I’m swearing off. I’m taking the pledge. No more schadenfreude for me.
At least during the holiday season.
Maybe all that synthetic “good will to all” and “God Bless Us Every One” folderol has gotten to me but I am completely turned off by the modern media ability to take apparently limitless pleasure in others’ pain (which is what the German word “schadenfreude” means).
Many of those pretending, for their own purposes, to be “media critics” are floating on cloud nine after the last two weeks of apparent vengeance on media figures, great and small. I’m finding it all a little unseemly.
I’m not advocating that journalism schools insist that students imbibe daily quarts of the milk of human kindness. It may be enough to recognize that the crucial skepticism and truth-worship that is taught can, if you’re not careful, curdle into triviality and outright meanness. So I’m taking another look at:
• Lara Logan and her “60 Minutes” producer Max McClellan for being forced to take a leave of absence because their report on Benghazi was exposed to be built around questionable eyewitness testimony.
• Katie Couric for taking refuge from afternoon talk show failure in a new gig on Yahoo that will make her a fixture on the search engine’s website for whatever she wants to do.
• Alec Baldwin, whose Friday night talk show on MSNBC was disenfranchised after he was barely at the network long enough to find the men’s room. One of his tirades at a paparazzo in his long-standing war reached, with unaccustomed inarticulacy, into the ancient grab-bag of gay slurs out of intemperate frustration. That obviously struck the powers-that-be at MSNBC as epitomizing the very opposite of their political “brand.” (The network’s unquestioned star, after all, is the almost-shockingly brilliant and articulate Rachel Maddow, whose sexual orientation has been a given since Day One.)
• Martin Bashir, another MSNBC mouth who had to apologize after being caught in the act of waxing wroth about Sarah Palin in such a vile way that no one could defend it. (Ancient Marx Brothers joke: When Groucho was told that a college Dean was “waxing wroth” over his behavior, he said “Tell Roth to wax the dean for a while and I’ll be right with him.”) In an age of political epithets of almost infinitely phony outrage, Bashir stumbled on a cloacal way of expressing his distaste that revolted even resolute Palin bashers.
I have no intention of “defending” any of the four miscreants being pilloried in the Schadenfreude Media Festival of late November. But in every case there are mitigating factors to be considered that reveal the spectacle of bad “media criticism” to be the small-minded envy wallow it so often is beneath high-minded and pretentious pronouncements that sound sometimes like comic opera.
One by one:
1. The most obvious thing to say about the Logan/McClellan fiasco is that, as always, those put in the pillory for public mockery include the news “star” who has long been the subject of mistrust for all manner of reasons but not CBS News honcho Jeff Fager, on whose watch it happened. Logan’s beauty and unconventional personal history have incurred back-fence distrust from almost the first time “60 Minutes” put her on the air.
It is a given that high-level TV news plucks female stars who rise through the ranks looking like Lara Logan, Megyn Kelly and Savannah Guthrie and not the female equivalents of Morley Safer, Steve Kroft and Charlie Rose.
The naked “lookism” of all this on the part of those in charge is the elephant in the room no one mentions despite the odor of peanuts everywhere.
All of that engenders hostility at the wrong people and often for the wrong reasons.
How Logan ever came to be featured beyond her abilities, if that’s what happened, isn’t her sin. She’s merely been a hard-working journalist who endured sexual assault covering Egyptian demonstrations. The desire to exploit her is a key issue here, it seems to me, and one that no internal CBS investigation will come within miles of.
So exploitatable schadenfreude reigns because no one wants to go too high up in the blame game. So it stops at those the public knows best. Like:
2. Katie Couric, who was never going to be the next Oprah Winfrey because it’s now clear in the 21st century that Oprah Winfrey isn’t going to be, either. The spell was broken when Oprah vacated her syndicated throne. She couldn’t begin to transfer her syndicated primacy to her OWN network, and no one else could simulate her reign, either.
Which left Couric on her afternoon talk show what she was – damaged goods who hadn’t been overpaid by CBS (which everyone thought) but had been almost fatally over-promoted with such stupidity that her whole move to CBS News anchorhood must now go down in TV history as an exhibit under glass of how NOT to make a major TV change. So much hostility was displaced by that incompetence that she’s still cursed by it – completely unfairly, in my opinion.
The new Yahoo gig, in fact, sounds fascinatingly forward-looking. She’s a TV star who discovered that there is a limit to how much change TV audiences can be asked to accept. To go from ultra-competent morning host to dinner-time anchor/oracle and then to afternoon talk diva is more than audiences can accept.
She is, let’s remember, still the journalist who most affected Obama’s election. (Her unassuming question of Sarah Palin had the only possible answer: majority rejection of the very process which selected her.) Couric is still a great interviewer, even though afternoon audiences don’t want her at their back fence.
3. Alec Baldwin’s war against paparazzi is obviously ill-advised. At the same time, I defy any ordinary citizen to undergo full paparazzi treatment – especially the hordes of rude, insulting, shoving people crowding around your family and trying to provoke a dramatic reaction. Who wouldn’t be tempted to respond with unusual incivility?
Baldwin’s anti-gay language is a mark of how furious he was rather than how bigoted he is. His history to the contrary is simply too long and virulent. MSNBC, obviously, hired him because his political pronouncements and humorous quotability made him seem like a talk-host natural which he proved, on the air, to not be. And then, under major public pressure (his stalker’s trial, with attendant paparazzi inflammation), he blew up. Imagine how intemperate your language might get if you were verbally provoked constantly and, even worse, concerned every time your wife and baby left the apartment.
4. Martin Bashir. As a friend recently put it to me, Sarah Palin is “the gift that keeps on giving.” Even as we speak there is a new Palin book called “Good Tidings, Great Joy” whose subtitle is “Protecting the Heart of Christmas.” (Broadside, 238 pages, $22.99) in which the chief America Watcher from Wasilla urges us all to resist the “Angry Atheists With Lawyers” and their nefarious plan to “destroy every last bit of Christmas cheer we have left.”
Not me, unbeliever that I am. I’m loaded with cheer – so much that even Bashir’s hopeless violation of good taste (and sense) in response to Palin’s absurdly and artificially maintained place in current American thought can’t destroy it.
God bless us every one, I say, Martin Bashir, and Sarah Palin, too, whose book ends with some family recipes including her “Merry Christmoose Chili.”