Ink-Stained Retches

People who hate the media-basically, everybody-view the press as a monolithic colossus endowed with extraordinary powers for both good and [...]

June 1 1992 by Joe Queenan


People who hate the media-basically, everybody-view the press as a monolithic colossus endowed with extraordinary powers for both good and evil. This is true. But people who hate the media also suffer from the misconception that journalists are united in a common cause, that journalists work hand in glove to achieve their goals, that journalists actually like one another. Nonsense. Print journalists, by and large, scorn journalists who work in television or radio; reporters working for small-town papers both envy and dislike their counterparts at The New York Times and Washington Post. And there are clear ideological ruptures between journalists: pundits like P.J. O’Rourke do not like pundits like Anna Quindlen; serious, bespectacled, dapper professionals at The Wall Street Journal do not approve of grandstanders like Hunter Thompson and Steve Dunleavy of A Current Affair. Journalists, in fact, are united in only one common value: We all hate Geraldo.

I raise these points as a pretext for divulging the three things I most hate about my fellow journalists. First, the clothes. Is there a federal law that

journalists have to dress like the First Alternate on the high school debating team? Are male journalists receiving under-the-table subsidies from the herringbone industry? Are there federal statutes barring female reporters from combing their hair? Last year, while covering the Willie Kennedy Smith trial for Time magazine, I arranged to meet with a colleague in a chic West Palm Beach night spot. When she arrived, she asked what the crowd was like. I said, “190 journalists.” She said: “How can you tell?” I said: “Because there are 95 guys in blue blazers, beige chino slacks and oxblood penny loafers, and 95 women in black Ho Chi Minh outfits, with sandals. Because there isn’t a single guy in the bar with a scar, an earring, or a tattoo reading `Born to Raise Hell.’ Because anytime I walk into a bar and there isn’t a single patron I’m afraid to make eye contact with, I know I’m in a bar filled with wussy journalists. And I don’t like it.”

The second thing I dislike about journalists is their vast overestimation of how much the public knows or cares about the issues they report on. Most journalists assume that the public knows about 30 percent of what they know about any topic they have covered with some regularity. My estimate is more like 3 percent-and I think this may be a bit on the high side. The general public does not know the overall default rate on junk bonds issued between 1983 and 1988. The general public does not know what is really at stake in the war between the Serbs and the Croats. The general public does not know who led the NFL in interception-return yardage last year. The general public does not have time to know these things. The general public is too busy working.

I wish journalists would remember this when they write articles delineating this or that politician’s blueprint for America‘s future. The way I see it, any article that uses the word “delineating” is already way over 95 percent of the public’s head. At an April Jerry Brown rally held in a parking lot at the soon-to-be-shuttered GM plant in North Tarrytown, N Y, I got into a series of conversations with UAW workers slated to lose their jobs in 1995. Several of them expressed admiration for Brown’s guerrilla candidacy, pointing out that the colorful Californian was really just a regular guy like them. I agreed that they were regular guys. But I couldn’t help pointing out that Jerry Brown’s father had once been governor of California, one of the most powerful men in the country, and an all-round political kingmaker and therefore his son could not technically be considered an “outsider” or a “regular guy.”

They didn’t care for that. They cared even less for my comment that the colorful newspapers they were holding-red, white and blue tabloids handed out by bearded leftists at the front gate-were The People’s Daily World, a communist newspaper. All of which confirmed my suspicion that the general public is a mite less plugged in on current affairs than the people who cover this stuff for a living. Not one of the people I spoke to at the GM plant looked like a person who regularly used the word “delineating.”

My final beef with journalists is their feigned solidarity with the masses, the artfully contrived pretense that journalists are somehow not part of the establishment that they purport to despise. Most journalists will tell you that they voted for McGovern, Carter, Mondale and Dukakis, and will groan to high heaven about how much damage Ronald Reagan did to this country. In fact, the Reagan era was a bad time to be an autoworker, a farmer, a steel worker, a teacher or an air traffic controller-but it was a great time to be a journalist. The boom set off by Reaganomics contributed to all those fat issues of Vanity Fair, GQ, Forbes and a host of other magazines, and those 4 fat issues put plenty of food on the tables of borderline journalists who in a less prosperous era-say the Jimmy Carter years-may have had to find something else to do for a living. Spy, Details, Spin and other magazines were an outgrowth of the Eighties economic boom, and no one profited more from this situation than journalists who filled the pages of those magazines with tirades deploring the very excesses that were providing them with  their daily sustenance.

I do not want to sound too harsh; I do not want to be too hard on my fellow journalists. Yes, they dress badly. Yes, they are out of touch with reality. Yes, they are hypocrites. But most of them are reasonably hardworking. Most of them have the best interests of the Republic at heart. And all of them have one redeeming feature.

They’re not Geraldo.


Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.