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October 23, 2005 - A Journalist's Guide to Asking Insightful Questions

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World's Laziest Journalist

October 24, 2005


Aunt Dorothy casually dropped a comment about how the Washington press corps would compromise their integrity for a good career-boosting exclusive interview that contained only a mirage as far as news value was concerned.  It might sound like she had read a recent column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times that indicated that the news folks knew more about one particular national politician than they reported, but, since she passed away during Ronald Reagan's term in office, that would not be a valid assumption. 


She had said that the witnesses to history were too jealous of their passes to things like the Inaugural Ball and the annual Press bash to risk being treated like pariahs, just to maintain the tradition of practicing hard hitting journalism.  It was a harsh assessment to make considering that the country values its free press so very highly, but she read extensively and was well informed.  There's an old saying, "You've got to go along to get along."  Maybe, by doing some suck-up meaningless interviews, the journalists could get access, later, to information that would make a difference in a democracy that depends on well-informed voters to function properly.  Maybe, it would just enhance their bank account.


At about the same time that Aunt Dorothy made her disparaging assessment of journalism, an actor who was a personal acquaintance recounted how he handled journalists.  Each and every interviewer would get the same routine.  My friend would interrupt the flow of questions to assert that the current questioner needed a special commendation because, among all the interviews that had been inflicted on this actor, the one that was being conducted, was memorable and noteworthy because the newsperson doing the interview was asking the most intelligent, interesting, and perceptive questions this actor had ever encountered.  Invariably, the story would be very complementary to my buddy and his work.  He gave me a reading of the line.  It was convincing.  That's why they call it "acting."  For a second, I was tempted to be flattered - then I realized I hadn't asked him any questions.


I nearly choked on my poached eggs easy (with A-1 steak sauce added) because I refused to believe that any journalism colleague would be that gullible, malleable, and easily manipulated.  A few weeks later a reporter was glowing with pride when he told me about how, during a celebrity interview, the subject had complimented the interviewer on the quality of the questions being asked because they were exceptional in regard to being intelligent, insightful, and relevant. 


On cue, I expressed my envy at the spontaneous and unsolicited testimonial to the guy's interviewing skills and made a metal note to sharpen my skills at detecting manipulation through flattery.  Yeah, if some well-known movie reviewer said my movie reviews were bad, I'd appreciate the honesty, and maybe even be grateful for the publicity, but (as Aunt Dorothy used to say) flattery will get you nowhere. 


Heck, if my theory (isn't evolution only a theory?) was correct, some particularly manipulative political personality could disarm a sincere journalistic lass with a mere wink.  Can you imagine a journalist of Maureen Dowd's caliber falling for such a blatantly obvious ploy? 


The journalists who specialize in entertainment news seem to be the ones who are especially vulnerable to such manipulation.  When I wrote one of my first movie reviews ever to get published, the editor (who was much younger than I) advised that there were two things that a movie review should cover - What is the movie about, and is it worth the reader's money for admission?  If you fudge on the entertainment value of the product, then you are an accessory before the fact to an act of fraud as far as the reader is concerned. 


One friend, who had reviewed movies for a national magazine, has a tale about being invited to lunch (at the famed Pink's hot dog stand?), by the director after a screening.  When his review of the movie was published my buddy was aghast; he had not reviewed the movie, which he did not like, but had recounted the fun afternoon schmoozing, and had thereby misled his readers.  Hence forth, he declined all social invitations from filmmakers and actors.


If, hypothetically, a writer were working for a company that was owned by a corporation that also made the movie in question, wouldn't one have to be scrupulously honest as far as recommending that film is concerned?  If (for the sake of argument) a writer for an online magazine were to somehow see a film for free, shouldn't he still approach the review mindful that the readers would have to fork over some hard earned cash to see it? 


If a reviewer gets to see a shipload of free movies, he can get a highly refined sense of what is an exceptionally commendable example of cinematic art and achievement, but if, in all the excitement (How many films did he see this week?  Was it five or was it six?), the reviewer loses track of just how much a guy will have to spend to take his girlfriend to see it in a public venue, things might become a tad distorted.


