Just as the Internet has changed journalism, it has also changed the way we think about music. This is a post about how I like to listen to good music when I’m trying my best to do good journalism, as well as a meditation on the whole point of doing journalism in the first place, considering the recent coverage of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s death in Libya. If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a single blog post, there’s a Spotify playlist at the end, which I recommend you skip to right now, particularly if you find media criticism written by self-absorbed British writers boring. On the other hand: There will also be HOT ROBOT SEX. So keep reading for that.
HOT ROBOT SEX: Harrison Ford and Mary Sean Young as a mercenary robot-killer and a robot (with a very nice perm), but falling in “love” regardless, in Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie “Bladerunner.” Aside from the obvious interest such a photo is bound to generate, the deeper point is going to sneak up on you later if you stick with me, here.
I was inspired to create the Spotify playlist by a recent post at The Times-Picayune by music writer Alison Fensterstock, who used the music-sharing platform to come up with a dozen songs to accompany the Occupy New Orleans movement. My own playlist is entitled “Nine songs to do journalism by.”
But first, why do I bother doing journalism, in the first place? What’s the point? Don’t worry, I do actually plan to answer this question — it’s not just a cry for help. And reader I know: I’m making you quite a lot of promises, early on, here. But I don’t do so lightly. So let’s do this.
I think the Internet’s impact has been to change our notions of ownership. Whether it’s ownership of information — for example, The Lens, where I work during the day, frequently posts public records online in an effort to make them genuinely public, instead of only nominally so — or ownership of people in relationships as they’re shared in new ways on platforms such as Facebook, or ownership of a notion as complicated and simple as democracy. Because whatever skeptics like Malcolm Gladwell may write, I’m convinced the Arab Spring couldn’t have happened in quite the way it did without Twitter. Meanwhile here in New Orleans the rise of reader engagement through social media and technology is just starting to make its true impact felt, I think.
Sadly the technological revolution in journalism has its uglier side — I’m not comfortable, for example, with the fact that even The New York Times chose to publish video footage of Qaddafi’s brutal death, presumably on the basis that if The Times hadn’t published it, readers’ eyeballs would have sought the footage out elsewhere. Why my discomfort? Well. I think basic human decency is all the more important in an age where we can break down such things easily with technology. In fact if journalism is not about standing up for what’s right, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, then what is it for?
Qaddafi, for all his negative qualities, was clearly mentally ill, and I’m not sure I like it when the country’s paper of record sees fit to publish video of those who would lord it over a defeated dictator’s dead body. I thought this was the argument many in the U.S. were using against torture during the war on terror; that we’re no better than Al Qaeda if we treat our enemies as badly as they would treat us. That decency, in the end, is what’s worth fighting for, not the opportunity to gloat over a corpse. Hence the New York Times’s decision not to publish photos of the late Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. Government’s decision to bury him at sea — there’s a double standard at work.
The New York Times even trotted out a talking-head psychologist to tell us all why it’s alright to gawk at videos of dictators being brutalized, which was followed up by a piece on How Dictators Die at The Daily Beast and a subsequent gallery of Famous Remains there. This was all just brilliant for garnering elusive web traffic, I’m sure. But perhaps the most transparently sensational aspects of all of it were the frantic repeated warnings that “what you’re about to watch may be shocking,” particularly as a prelude to Gawker’s “most graphic video of Qaddafi’s capture yet.” I mean: You really shouldn’t watch this, guys. It’s almost naughty.
In an age where the barriers of information ownership are breaking I’d still like the barriers of human responsibility to hold. For media — whoever they are — taking a more principled stand against some of this stuff might be to say: “You know, there’s some sick video on the internet if you’d like to go and search for it, but we’re not going to host that kind of thing on our website, no matter what it costs us in advertising revenue, because we don’t think it’s right.”
It is still proper, I think, for editors to actually edit content, based on what they feel is right. That’s what builds loyal readers. And that’s what should build journalistic clout. Not sensationalism or appealing to our base desire to witness HOT ROBOT SEX, blood, or human suffering. Even if, you know, the lunatic old bugger Qaddafi really perhaps deserved what he got, didn’t he?
And sure, the Libyans can rationalize what happened to Qaddafi differently — after all, he did kill thousands of them — but in this new era of global citizenship we’re all supposedly a little more responsible, now, for what happens, once we’ve gawked at it. And I am deeply uncomfortable with the implication that technology — particularly American-invented technology, since I am an American citizen these days — can empower people to stage so-called revolutions that might in the end also dissolve our common humanity. For me, that’s not what a true revolution should be about.
There are plenty who feel good journalism speaks for itself, that we need not package it to lure in a fickle public, or market it too much for fear of appearing to lose our sacred objectivity. And I can see where they are coming from, because right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I do believe wholeheartedly in the reader’s ability to judge such matters. That said there is nothing that drives me harder as a reporter than a sense that occasionally I may be encountering injustice. Nothing will drive me harder to get the facts straight, for example, than a lingering suspicion that the facts, perhaps, are not as they should be, not as they could be, and that I would like to share those facts with people because I have a feeling that the reader might feel about them as I do, given the chance to reflect.
Private Eye editor Ian Hislop mused on this idea in a recent interview in The Scotsman, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his publication’s existence. Private Eye may be a satirical paper but it has also broken some important investigative stories over the years, and Hislop made the point that humor can often be the quickest way of alerting a reader to injustice.
“On the whole I think humour should be directed at the strong,” Hislop was quoted as saying, in the Scottish paper (hence the extra ‘u’ in “humor.”) “Again, I shouldn’t quote too much, this shows my grandeur, but it was Mencken, wasn’t it, the great American satirist, who said the job is to ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. In other words, don’t put the boot into people.”
