The Best Media Writing of the Week

Forget the Awful Dry-Erase-Girl Coverage -- Read About Christopher Hitchens, and Twitter Race Theory

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This week's column could have been forfeited on account of the media world's failure to deal credibly with the insufferable Dry Erase Girl pseudo-event, which somehow didn't spark any useful thinking on the role of memes-for-memes' sake in our far-too-willing-to-believe-anything-with-a-URL culture. (The only real skepticism I saw was from Peter Kafka at All Things D.) Nevertheless, some rays of light poked through the thick cumulus of credulity.

"Writing is My Peppermint-Flavored Heroin" is the (awesome) title of a journal kept by Rosencrans Baldwin between March and August, as the North Carolina-based author awaited the publication of his novel "You Lost Me There." The familiar authorial anxieties -- reviews, money, marketing, his own talent and originality -- are there, but the humor Baldwin brings to the situation should be relatable to anyone who's ever had to wait for something to drop. As he waits, he's a Diet-Coke fetishizing, pushup-doing bundle of nerves forced to confront the future even though his present is far from settled. And he's rearranging the letters in a New York Times critic's name.

April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren't flying, they're flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if 'You Lost Me There' is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for "Atomic Haiku Kink." Michiko alone becomes, "Hi I Mock."

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens Credit: Doug Meszler
The only thing better than Roger Ebert weighing in on Christopher Hitchens would be Roger Ebert interviewing Christopher Hitchens. Sadly, that something will never happen if the cancers that have leached from Ebert's thyroid and Hitchens' esophagus have anything to say about it. And they probably will. However, the film critic's torturous recovery, a series of treatments and surgeries that have taken a wrecking ball to his body and removed his ability to speak on his own, hasn't prevented him from using his blog and Twitter account to show he can still hold it down as one of our best cultural critics. Mortality, as you might guess, is one of his frequent topics. This week he looked at the life of the atheist/firebrand/boozehound:

Hitchens shows himself as a man temperamentally driven to test his own opinions. He reasons instead of proselytizing. He exists as that most daring of writers, a freelance intellectual. He's a good speaker, can be funny, has bad teeth, is passably good-looking, and is at no pains to be a charmer. He's popular because he's smart. He says nothing merely to be politic, although in some situations he may keep his meaning coiled well within. Some years ago when I met him at the Telluride Film Festival, I was unaware of his fairly recent defection from the Left. I told him I read him in the Nation, which he'd by then severed his ties with. His reply was a masterpiece of irony, masked as egotism: "How clever of you."

Writing in The Atlantic, the super sharp Tim Carmody had a notion of the future of books that could have a broader application:

A futurist ... wants to burn down libraries. A bookfuturist wants to put video games in them. A bookfuturist, in other words, isn't someone who purely embraces the new and consigns the old to the rubbish heap. She's always looking for things that blend her appreciation of the two.

In our contemporary media scene, there is not nearly enough synthetic, historically minded thinking, an absence that results in hysteria any time something new pops up. How many times has TV been killed off by journalists, analysts, ad agencies? It, of course, hasn't died but instead has, to use Carmody's word, blended with newer media. And so it will be of the new channels now, as even fresher ones pop up.

The launch of TBD, the new D.C. local news site from the folks who brought you Politico, has been greeted with a lot of noise and not much signal. One of the few people to try to dig in and understand how TBD's model is different and look at its challenges in a meaningful way was Ken Doctor, who parsed the "Newsonomics" of TBD on the Nieman Journalism Lab's website. As ever, Doctor is wonky and fixated on the numbers, not the hype -- exactly the right perspective when covering innovation and new business models.

[T]he nut for TBD is about $3.5-4 million, salaries and operating costs combined. It needs to find new revenue -- exclusive of what the former NewsChannel 8's sales staff of seven brought in -- to get to profitability. Profitability is a key goal for this for-profit company, and one key to proving out the model for use in other metro areas. The cost side is one of the areas that distinguishes the TBD experiment; it's two to four times bigger than most of the local online news startups we've seen.

One of the most interesting pieces of media writing this week -- though, certainly not the best -- was a strange bit of office-chair sociology in Slate titled "How Black People Use Twitter." If you thought that looking at small snippets of culture and then using those observations to make overreaching generalizations about another race was something we did away sometime before 1980, think again. After all, social media is a convenient lab table where you can put, say, the phenomenon of hashtags that appear to be used by black people in a petri dish and jot down some observations.

As though donning a Kevlar vest, the "non-white" Farhad Manjoo loads downs his article with enough caveats to make applying the R-word difficult. Nevertheless, in 2010, it's difficult not to cringe when confronted with sentences like these.

Black people -- specifically, young black people -- do seem to use Twitter differently from everyone else on the service. They form tighter clusters on the network -- they follow one another more readily, they re-tweet each other more often, and more of their posts are @-replies-posts directed at other users. It's this behavior, intentional or not, that gives black people -- and in particular, black teenagers -- the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.

See, awkward. With more time spent reporting, and with more interviews of the people themselves and less reliance on limp, detached observations, this sort of piece might work.

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