One of the peculiar pleasures of doing a column like "Media Guy" -- so far, as of this writing, 53 weeks' worth -- is jumping off a cliff each week. It's the standard columnist's shtick, of course, to try to sound decisive, definitive, omniscient. But the truth (as any columnist will probably admit after a drink or three) is that you often have to wing it. Especially in a realm like media, where all bets are off, and where once-mighty businesses (newspapers, magazines, TV, movies, radio, book publishing, etc.) face nauseatingly uncertain futures.
When I look back at my, uh, legacy as a professional media/cultural opinionist (it sort of shocked me recently to realize that "Media Guy" is my ninth column), it strikes me that the longer I stay in this racket, the less I know for sure. I can admit this, I think, because unlike a lot of media commentators, I've always actively worked -- and continue to work -- in the media business generating "content" besides columns. In other words, opinionating is something I do on the side when I come up for air from the trenches, where I've spent roughly two decades as an editor, producer and/or editorial consultant.
So I know how damn hard it is to actually bring media products (in my case, mostly magazines, books and websites) to market -- to know how, exactly, to proceed. Especially now.
Which is why one of my all-time favorite memories from my magazine-editor days was arriving at O, The Oprah Magazine -- I was consulting executive editor on the launch -- and discovering that Oprah intended to write a column called "What I Know for Sure." Sure enough, it appeared in that first issue we produced, and it still appears in O to this day.
If only we all had such certainty, such clarity.
Since those early days of O, though, even Oprah has had her own very public reckoning with the all-enveloping Media Uncertainty Principle, what with her initial support of (the story is what matters), then condemnation for (wait, it's the truth that matters!), a certain fabulist-memoirist. How amazing it was to realize that the most powerful woman in media was clueless about how "nonfiction" books are actually made.
Basically, in media, nobody -- not even Oprah Winfrey -- really knows anything anymore.
Still, having done this column for a year, I have sort of, maybe, kind of figured out a few things. Actually, five things. Namely:
Humorless people are hilarious!
This column, of course, often offers a satirical take on media matters. My favorite sort of e-mail is from readers who tell me that I provoked unexpected laughter -- like one reader writing to say that she repeatedly snorted so loud while reading a recent column that all her nearby co-workers stared at her like she was a crazy lady (I love disturbing not only my readers, but my readers' co-workers!), and another reader telling me that my column made him spit up his Diet Coke. Almost without fail, though, someone will entirely miss the joke -- like the alarmed reader who told me she thought "The View" was making a terrible mistake adding billionaire bloviator Mark Cuban "in drag" to its kaffeeklatsch lineup (as I joked the show was doing) in the wake of Star Jones' departure.
Some people's friends sure are quiet.
A lot of people like to tell me I'm dead wrong, especially when I've been critical of specific media figures. Generally, no matter how controversial or reviled a particular media person is, I can almost always count on multiple readers (in some cases, dozens or even hundreds) to rise vigorously to their defense. Two exceptions in the past year: American Media editrix Bonnie Fuller and former Conde Nast Editorial Director James Truman, both of whose dubious legacies I dissected with gusto in this column. The response from Fuller and Truman supporters was deafening in its silence.
Blog culture has made the mainstream media even more lazy.
Over the past year, as much as the mainstream media has bellyached about bloggers -- mainly about how so few bloggers do original reporting, which turns the blogosphere into one giant masturbatory echo chamber -- it's increasingly become accepted practice for the MSM to act suspiciously bloglike. For example, who could have predicted even just a few years ago that all the celebrity weeklies would make cover stories out of a Vanity Fair cover story -- the Jennifer Aniston interview -- with one actually putting a thumbnail of the Vanity Fair cover on its cover? What makes that acceptable? The blogging "pickup" mentality that's come to pervade mainstream media -- the idea that all truly relevant, au courant media must succumb to the chattering-about-chattering contagion.
I say Media, you say Medea (let's call the whole thing off).
Occasionally I'll get an e-mail along the lines of "I thought you were writing a media column -- I could do without the frivolous references to the likes of Britney Spears." Um, pop culture = mass media = infotainment = big business = American culture. I'm sorry, but if Newsweek thinks that Johnny Depp's latest turn as a pirate is a worthy cover story, then stupid pop culture will -- must -- seep into any serious deconstruction of American media culture.
It's fun for some people to pretend that New York is, say, France.
One of the more common and bizarre strains of criticism I get is from readers who insist that because I write this column from New York, I'm not in touch with mainstream American values -- and that I'm dismissive of "flyover country." Actually, I spend tons of time each year in the heartland. I'm originally from the Midwest, and I've lived and worked in such thoroughly un-Manhattan locales as Milwaukee, Baltimore and Knoxville, Tenn. So it's just lazy to insist that I've got blinders on because Media Guy HQ is in the media capital of the world. Incidentally, this sort of criticism has come through mostly loudly each time I've criticized the Federal Communications Commission for its increasingly censorious policies. I'm sorry, but censorship and "faith-based" government standing in for good parenting are not American values. And as for the readers who wrote to tell me that I was un-American for questioning the Bush administration's assorted, deeply incompetent media strategies, well, check the poll numbers. Most Americans currently do not support the administration's major policy decisions, let alone its hapless spin on those policies -- which, I guess, means that most Americans right now are un-American.
Media Guy's "Pop Pick" will return next week.