What political incorrectness taught me about journalism
Last week, I was interviewed for an episode of “Off-Ramp,” a show on 89.3 KPCC Southern California Public Radio. The interview request was born out of a post I wrote for True/Slant, “Two White Girl Reporters Embed Themselves in MacArthur Park; Other Reporters Cry Racism.”
That post was about a project called The Entryway, in which two young female journalists are living with a family from Mexico in a largely-Latino Los Angeles neighborhood and reporting on their experiences.
Over the years, I’ve done a fair amount of press. I was on “Politically Incorrect” half a dozen times, I’ve been on CNN, Fox News, NPR, and for five years I was a “reporter” on a Playboy TV show that I have previously described as “60 Minutes” on Viagra.
It’s a strange experience, the performance portion of being a journalist in the digital age. Playing the role of pundit, you turn yourself on, you manufacture soundbites, you put on a show. I do less now than I used to for a variety of reasons, including the fact that, after a while, I got somewhat burned out on it. Afterward, you feel like you need to take a shower, and you wonder exactly what you were thinking when you signed up for this, whatever “this” has become.
“Politically Incorrect” was almost always a blast. Bill is relentless funny and quick-witted. Before I went on the first time, Scott Carter, who is Maher’s puppetmaster, one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, and a friend, told me that, basically, I had approximately 20 minutes to do or die, those 20 minutes go by very, very fast, and what he was implying was that this was one of those moments in life where you simply must shit or get off the pot.
The first “PI” episode I was on featured myself, Dylan McDermott, Rita Rudner, and Erica Jong, feminist icon, author of Fear of Flying, and coiner of the “zipless fuck.” It was a set up of sorts, in that at that time I was pontificating a lot of what we referred to as “postfeminist” rhetoric, and the idea, I well knew, was to pit Jong and I against one another.
It was pretty terrifying to have my first run at TV televised in front of 2.5 million people, but go at it like cats and dogs, Jong and I did. At one point, I pointed my finger at her and yelled, “And you need to think about that!” In return, she called me polemical. Maher, as referee, seemed happy.
The show ended. On the way out, Jong and I neared one another, and I smiled at her, because what we had done on TV was just business, right? Apparently, not to her. She was pissed. For her, this wasn’t a performance. This was her identity.
There was a millennium special with an all-girl catfight, an episode we shot at the Playboy Mansion, and one time I went on in a zebra-patterned miniskirt that was so short, during a commercial break a PA approached me and informed me that legal wanted me to pull down my skirt, which had ridden up beyond what the FCC allowed, I surmised. I thought he was kidding. He was not.
The smartest thing anyone ever told me about TV was something Nelson George said. Over lunch in LA, I mentioned the TV work I was doing. He said TV is like ether. He waved his hand in the air like so much smoke disappearing into the sky. He was right.
As for this most recent radio interview, it left something of a bad taste in my mouth. I had thought the hosts of the show would be impartial to the subject we would be discussing: Is the idea of two white girls taking up residence in the proverbial barrio inherently problematic? Alas, they were not. They seemed to think it was problematic, indeed. So did the other guest, Gustavo Arellano, who writes under the moniker “Ask the Mexican,” something I found to be potentially problematic, although I didn’t mention that.
You can listen to the segment here. It was heavily-edited, as these things are, and I may come off as more against the project than I am, but I think I make a few salient points about the new, new, new journalism and what it may or may not look like, and what members of the old, old, old journalism may think of it and how that doesn’t really matter anymore.
The bottom line is that the world of journalism as we know it is dying. In fact, it’s already dead. Soon enough, publications with “Times” in their titles will have ceased to exist altogether. The next generation of journalists doesn’t need an institution’s permission, money, or perceived authority to do the stories they want to do, to write the stories they want to write, to go out into the world and report back on it. Got a problem with that? Thankfully, they don’t give a shit.
Interestingly, the women who created The Entryway declined to appear on the show. They didn’t need the venue. They’re already online.