Maws, Mouthpiece, and “Mad Bitch”: Innovation Gone Wrong?

Why the "experimentation defense" doesn't hold up

For purposes of making a point, I’m going to begin in a way that I haven’t begun since high school. Here goes:

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘experimentation’ as the process of “1. Conducting an experiment—a test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something previously untried”; and “2. Trying something new, especially in order to gain experience.” The word derives from the Latin ex- periri, “to try out.”

‘Experimentation’ is a popular concept these days—one endorsed, most recently, in Andy Alexander’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post. “Foot-in-Mouth Theater” is the ombudsman’s considered analysis—based on others’ considered apologies—for the journalistic train wreck otherwise known as “Mouthpiece Theater.” It acknowledges the series’s general awfulness—“there was so much wrong with “Mouthpiece Theater” and the way The Post handled the controversy that it’s hard to know where to begin,” Alexander writes—and then goes on to explain that awfulness as a function of the Web videos’ failure to: recognize the very real and very profound difference between reportage and satire; execute said satire in a meaningful way (read: be funny); and subject themselves to editorial oversight. Correct, on every count.

Yet after presenting his spot-on—and head-on—explanation of why, precisely, “Mouthpiece Theater” was integrity-compromising/point-missing/wasteful/offensive/unfunny, Alexander concludes his apology with an apologia:

Although fatally flawed, Milbank and Cillizza should be applauded for embracing the spirit of experimentation underlying [the series]. With the traditional business model for newspapers broken, new audiences must be found. The newsroom needs risk-takers and pioneers in new media.

But should Milbank and Cillizza—whose “experimental” journalism involved the duo dubbing themselves “two of the biggest maws in Washington” and treating politics as if it were alternately a sport/a game/a spectacle/an object of mockery—really be applauded for the reductive insult-to-all-involved that was “Mouthpiece Theater”? More to the point, was the series really embracing the kind of experimentation we want to see defining news’s future?

No. And: no. Experimentation may well be what will guide us out of the desert journalism is currently wandering; still, Hey, we were just experimenting! cannot be a blanket defense for the blanket abandonment of journalistic ideals. Which, in the end, is what “Mouthpiece Theater” was. In journalism, as in everything else, there are principles that must transcend platform—messages, as it were, that must transcend medium. Among them are: intellectual honesty, a commitment to information, and a fundamental seriousness of purpose. And that’s so even when it comes to satire.

What we learn from—or, what we are reminded of by—the multi-pronged outcries against “Mouthpiece Theater” is that audiences are much more earnest than journalists often give them credit for. Even in satire, we want substance. Even in satire, we want seriousness. Even in satire, we want to feel that we’re in on the joke—rather than, somehow, the butt of it.

So, though Milbank’s “Mad Bitch” allusion—the straw that broke the maws’ back—deserved the censure it received, it was also an offensive-because-insulting comment drifting in a sea of offensive-because-pointless comments. (I, for one, would take “insulting” over “pointless” any day; at least the former affront is relatively interesting.) And, regardless, once you’ve found a way to mention “porn star Stormy Daniels” and her “best breasts award”—in the, uh, “trenchant political satire” produced by the institution of Graham, Bradlee, Woodward, and Bernstein—then referring to the Secretary of State as a “mad bitch” seems, really, par for the course.

Now, sure, the series may well have been, as Alexander has it, an experiment gone awry. Which is also, by the way, the framing that Chris Cillizza—a mere day after he participated in the “Under Wraps” episode of “Mouthpiece,” which mocked the blogosphere’s reaction to the “Mad Bitch” comment—introduced in his own apology for the series:

But, for those who have counseled me to “stick to your day job”, I say this: my day job, like every reporter in the Post newsroom or in the journalism business more broadly, is changing rapidly, and I am committed to trying to change with it. I pledge to continue to try and innovate—hopefully in smarter, less controversial ways—via the Fix and the other platforms (Twitter, Facebook, You Tube etc.) on which I am lucky enough to have a chance to communicate with other political junkies on a daily basis.

And ‘experimentation’ was a theme that Milbank continued in his take: “We thought it was worth experimenting with a new format—a regular video feature on set days of the week having fun with the political news of the day,” the columnist wrote in an online chat on Friday. Driving home the (talking) point, he concluded: “I think it’s important in the newspaper business that we keep experimenting.”

So: the ‘experimentation defense’ has been invoked—not as an excuse, necessarily (all involved acknowledge that “Mouthpiece Theater” was, indeed, a failure), but rather as an explanation of intent. And also, however, as a kind of exculpation: the show’s failure, the ‘experimentation’ defense suggests, was one of execution rather than conception. It was, you know, flawed rather than wrong. It was a failed experiment—rather than the wrong experiment in the first place.

But here again we come to the definitional problem with ‘experimentation’—a term that, for all its ubiquity, is incredibly misleading. As its dichotomistic definition suggests, ‘experimentation’ is a concept whose meaning is prismatic to the point of near self-contradition. It encompasses, on the one hand, American Heritage’s broad, and broadly etymological, definition: ‘giving something a try.’ But it encompasses on the other the dictionary’s clinical definition: ‘conducting a test under controlled conditions.’ (Elsewhere: ‘a method of investigating causal relationships among variables.’)

The problem here is implicit: trying and testing are, in our vernacular, two very different things. The former suggests expansion—stretching the limits of what we think we can do—while the latter suggests contraction: a clarification, and codification, of those very limits. (“The whole of science,” Einstein said, “is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”) Testing, in other words, involves defining our knowledge; trying involves transcending it.

What journalism really needs—urgently so—is, essentially, a brand of experimentation that combines the two dictionary definitions into one workable sensibility. We need experimentation that tests our limits, certainly, but that does so in a controlled, systematic, and replicable way. And in a way that merges the anything goes mentality of the former definition with the wait, let’s be reasonable mentality of the latter.

In other words: we need smart experimentation—not for its own sake, but for the sake of getting us somewhere better than we were before. Experimentation that respects time-tested principles even as it seeks new ones.

In that sense, Mouthpiece Theater” wasn’t a failure of execution; it was a failure of conception. The show shouldn’t have required production in the first place, the ‘experiment’ itself, for the Post to realize that it was inconsistent with its mission. That inconsistency—and the fact that, as Alexander had it, the series was “fatally flawed”—was written in its blueprint. The series may have been an experiment in the general, spaghetti-flinging sense—throw stuff up on the wall, and see what sticks—but it was certainly not an experiment in the narrower sense of the measured test. What, after all, was it really testing—beyond, that is, our patience?

Ultimately—to end in the high-school way—I was happy to read the thoughtful apologies from “Mouthpiece Theater” participants. And happy, then, to forgive them their smoking jackets. But, really, we forget them at our peril—because the “Mouthpiece Theater” debacle offers, to use another phrase that is fashionable now, a “teachable moment.” It’s a warning of what can happen when a respected news organization allows its push for innovation to become permissive to the point of promiscuity—when, in the frenzy for eyeballs and embeds, an outlet sells out its core mission, and its audience in the process. “Experimentation is great and necessary in journalism, always and especially now; mistakes are a natural price of that; and everyone in every field needs to make his or her work as entertaining and attractive as it can be,” James Fallows put it. “But trying to compete for attention on sheer yuks is a step toward the brink.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.