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.”