortable world of staff writing, where the concept of an "expense report" isn't just an inside joke among jaded freelancers. If alcohol is an essential part of reporting, it's largely because journalists use it to cope with the conditions of journalism, which the 1 percent of journalists at the top would do well to acknowledge lest they come off as a bit spoiled and out of touch. The problems Silverstein details might make for good gossip over a beer, but they are also the sort of problems many others would love to have.
Finally, much has been made about the fact Silverstein says he never bothered to Google “Pierre Omidyar” before going to work for Pierre Omidyar.

Understandably, thise strikes some as unbecoming of an investigative journalist, but truth be told: All billionaires are terrible people and in journalism, as in most professions, there are really no “good bosses” (not even Amy Goodman). Maybe it would've been smart to dig up a little dirt before accepting the gig, but what would Silverstein have found? That this obscenely rich individual offering to fund his journalism was motivated by something other than the pursuit of truth and justice? That a billionaire surrounded by people whose job it is to praise him would have an inflated sense of his own abilities? Because that's the case everywhere and every writer who wishes to do more than just wank off on WordPress in front of a dozen people who already agree with them (hello) is forced to deal with the same thing no matter where they work: Capitalism.

In the absence of viable alternatives, the journalist who aspires to be more than just a transcriptionist for power but needs money to live is required to accept that money from people they probably would not want bring home to meet Mom and Dad, at least if they desire a platform that makes the sacrifice of journalism worth it (and if one's writing and politics are more than just an attempt to fashion an online identity, with no real attempt to change minds much less the world, platforms do actually matter). If one finds the positives, such as access to food and an audience, don't outweigh the compromises? Charge one last drinking binge to the company and move on -- but if you're privileged enough to have that expense account, which you use to file two to three stories a month, not two to three every single day about what's trending on Twitter and Reddit? Forego the "Why I Left _________" essay and, now that you're freelancing, write about the exploitation of independent contracting; you'll have to buy your own booze, but at least the source who will be drinking it will be you.

That said, Have you at least thought about law school?

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