Bold Looks at Christopher Hitchens and Steve Jobs, and What May Be the Best Want Ad Ever Written
Part One of the Best Media Writing of Year honored works that looked into subjects as diverse as journalist phone-hacking, old media's role in a Facebook world and David Carr.
Here's the second installment:
Best Media Longread: Lawrence Wright, The New
Decoding the relationship between Hollywood and the Church of Scientology hasn't been an easy one for journalists brave enough to take on these legendarily touchy institutions. But in February, Lawrence Wright gave us probably the fullest portrait yet of the religion's infiltration of the moviemaking slice of entertainment industrial complex. In telling the long, long, gripping tale of producer-director Paul Haggis' nasty falling out with church over gay rights, Mr. Wright teases out the bizarre symbiosis between the church and some of moviemaking's biggest stars. As an example:
[Actor Josh] Brolin says that he once witnessed John Travolta practicing Scientology. Brolin was at a dinner party in Los Angeles with Travolta and Marlon Brando. Brando arrived with a cut on his leg, and explained that he had injured himself while helping a stranded motorist on the Pacific Coast Highway. He was in pain. Travolta offered to help, saying that he had just reached a new level in Scientology. Travolta touched Brando's leg and Brando closed his eyes. "I watched this process going on -- it was very physical," Brolin recalls. "I was thinking, This is really fucking bizarre! Then, after 10 minutes, Brando opens his eyes and says, 'That really helped. I actually feel different!' " (Travolta, through a lawyer, called this account "pure fabrication.")
Best Emo Media Writing: Brian Lam, The
Journalists, especially when publicly considering their own work, are not known for outward emotional complexity. This is necessarily so, for if the impact of every scoop or investigation on every affected subject had to be evaluated prepublication, nothing would ever get published. Still, they do feel, and very little brought out the tears like the death of Steve Jobs, which birthed a raft of personal histories with the great man. Best among them was Brian Lam's tale of dealing with Jobs after Gizmodo ended up with an iPhone prototype it wasn't supposed to have and, of course, a massive scoop. Jobs, a fan of the site, naturally wanted his phone back and asked directly. Mr. Lam resisted, asking that Apple formally claim the phone. The result was that a good relationship had gone bad. "This was the last time Steve would be kind to me." With a touch of sadness and even self-loathing, Mr. Lam looked back on the controversy on his new site, The Wirecutter:
I will not regret things professionally. The scoop was big. People loved it. If I could do it again, I'd do the first story about the phone again. But I probably would have given the phone back without asking for the letter. And I would have done the story about the engineer who lost it with more compassion and without naming him. Steve said we'd had our fun and we had the first story but we were being greedy. And he was right. We were. It was sore winning. And we were also being short-sighted. And, sometimes, I wish we never found that phone at all. That is basically the only way this could have been painless. But that 's life. Sometimes there's no easy way out.
Best Criticism of the Recently Dead: Katha
As someone who had the stones to demystify Mother Teresa and pen a book titled "God Is Not Great," Christopher Hitchens probably wouldn't have loved all the kneejerk encomiums and general beatification that came upon his death this month. Or so I'd like to believe. He wasn't perfect, after all, and what better time to examine faults and flaws that out than when the legacy-building begins. In addition to his mistaken belief in the existence of Iraqi WMDs, there were some unsavory personal traits called out by Katha Pollitt, a former colleague at The Nation, in her brisk, blunt and brave "Regarding Christopher." Ms. Pollitt lays out his shortcomings and appraises his work without ever piling on.
So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there's a reason for that . He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women's writing or women's lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting-the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren't funny. Women shouldn't need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were "fucking fat slags" (not "sluts," as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as "possessive individualism." I don't suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that .
Best Nerdy Archival Research: Maria Bustillos, The
Is the self-help genre, teeming as it is with marketing-ready platitudes and too-easy answers to complex questions, worth discussing in an intellectual context? Perhaps the best argument for the affirmative is Maria Bustillos' "Inside David Foster Wallace's Self-Help Library," an essay on the impact that books like "Bradshaw On: The Family" and "The Drama of the Gifted Child" had on the tortured novelist, who killed himself in 2008. Writing for The Awl (to which I have contributed), Ms. Bustillos dives into the marginalia and emerges with an essay on the author's influences, as well as a meditation on illness and recovery, depression, genius and media-glutted narcissism in 21st-century America:
Wallace had a penchant for extrapolating the troubles of American individuals into a broader indictment of U.S. culture and politics, as Infinite Jest depicts a society enslaved to its own insatiable need for entertainment. His own history provides a similar parallel. Wallace spent over 20 years fighting addiction and depression, and though he privately seems to have credited AA and related therapies with saving his life, these methods were not enough to prevent him from committing suicide at age 46. What the available details of Wallace's life and ideas suggest is that we in the U.S. are maybe not doing a very good job of taking care of recovering addicts, or of those suffering from depression. The new Me Generation of the aughts is like a steroids version of the innocent '70s one, which really amounted to little more than plain hedonism. There wasn't as much guilt and self-recrimination in those days. Today this focus on "Me" is something more like an obsession with our faults, a sick perfectionism, coupled with an insatiable need for attention; the idea of the 'star' as something we want to be. A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with "self-help," which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole.
Best Want Ad: Matt Doig, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
We end the column -- and the year -- with a job ad that was also an ode to journalism, both of which are entirely necessary in these hard times. Here's an excerpt from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Matt Doig's call for an investigative reporter to join its ranks:
We want to add some talent to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative team. Every serious candidate should have a proven track record of conceiving, reporting and writing stellar investigative pieces that provoke change. However, our ideal candidate has also cursed out an editor, had spokespeople hang up on them in anger and threatened to resign at least once because some fool wanted to screw around with their perfect lede. We do a mix of quick hit investigative work when events call for it and mini-projects that might run for a few days. But every year we like to put together a project way too ambitious for a paper our size because we dream that one day Walt Bogdanich will have to say: "I can't believe the Sarasota Whatever-Tribune cost me my 20th Pulitzer." As many of you already know, those kinds of projects can be hellish, soul-sucking, doubt-inducing affairs. But if you're the type of sicko who likes holing up in a tiny, closed office with reporters of questionable hygiene to build databases from scratch by hand-entering thousands of pages of documents to take on powerful people and institutions that wish you were dead, all for the glorious reward of having readers pick up the paper and glance at your potential prize-winning epic as they flip their way to the Jumble ... well, if that sounds like journalism Heaven, then you're our kind of sicko.
Matthew Creamer is an editor at large at Ad Age . You can find him on Twitter, at @matt_creamer.