The Man Who Knew Too Little and Wrote Too Much

Jon Friedman occupies a singular place in the world of media criticism - we're just not sure what it is.

Media critics are a strange lot. They’re often better writers than they are reporters — which may be why they got their gigs in the first place. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Critics like Slate’s Jack Shafer and the Boston Phoenix’s Mark Jurkowitz are both good writers and capable of original reporting, which is precisely what makes their work so good. On the other hand, there are a handful of critics who aren’t felicitous writers, but whose ability to get at a story makes up for that particular shortcoming.

Sadly there’s a fourth category of critics, whose reporting is as lackluster as their prose. The leader of this last bunch would likely be Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman, who we’ve been reading for some time now, thanks in part to constant links to his thrice-weekly column on Romenesko.

Friedman is a puzzling case. At first, we wondered if he was just a fount for whatever the conventional media wisdom of the moment was — but that’s an unfair rap. Then the possibility presented itself that he was trying to get ahead of the conventional wisdom, which gave rise to his oddly disconnected body of work. But that one didn’t stand up, either. So we finally settled on an option that seems to work: Friedman occupies the odd cultural space of both upholding conventional wisdom while struggling mightily to understand it himself.

Take Friedman’s column of last Friday, in which Friedman wrote of this year’s fall-off in the number of National Magazine Award nominations for The New Yorker, to 5 this year from 10 last year and 11 in 2004. (The Columbia School of Journalism co-sponsors the awards with the American Society of Magazine Editors, but CJR isn’t involved in the process.)

Friedman smells conspiracy here, brooding darkly that editors of other magazines, sick with envy at The New Yorker’s handsome budget, ample feature well and seemingly endless stable of talent, have “ganged up on The New Yorker — yes, The New Yorker — as a way to hold down its National Magazine Award nominations (and, by extension, the number of its victories).”

That’s great gossip, but, like so much gossip, it doesn’t come close to passing the smell test. Friedman not only doesn’t bother to support his thesis in any meaningful way (a failing that ties together his entire body of work), but opts instead to spend the rest of the piece wandering around like a lost tourist remarking on the arcana of the magazine industry’s ad rates, New Yorker editor David Remnick’s general disposition and dubious awards handed out in the past.

What he forgot to include is that it has been reported that someone or someones at the New Yorker inadvertently submitted the wrong issues in at least two categories, leading judges in those categories to exclude the title from consideration. As with so much else, Friedman doesn’t necessarily get anything wrong, but by time he wraps things up it’s clear he hasn’t gotten anything accomplished, either.

Last week, Friedman wrote another column counter-intuitively headlined “Mike Wallace has a complicated legacy.” He states, after three paragraphs of praise for Wallace, that, “I’m really not much of a Mike Wallace fan.” Seems Friedman didn’t like the “gotcha” brand of journalism Wallace practiced, oh, 30 years ago or so. But, he’s quick to add, he’s happy to “overlook” the one big ethical lapse that Wallace made during his career — his capitulation to CBS brass in agreeing to soften a 60 Minutes report on the cigarette industry in 1995. (The movie The Insider was based on the episode). Wallace also lied to interviewer Charlie Rose during this time, claiming that CBS didn’t pay its source, Jeffrey Wigand. Turns out, CBS had paid Wigand $13,000. Apparently, going belly-up on an important story and lying about paying off sources is less of a crime to Friedman than bullying interviewees. But in the end Friedman changes his mind again, deciding early Wallace was actually great stuff: “Might, indeed, made right — and, not so coincidentally, it made for great TV as well.”

It’s tough to contradict yourself several times in under 1,000 words, but Friedman proves that he’s up to the task. More troublesome is his brush-off of CBS’s massive capitulation in the notorious tobacco case; it’s a complicated story to be sure, but it’s the job of a media critic to care about things like this, and not simply dismiss it.

In another stunner last week, Friedman got on board in criticizing the press’s performance leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, turning in a run-of-the-mill piece of wisdom that has hardened into convention. Unremarkable stuff, except that in the end, it takes a positively Friedmanesque turn for the incomprehensible. Friedman closes the piece with a fellow reporter telling him, “It’s very difficult to rage against the machine when one political party controls the town,” to which Freidman replies, “I remember something James Reston … once said: Always look for the unhappy guys. By that, Reston meant: unhappy people have the most to gain by talking to reporters. So, it seems logical that the greater the Republican Party’s stranglehold over Washington politics, the more opportunities enterprising reporters have to get leaks from disgruntled Democrats.”

After shaking off the unsatisfying suddenness with which the piece ends, it’s still hard to know what to make of this conclusion. Is he saying that reporters should press Democrats for leaks about Republicans? Well, if D.C. is controlled by Republicans, what would Democrats have to leak? It’s almost as if a chunk of Friedman’s logic was edited out, but the conclusion was left in. The piece screams for some editorial help, which one would assume Dow Jones would be able to offer.

On Monday, Friedman wrote a column headlined “CNN’s Lou Dobbs for President, I say!” that seems to be an attempt to be funny (though he’s never shown the chops to be able to pull that off), but also exhibits his most consistent flaw: his tendency to ramble. The piece doesn’t really go anywhere, but, like a stalled cold front, just seems to hover around the area for a while before deciding to call it quits and burn itself out. Like other Friedman pieces, we don’t learn anything new about Dobbs other than he works for CNN and seems to be inching toward some form of advocacy journalism, but that’s as far as Friedman’s imagination will take him.

Roaming around inside your own head rarely makes for good journalism (Andy Rooney and Clyde Haberman come to mind), and it makes even worse media criticism. But Friedman doesn’t necessarily seem to practice media criticism as we’ve come to understand it. Instead, he fumbles over a wide range of media issues with little destination in sight and with few examples to back up what he’s trying to say. At best, he needs an editor to clean up his goofy, at times embarrassing, prose (example from the Lou Dobbs piece: “Understand, this was an issue close to Dobbs’ heart — and mind, not to mention his liver, gallbladder and spleen. You see, Dobbs puts his entire being into a cause when he gets his mojo going”), and at worst Marketwatch needs to cut his writing schedule down from three pieces a week to two, or even better, one. He — and, for that matter, most columnists — just isn’t up to the task of churning out three reported, reasoned columns a week.

In the meantime, we’ll keep reading, and cringing.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.