My parents encouraged us kids to read both Denver newspapers, which I did daily for years. But they also encouraged us to think about what we read and not just accept something as true because it was in the paper. They would point out to us, time to time, how a story was slanted to give preference to one side or how certain assumptions were made in the organization or execution. My mother in particular has always been a skeptic and good at spotting problems with a given narrative.
Still, it wasn’t until I read — and met — Jack Shafer that I realized media criticism could be a legitimate vocation. I’ve been thinking about that in light of the news that Shafer was laid off from Slate last week. He wrote PressBox, a media criticism site, that was fun for everyone, not just reporters. I took the news of his layoff hard. He is far and away my favorite media critic.
Turns out that I’m not alone. As the news spread throughout social media sites, people lamented the loss of his PressBox column and wondered what he’d do now.
I wanted to highlight a few things from an article on Shafer that happened to run online the same day he was let go. The piece headlined “A Fearless Media Critic” is from the American Journalism Review.
The curious thing about what Jack Shafer does is the people best equipped to evaluate him are his competitors, whose beats sometimes include one another. Ask them and they will put Shafer at or near the top of a short list of the best media critics in the country.
“Here is what Jack Shafer is,” says Erik Wemple, who blogs about the media for washingtonpost.com. “Obviously, very talented, tremendously original and highly informed. But more important, he is utterly uncorrupted by friendship, money, power, anything. He is ruthless with people he doesn’t know, but what is impressive is how ruthless he can be with the people he knows. He’s impervious to outside influence, and it’s a glorious thing to watch.” Although he has been writing about media in one form or another for more than 25 years, Shafer’s passion and fearlessness make him a favorite of a younger audience with expectations of the chainsaw opinion writing of bloggers, says Hamilton Nolan, who handles media criticism in his role as editor of Gawker.
Nolan sees Shafer as perhaps the sole media critic in the country who is consistently unafraid to print what others only think. “Shafer writes much younger, like someone who doesn’t have as much of a career stake,” Nolan says. “It’s rarer to maintain that edge as you climb the ladder. He shoots from the hip, but it’s not a mechanism, because you know when you read his column that he’s a guy who has all this deep knowledge of journalism.”
Here is another helpful tidbit:
Shafer believes in a few fundamental rules for writing about anything: that the thinking behind the column be original; that the underpinning of a point of view be supplied by solid reporting; and that the conventional wisdom be avoided at all costs.
Shafer isn’t known for analyzing coverage of religion news, although he did come up with the term “Jewspotting” to criticize the myriad New York Times pieces about Jews being “discovered” in far-off locales. Defrocking trend stories is one of his specialties, particularly trend pieces about supposed upticks in narcotics use or ridiculous fashions. He thought the Times should change its Style section name to the “Bogus Trend” section.
My background is in economics and in the academic community, there are plenty of thin-skinned people. While journalists tend to be really good at going after things or people we dislike, we really don’t like it if our work is questioned. If you’re one of those people who is conflict averse, media criticism can be difficult. Shafer really set a great example of being unafraid to go after a wide variety of media outlets and memes:
This fearlessness is what sets Shafer apart and what will help his work endure, says media critic Seth Mnookin, who begins this fall teaching a graduate science writing program at MIT. Many media critics, Mnookin says, write for other media members, forgetting just how small that audience is.
“Jack Shafer is very aware that you can make a choice. You can write for the cubicle next to you or you can write for everybody else,” Mnookin says. “Because he doesn’t write for the person in the next cubicle, he is not afraid of offending the person in the next cubicle.”
It’s so much easier said than done. And I suspect that this has something to do with the reason that there are so many fewer female media critics than male media critics. We tend to be a bit more sensitive to criticism.
One thing that Shafer helped me understand is how skepticism is the most useful tool a journalist has. Another is that media criticism is really something only someone who loves journalism can do well. Tmatt talks about this a lot, but many critics just attack the media and see problems wherever they look. They fail to see all the wonderful work that journalists do. Inability to see what is done well hampers a critic’s ability to truly analyze what’s been done poorly.
AdWeek interviewed him about the piece and being let go. Here are a couple of the questions and answers from that exchange:
There was a piece about you in the American Journalism Review today, describing how you write for everyone, not just the guy in the next cubicle. Do you agree with that portrayal?
I got into the press criticism racket because as the editor of Washington City Paper in 1985, I couldn’t get anybody to write press criticism. As strange as this may seem, in 1985 everyone was worried that if they wrote negatively about The Washington Post and The New York Times and Time and Newsweek and the dominant publications of that time, that they’d screw themselves out of a job. I think what the writer of the AJR piece accurately described was that I started writing about the press and continued to write about the press as if I have no career—that I shouldn’t worry, and that no one should worry if they’re writing about the press. They should write about the press the same way they write about GE, or President Obama, or the New York Yankees. They shouldn’t be thinking about their next job.
The piece was very flattering. It was my ambition to write that way, but I leave it to the readers of the piece and you and others to decide whether I’ve accomplished that. You know, when you read a flattering piece about yourself. … I mean, have you ever read a flattering piece about yourself?
I got a good report card once.
I got a report card in first grade that said, “Jack excels in his studies and really enjoys math and English, but he starts fights on the playground that he brings back into the classroom.” I’ve tried to make that my operating premise: Let’s start some fights and see who wins.
I have no doubt that Shafer will continue to do great work. I hope that some of it will be media criticism. And I’m so appreciative of him speaking to a group of young journalists many years ago, giving us his tips for journalism and media criticism.
Image via Reason.TV