In the news business, summertime is traditionally known as the silly season: It’s when death and taxes take a holiday, readers put away their discernment along with their winter clothes, and everyone kicks back to enjoy inconsequential stories about misbehaving celebrities, canoodling news anchors, grandmothers and their S&M books, and lions on the loose. Or so the theory goes.
And while most of the traditions in the trade are evaporating, it’s reassuring to see that the pull of the silly is so strong that even the new kids on the block are embracing their inner Pee-wee Hermans.
So as we head into this Labour Day weekend, we’d like to acknowledge a few of our favourite moments in the 2012 Summer of Silly – as well as some of the excellent journalism that still somehow managed to find a serious audience.
Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil: On the weekend after James Holmes walked into a Denver-area midnight screening of The Dark Knight Returns on July 20 and opened fire, killing or injuring more people than in any other shooting in American history, the media critic Howard Kurtz insisted we shouldn’t bother asking what might have led to the horror. “I don’t want psychological studies of him, because anybody who shoots up a movie theatre with men, women and children is crazy, is so much of a sociopath that, I think, it’s almost fruitless for us to figure out, well, what was it about it that made him snap,” he said on his CNN show Reliable Sources. “It seems like the whole DNA of journalism is there are unanswered questions, we have to answer them. Well maybe some questions can’t be answered.”
Sure. But how do we know unless we ask them?
A media Mobius strip: The Huffington Post took a brave step into the future a few weeks ago when it launched a 12-hour-a-day video stream, HuffPost Live. Billed as “Breaking News and Opinion,” most of the programming consists of televisual hosts conducting Google Hangouts on the left side of the screen while a scroll of largely useless comments from viewers flies by on the right side. Every so often, a few hosts will get together and read the comments that are on the screen in front of you, or chat about something on the Huffington Post front page.
On Tuesday, as HuffPost spent the day talking about the War on Drugs, we got a slide show of 18 different HuffPost sections and local editions covering the issue. We look forward to the day when the HuffPost front page carries stories about the hosts on HuffPost Live reading stories from the HuffPost front page.
A higher purpose: Last week, during the annual MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth made us all a little giddy when she took a few sideways slaps at her brother James, and implied that the scandal-plagued News Corp. had lost its way. Noting that her brother had concluded his own MacTaggart speech in 2009 by saying “the only reliable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit,” she declared: “profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster.”
And then, a few hours later, News Corp.’s Sun newspaper published photographs of a naked Prince Harry.
He wants to feel the wind in his hair: As Hurricane Issac bore down on the Gulf Coast, CNN dispatched Anderson Cooper to New Orleans in hopes of recreating the magic that made him a star during Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. But with a torrent of pure information at our fingertips now – for starters, Twitter didn’t exist in 2005 – who needs to see an anchor standing in the wind? The absurdity of TV’s need for backdrops was highlighted late on Monday night, when Wolf Blitzer, sitting in an empty Republican convention hall, threw to Cooper, who was standing outside in the windy dark of New Orleans. Cooper then announced portentously that there was an update on the hurricane, so he threw back to – um, to weatherman Chad Meyers, ensconced safely in an Atlanta studio, who said there wasn’t really much news at all.
Newsflash: The Newsroom isn’t reality TV: So, okay, Aaron Sorkin is arrogant and infuriating, and The Newsroom was a sharp disappointment for all of us who had been snookered by its ads to believe it would be the next Network. But the funniest thing to emerge out of the show was probably the legions of people who hated it so much that they insisted on watching ever single episode, just so they could complain about it. Most carped that it wasn’t at all like the reality of working in cable television news. They apparently didn’t realize it was, you know, a TV show.
Still, it wasn’t all silliness.
Don’t cry for him, Ecuador: Yes, Julian Assange is creepy and aggravating, and has worn out his welcome with just about everyone. But, as the incoming dean of the journalism school at University of California Berkeley, Edward Wasserman, pointed out this week, reporters have almost entirely failed to ask even some of the most basic questions about his tribulations. “Are the targets of similar allegations always treated like top-drawer international fugitives, or is Assange unusually privileged?” he asked. “(W)hat is the Washington connection? Have U.S. officials urged the Swedes to get him to Stockholm? Does the United States have plans to seek his extradition? Has any reporter asked?”
Years ago, when Larry Flynt fought for freedom of the press, U.S. reporters held their noses and then enjoyed the fruits of his labour. Wasserman has reminded us that we don’t get to choose our saints; the least we can do is ask questions about their enemies.
Forget scoops, focus on the bigger truth : So much energy goes into getting scoops, which often means getting cozy with sources, that journalists often forget it’s sometimes better to be an outsider. The current issue of Esquire carries an extraordinary piece of reportage on the oil sands and Fort McMurray, which journalist John H. Richardson calls, “the little Canadian town that just might destroy the world.” It’s hard to see how any domestic outlet would have published the story, if only because editors here would have assumed Canadians already know the story. After a summer of silliness, the piece is a stiff belt of necessary seriousness.
Welcome to September.