Richard Blow, it appears, violated the media code. He exploited his relationship with a celebrity and wrote a book.
Except, surely, that’s not a code violation.
He wrote a not very interesting, self-serious account of his four years of working for John F. Kennedy Jr. at George magazine; but earnestness, even of the cringe-making kind, is certainly not against the code. He may or may not have violated the letter of a confidentiality agreement – but since when are journalists, now shocked at his perfidy, so intent on enforcing corporate rules of silence? Granted, American Son is, rankly, a commercial book – and upon publication, it immediately shot up the best-seller lists – but it’s been years since writing a book with the calculated intention of making it a best-seller was a code infraction (next week it will be No. 2 on the Times list).
He might, it seems, have committed a bit of a double-cross – trying to keep staffers from talking to the press about JFK Jr. after he died, and then opportunistically surfacing with a book proposal of his own. But opportunism is not a code violation, either.
So what made sweet Katie Couric, in her Today interview, deal with Blow like he was a Hamas lieutenant? This was personal for Katie.
Indeed, Richard Blow is, everybody says, a pariah in our business. He’ll never, you know, work in this town again, said someone – a line I’ve been waiting to hear my whole career – at a party I went to last week. In addition to Katie’s attack, Blow’s mendacity has also been inveighed against – with impressive message discipline (Traitor! Betrayer! Sellout!) – by Esquire, GQ, People, and in a Barbara Walters interview (with such enemies, who needs friends?).
But what did Richard Blow do? Or what did Richard Blow do that is out of character with what is the bread and butter of the media business – retailing banal and semi-worshipful opinions about celebrities?
I’m not arguing that Blow didn’t violate the code, nor even that, by its logic, he should not be punished; I am just not sure what the code is. What’s made media people so hopping mad?
Blow, who is young, soft-spoken, and not too political (he is, I suppose, a JFK Jr. Democrat – whatever that could be), might not appear to have too much in common with Bernard Goldberg, the not-young, borderline-hysterical, and tendentiously political author of Bias, the book about how the media tilts left-liberal that is one of the big and confounding best-sellers of the year. But they’re both, in addition to being best-selling authors, media outcasts, and it may be instructive to compare the quality of their bête noire status.
Goldberg’s book is about the various winks and nods and other advantages that the network news gives to liberal-ish social notions, and the slights and slaps against the people and organizations who might oppose those notions. Even more specifically, Goldberg’s book is about the treatment he got after he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about his belief that there was network bias, which, striking some nerve and violating some unspecified code of conduct, made him, he thinks, an untouchable. But Bias is also, vividly, about Dan Rather. It is most alive when it details the hauteur and inaccessibility and withholdingness of, as Goldberg calls him, The Dan. The Dan is a member of what Goldberg bitterly and unself-consciously (and unironically) refers to as the media elite. It’s not hard to read the book as fundamentally about Goldberg’s quest for Rather’s approval. Of course, he doesn’t get it. Goldberg, even though he spent almost 30 years at CBS, can’t crack the code of Dan’s affections. Goldberg remains the miserable, self-hating outsider. Huffing and puffing. And sweating terribly.
Where Goldberg feels the pain of not being an insider, Blow provokes the wrath of the insiders by trying to claim to be one – he is a pretender and would-be usurper. The flurry of invective around Blow’s inconsequential book means, I think we can fairly conclude, that some territory is being challenged. An inner, hegemonic circle feels invaded – Blow is its Talented Mr. Ripley. (If a code is not written down, and no one will acknowledge that it exists, one way to demonstrate its existence is to get people to defend it.)
JFK Jr., rather than Blow’s book, or Blow’s professional indiscretions, is obviously the flash point. He represents to media people, I’d submit, some kind of ideal of insiderness; he’s the insider’s mascot. (The Kennedys, of course, have been the ultimate insiders of the twentieth century.) In fact, if you are a true media insider, JFK Jr., during his efforts to be a magazine publisher, befriended you. If you aren’t a true insider but, by your hustle, managed to meet him, this elevated you.
It’s primal. Or high-school primal. JFK Jr. in life, and continuing in death, is the magnificently popular guy. As you might expect, the competition to be his best friend, or butt boy, was, and remains, intense.
Blow’s code violation is purportedly about taste, and Goldberg’s about politics – but in each instance, it’s running afoul of the same attitudes, conceits, snobberies, and sensibilities. “Bias,” or as Goldberg repeats, mantralike, “liberal bias,” may refer as much to media manners as to media liberalness. It’s a class issue, and both Blow and Goldberg, in their way, are boors – not of our media class, darling.
