I had a very strange feeling of sensory overload this afternoon, and it nearly ended with me driving to the grocery store for the sole purpose of buying clam chowder. Now I feel compelled to explain why. Of course, I’ll understand if you’re not interested; this story doesn’t exactly fit with this blog’s two main topics (journalism and my mother).
But with another year upon us — we Jews are up to year 5770 — I wanted write about someone whose teachings have a few lessons that journalists might want to take note of.
I’m talking, of course, about God.
To succeed in a digital age, I believe that journalists need to create and distribute original content. But when it comes to original content, nobody’s been more prolific as a creator than God. (N.B.: the platypus.) God’s gone multi-platform. (Anybody else operating in both the heavens and the Earth?) And talk about keeping readers entertained: have you read the Passover story recently? As far as storytelling is concerned, you won’t find more epic game-changers than the plagues or the parting of the Red Sea.
So with a L’Shana Tova in mind, this New Year’s installment of “What Journalists Can Learn From…’ is all about The Man Upstairs.
2. Be Upfront With What It Is You Stand For. I believe that news organizations should come out with statements of purpose, explaining what is it they do and how it is they do it. Consider these each news outlet’s basic commandments. (1) Note an older statement from a paper like the San Francisco Chronicle. Check out how a 21st century outlet like Politico states their purpose. Both are examples of the founding principles upon which journalists have announced they’ll work. They set the tone for readers, keep news organizations transparent and, most importantly, allow the public to understand and trust the stories being told.
3. Sometimes, Rest is a Good Thing. We work in a 24-hour news cycle. But oftentimes, ‘news of the day’ isn’t what journalists excel at. Finding stories, analyzing complex issues and serving the public good is. Sometimes, we need to pause to remember that. And maybe we should do it more than every seven days.
I’m not talking about stuff like Bloomberg’s Thou Shalt Not Tweet policy, though that is a pretty biblical-style example of the Almighty Boss trying to set policy instead of helping to shape it. ↩
Late Saturday night, two days into a Labor Day weekend, a special adviser to President Obama resigned. Now, this blog post isn’t about the politics of the issue, but it’ll be helpful if you watch Newsy.com’s roundup of the issue. Pay particular attention to the one four letter word that keeps coming up over and over again:
Did you catch it? It’s four letters, and it seems to have Americans scared out of their minds:
In the same way that the federal government failed to brand the H1N1 virus correctly — leading to the still-used nickname “swine flu,” and causing short-term damage to the pork industry — the White House hasn’t gotten a lid on this “czar” title. And as long as it’s around, it’ll continue to cause confusion for the American public.
The White House does not — in official documents — refer to people like Jones as czars. As Politico points out, “the Obama administration has about 30 czars — a term used as shorthand for long, wonky titles such as Jones’s ‘Council on Environmental Quality’s special adviser for green jobs.'”
What it comes down to is this: for reporters, Jones’ full title takes up too many seconds to say or too many inches to publish. ‘Czar’ seems to get across the point just fine.
Oddly enough, the word was first used in American politics to attack a rival of President Andrew Jackson, and later used by Democrats against a Republican Speaker of the House. Back then, when Czar Nicholas I was still in power, the phrase carried a significant amount of baggage. Today, it still does.
So here’s where the issue of branding comes in: as long as the American public is still subconsciously connecting Presidential advisers on drugs, climate change and urban affairs with a Russian leader who died in 1855, the White House is going to have a tough haul.
Politico notes that there are more than 30 ‘czars’ in this administration. We have an AIDS czar, a California water czar, a Great Lakes czar and even a Sudan czar.
But in official policy, the White House does not refer to these advisers like that. In speeches, Obama refers to the Sudan czar as Scott Gration, a Special Envoy to Sudan. And the AIDS czar is Jeffery S. Crowley, Director of Office of National AIDS Policy.
But reporters — who don’t really have time to explain to Americans in a 45 second live shot what a special envoy does or where Sudan is — have taken these jobs out of context. From a journalist’s perspective, we’ve caused harm by not explaining who these men and women are or what they do, and it’s the reason why I’m seeing women in El Paso scream out, “I’m here because I love my country. I want to take it back from Obama and his czars!”
Had the White House tried to accurately label their advisers — and make sure that the media reported about them as such — I’d imagine we wouldn’t see revved-up west Texans yelling things like, “I want to take back this country from Obama and his team of mid-level, non-Cabinet policy advisers with no formal budgetary control!”
The White House hasn’t helped their cause. In official releases, they use the formal titles. But during press conferences, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs does slip into informal terms. Prompted by a query about the drug czar, he’ll respond, “Let me address the czar question for a minute.” Or the President, while talking about how he’ll hold his advisers accountable, will mention, “Well, the goal of the border czar is to….”
There’s an easy way for the President’s team to fix this: they need to choose their words carefully. If the media isn’t going to responsibly label non-Cabinet officials — and the onus is on us journalists to do so — then it’s up to the White House to correct reporters. This isn’t spin control; it’s simply an exercise in logic.
Right now, due to poor branding, the White House is letting a Russian leader who’s been dead since the Civil War affect policy decisions. That seems odd.
Post-script: Turns out that right after Jones took the job, he actually sent out an email saying, “I am not going to be any kind of ‘Czar.'” Guess that didn’t work.
I’ve started commuting for the first time in my life. It’s 25 or 30 minutes round trip on the highway, and for a while, listening to music was enough. Then I started to feel like I was wasting time. If I was going to spend a full 10 hours each month in my car driving to and from work, I might as well do something useful.
So I gave in to my grandfatherly ambitions and decided that I’d listen to books on tape.
I started out with a copy of “Born to Kvetch,” a book about Yiddish, but I couldn’t stand the narrator’s voice; it sounded like a weird cross between Jon Stewart and Stephen Hawking. The narrator took the last vowel of the last word in every sentence and held it two beats too long. I gave up on “Born to Kvetch” after a day.
I’ve since settled in with “Gasping for Airtime,” a memoir by Jay Mohr about his two years on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not exactly a linguistic challenge, but at 6:15 in the morning, I’m not looking for one. Mohr has a bit of a drone in his voice, but it’s forgivable, because he tends to read lines in the voice of Lorne Michaels or Adam Sandler, and I’ve always been amazed by people who can just break into spot-on impressions.
The only problem with the book is that in the mornings, after 15 minutes of Jay Mohr, I find myself talking like him. We use the same sentence structure. We tell the same stories about Chris Farley. Sometimes, we even start using the same voices.
I want to tell my co-workers, “Look, it’s not me! It’s the audiobook’s fault! I don’t really talk like this!” But I’m not so sure they’d understand.
So I’ve made a decision: I’ll keep listening to audiobooks, but not by writers with usual voices or narrating styles. From here on out, I’m picking audiobooks with cool sounding narrators, guys like James Earl Jones or Samuel L. Jackson, or at least ones that feature inspiring stories from Vince Lombardi or Winston Churchill.
I want to walk into work in the morning, my voice booming, and have co-workers ask: “What the hell happened to you?”
I want to be able to look back at them and cry out: “I commuted!”