Is any movie a "must-see!" for all to attend?  Suppose that one knows two ladies who both enjoy movies but one abhors violence and the other wishes to avoid eroticism in film?  Is there any one film (other than Sleeping Beauty?) that would entertain both of them?


Conversely, guys who have spent the entire week being badgered by an insensitive supervisor might be very appreciative of a flick that scores a high triple G rating (lots 'a girls, guns, and gas guzzling cars) which delights and entertains but has little or no subtle artistic merit.


Should reporters on the political beat be held just as responsible for their efforts as are the film reviewers who influence your entertainment expenditures?   There's one online magazine that regularly examines misleading movie blurbsIf movie reviews have to be honest, shouldn't the reporters doing stories on politics have to produce something more helpful than the he said-she said style of opposing quotes from two separate camps?


As an example, let's imagine that Al Capone didn't get enmeshed in complicated accounting procedures that incurred the wrath of the Internal Revenue Services and, instead, had managed to secure the Republican nomination to oppose FDR in 1936.  Would the Washington press corps have had an obligation to mention some of the unsubstantiated aspects of Big Al's private life and business?  At the funeral services for Dion O'Bannon, there were ten truckloads of floral arrangements and (according to urban legend) the biggest was from his South of State Street rival, Mr. Capone.  It was a marvelous gesture, but there were some persistent rumors that Al had orchestrated O'Bannon's untimely demise due to "lead poisoning."  Capone didn't need a "dream team" of lawyers to avoid a trail.  There was only hearsay evidence and that wasn't sufficient enough evidence to initiate any legal procedures.  In the US a man is considered innocent until convicted in a court proceeding.


What could journalists at that time report about the "business executive in the import-export" area of commercial commerce living in Chicago?  He was generous to the local Boy Scout troop, wasn't he?  He appealed to the average working man.  Given the opportunity wouldn't most of the citizens from the Windy City have availed themselves of a chance to hang out with him at a Saturday barbecue?


Wouldn't the political stories about this hypothetical political campaign be obliged to reveal factors about Mr. Capone's lifestyle, so that voters would have a clear idea about voting for him or not?  Journalists pride themselves on the "Joe Friday" ("just the facts, ma'am.") style of gathering information, and so there would have not been any logical reason for them to report to their audience any disparaging allegations that couldn't be proved in a libel suit.  Would such stories have served the audience or amounted to accessories to fraud?


Don't you just love the conservative talk show hosts who say they don't embrace everything that President George W. Bush does?  Isn't that like a baseball fan who says he thinks Mickey Mantle deserves to be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but only agrees with the homeruns and not the strikeouts? 


Hunter S. Thompson was constantly referring to politicians as "swine" and didn't get many interviews with nationally known politicians.  Someone (Raul Duke?) who satirizes journalism, might be a lazy journalist, but people who are frauds and don't do any work whatsoever are not journalists.  Saying they are would be like calling a person who has never fired a gun a poor shot.  Thompson was not swayed by flattery and was not considered a "Washington insider," hence his scathing assessments of politicians might have been more accurate than anything produced by folks who scored numerous "exclusive interviews."


Who said "A journalist is the guy who walks up to the free food, sets a world record for piling grub on a paper plate, and then asks (with a mouth full of victuals) -  'Where's the news release?'" 


John Boynton Priestley wrote "We all adopt political attitudes, whether we are aware of the fact or not.  And a truly democratic state should consist of a few real statesmen and several million politically-minded citizens, and not of a thousand politicians and several million sheep." 


Now, if the disk jockey will play that song with the line about the bubble-headed blond reading the news - wouldn't that be something Don Henley came up with titled Dirty Laundry - we'll wander on out of here for this week.  Y'all come back next week, because we might (just might) write a column about … if we told you, that would spoil the surprise, eh?  Until then, have a week that would have had four bells when the Teletype was about to move the story. 


See also this.





Text and Logo Copyright 2005 – Robert Patterson

Email the author at worldslaziestjournalist@yahoo.com


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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