One way to look at this, which I think is the wrong way, is to see media insiderism as representing great power. What we are talking about is people who by their contacts and attitudes and sensibility keep control of the most powerful force in the nation. And their control is, of course, all about protecting their own class and power.
Certainly this is Goldberg’s argument: A conspiracy exists among the powerful and privileged to use their standing to impose their beliefs and prejudices on a helpless nation. Similarly, Blow’s offense is to try, by illegitimate and unclassy means, to join this powerful caste (name-dropping is one of the traditional ways to get in, of course, but Blow has been caught in the act of full-scale appropriation of the name – JFK Jr. belongs to all of us in media land!).
But I don’t think this is the real conflict. Rather, Blow and Goldberg have identified a point of weakness instead of a nexus of power. When Goldberg talks about the media, or when former George staffers hold an anti-Blow party and notify the gossip columnists, what is being identified is a particular stratum of media: the eroding and panicking networks, aging anchors, people with precarious jobs (or no jobs) in the magazine world, and media read only by other people in the media.
The media here is like the old Wasp country-club set – it’s a graying, constricting, and not too prosperous circle. It rises up with great harrumphing, but you can torment it with impunity. The hoi polloi is entertained by the harrumphing.
Blow and Goldberg are not only not the media Establishment’s victims – they are successes because of it (or because of their tormenting of it). The media, by its consternation (in his case, Goldberg had to invent, or jump-start, the media consternation – he spends a good part of his book proclaiming his own ostracism), has helped create the market for both men and their books. The media is, functionally, Pavlovian; it responds to conflict – even if it’s conflict that the media has created.
It’s all inside out. It isn’t that Goldberg, the outsider pressed to the glass, is self-loathing but, instead, that The Dan is self-loathing. He isn’t imperious so much as pitiable (nor is it that the network viewpoint is so strong but that it is so diluted). Goldberg’s bias charges become an opportunity for media self-flagellation (any excuse!). Indeed, the growing instinct to self-police against bias is not dissimilar to the self-policing that created political correctness (the harrumphing is always followed by fear and abjectness). Likewise, nobody really wants Blow to go away. To blackball him is just an excuse to embrace him. It must be clear to everyone that the rush to deal with Blow’s transgression provided every media outlet the opportunity to commit the same transgression: more John Kennedy.
The great force is not insider media but outsider media.
A sure formula for success is to attack the media, or ridicule it, or inflame it. (Following this strategy, pro-Israeli groups are now protesting the world’s most pro-Israeli media.)
Blow, as Katie Couric goes after him, has a certain Cheshire-cat affect (this probably means, too, that he has been “media trained” – that is, you’re just supposed to let it roll over you). He’s setting himself up to be the target. He’s inviting the scarlet media letter. He knows its value. As soon as his book was dumped by AOL Time Warner’s Little, Brown (it had agreed to publish the book for $750,000, but then, with charges of violated confidentiality agreements and fearing the wrath of the Kennedys, backed out), its true value was established (the book was shortly resurrected by the upstart Henry Holt). Blow, having created and having survived media conflict, is now a made media man.
The Goldberg strategy is as transparent: You create a media brouhaha. You inflate it in the media. You exploit it through the media. Goldberg’s book was rejected by the usual assortment of major publishers, which in itself becomes a marketing recommendation (it’s a blurb: REJECTED BY 23 PUBLISHERS!), and then published by Regnery, the fringe conservative house. In fact, the better point is not that Regnery is a conservative publisher but that it’s an anti-media publisher. Regnery’s entire strategy is to publish against the media (two editors I know from a mainstream house were noting the other day that if they’d published Goldberg, they’d have sold 15,000 copies of the book, versus Regnery’s 400,000 and counting). Its strategy is always to provoke media offense – and to represent outsider-media righteousness.
This is, of course, the Fox formula.
Fox’s Roger Ailes is about as inside of a media guy as you can get, but he is temperamentally an outsider. His outsiderness may, in fact, be more about showmanship – cleverness, audacity, subversiveness – than politics. Whereas the media Establishment – the networks, the magazines, the Times, the chatterers – is crippled by self-consciousness.
The media Establishment has lost its profits, its audience, and any confidence that it knows what’s best. It’s just a big blob, responding only to outside stimulus – to being tormented and screwed with.
It is the Establishment, the crumbling one, with all its ticks and mannerisms and rituals and its bizarre and unfathomable code of conduct.
We should all be trying to figure out how to violate the code. That’s a business plan.