And that’s my point about journalism, too, that whatever advances are made, we shouldn’t ever use it to put the boot into people. There can be honor, at some point, even in the execution of violent revolutions.
Perhaps I’m narcissistic about my own decency, and I’m aware that all of this makes me sound a little old-ladyish. Lens news editor Jed Horne, who tends to be right about such things, also suggested that perhaps all the videos were an absolutely critical bit of documentary evidence at a time when there was some question as to whether Qaddafi was truly dead. Horne drew an analogy with the famous photograph of Hitler’s corpse, while acknowledging that it failed to end the debate over whether the Reichsfuhrer had in fact survived. Maybe video would have made the difference.
Thing is: There’s something much more chilling about a cellphone video than blurry pictures printed on newsprint. Maybe that’s my problem: That I struggle with, as well as revel in, the immediacy of the digital world. I found it alarming as well as amusing, on Sunday, when another friend and I were speculating about the rumors that Qaddafi was sodomized after his death, that both of us realized simultaneously it had to be an urban myth, because if he had been, there’d be video of it.
We can’t shy away so much from the truth these days. And the truth is not always beautiful. Although I’m convinced it’s possible to continue to pursue truth, and that there is still plenty of beauty in, the digital world — even if it is as uncomfortable to overthink, sometimes, as the HOT ROBOT SEX scene in the movie “Bladerunner,” explored in Mark Monahan’s interview with Chris Cunningham at The Daily Telegraph here:
“The love scene in Deckard’s apartment,” he says, “is so beautiful and strange. If Deckard is supposed to be a replicant, then this is basically an uncomfortable dialogue between two non-humans, one of whom is about to have their first sexual encounter.”
The full scene is available on Youtube and the entire movie is now available on Netflix, although you probably shouldn’t overthink the postmodern implications of that fact. But please, if you have the time, just watch the scene and think about it, in light of everything I’ve written. And ask yourself: Does advancing technology necessarily destroy authenticity and depth of feeling? Perhaps it does. But I know that the scene makes me feel strongly that I wish it didn’t. That I would like to believe that it does not.
However confused we may feel, it’s such moments of confusion that were made for us to trust our instincts about what is just right.
Which brings us, by way of journalism, beauty, truth, confusion, clarity, digitization, and HOT ROBOT SEX, of course, to the music. I’m not even really sure how we got here, either, to be honest. But I enjoyed it and I hope that you did, too. It’s been too long since we did this, so let’s do it again, soon. Yeah?
Spotify has found a way to make the sharing of music legal, and I’m fast turning into a Spotify evangelist, as a result. You’ll need to download Spotify, if you haven’t already. Then listen to my playlist “Nine songs to do journalism by.” Aaaand scene.
1. “Piss Factory,” Patti Smith Group. About a 16-year-old who gets a job working in an unjust environment, this track is both rambling but also, driven, coherent, and optimistic in the face of the injustice it describes, like journalism should be. Also: It’s beautiful regardless to just let the lyrics wash over you, which is a sign of really good writing, in my opinion.
2. “Gimme Shelter,” The Rolling Stones. The agencies and people being investigated by a good reporter would sing this. Because sometimes, reporters do uncover things that people would rather were kept secret, and there’s an “oh, my God” moment when you stumble across a document that proves your case, and perhaps even another “oh, my God” moment when you realize the potentially far-reaching implications of what you’ve found. It reminds you of that scene in the movie “Goodfellas” when the bodies all start showing up in dumpsters, even though that’s scored with an Eric Clapton song, not the Stones. I just prefer the Stones, they’re consistently more dramatic.
3. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Rolling Stones. Because you really can’t always get what you want: Sometimes you’ll spend considerable time looking into something, only to realize in the end that it’s not the story you thought it was. And sometimes you just can’t get hold of records for some reason, because they’re protected from release under some obscure law. Or you can’t afford to sue the agency to prove your point, and you just have to let it go, even though you can’t, really. But you’ve got to try to.
4. “Nobody does it Better,” Carly Simon. Because sometimes, you need a bit of reassurance when you’re doing this kind of work. And there’s nothing to make you feel more reassured than imagining you’re a spy. That’s right: Imagining. Just try not to take the idea too seriously.
5. “Caffeinated Consciousness,” TV On The Radio. For the moments when you’ve spent 54 straight hours importing scanned documents into an Excel Spreadsheet using Abby Finereader Express, because the agency that gave you the records told you they’d destroyed the computerized database, but you really need to be able to manipulate the data, and this is the only way to do it. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
6. “Sometimes I Cry,” Eric Benet. It’s true. Sometimes you actually do. As well as hit the desk in frustration, shout out expletives, have panic attacks, call up friends begging for their sympathy and in your darkest moments, even consider going to law school. Although to the best of my knowledge there aren’t any songs available entitled “Don’t, Whatever You Do, Go To Law School.” But I’m open to being educated on this point.
7. “First We Take Manhattan,” Leonard Cohen. It’s a song that embodies your ambition, and the total belief you sometimes need.
8. “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” Tomoyasu Hotei. Because at some point when you get people in your sights, they might be inclined to start fighting dirty, and you need to have trained for that moment, and be ready to respond as your best self.
9 “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” Michael Jackson. Enough answers to your questions, not drugs to forget them with, unless you really can’t cope without them. In which case, go to a meeting. And remember: You’ll be fine. The world will keep turning, regardless of whether you write about it. Or not. And you can only do your best.