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.