Thursday, December 03, 2009

Puncturing journalistic pretensions

For my money the best media critic -- fascinating concept -- holding forth these days is Jack Shafer, who has written for a Washington alternative newspaper in the past and is now writing at Slate.com. I don't think it's necessary to have committed daily journalism to be able to criticize media effectively -- I certainly did it in print before I worked for a daily newspaper -- but I think it helps to have spent time in a newsroom of some sort just to soak up attitudes and mores. I love daily journalism, whose challenges seem to fit my proclivities pretty well, but I think it's important to be able to maintain a certain psychic distance from the trade to be able to view it as an objective lover. I like much of what Howie Kurtz does at the WashPost, but he is still more reportorial. Jack is analytical and fair enough to do representative excerpts of writers he is criticizing; he is especially good at identifying cliches in selection of stories and their presentation.

This time he's having a good time with the NYT's James Traub, who wrote the predictable "most powerful veep in history" story about -- ta dah! -- Joe Biden. Here's a taste:

The Nov. 29 New York Times Magazine bestows the "most powerful vice president in history" accolade on Joe Biden with the qualifier that he's the most powerful vice president in history after that Cheney guy. Written by James Traub, who scampers around the globe and down the White House's halls with the logorrheic 47th vice president, the piece conforms to all the clich├ęs of most-powerful-veep genre. It catalogs the size of his staff, the number of meetings he has with the president, the number of important presidential briefings he attends, the number of private lunches he has with the president, the breadth of his policy portfolio, the air miles he's flown on diplomatic missions as "Obama's fire chief and ambassador without portfolio," and the frequency of his impromptu sessions with the president ("Very seldom a week goes by that he doesn't call me down to his office, or wander in here and close the door and say, 'Wait a minute, what about this?' " Biden tells Traub).

Jack documents that pretty much every vice president in recent history -- including Dan Quayle! -- has had this story written about him. For good measure, here's his take on Tiger. Enjoy.

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