Saturday, April 19, 2008

Blue-collar TV news?

Minnesota liberal Democrat (but I repeat myself) Peter Smith:

A lot of inside the beltway talking heads and journalists have claimed a special understanding of working class Pennsylvania voters lately.
They say they understand working class Pennsylvanians because they come from Pennsylvania themselves. Or because their fathers belonged to a union. Or worked in a factory. Or drank beer. Or owned a gun. Or bowled.
I would submit that if, as a journalist, you have to explain your working class bona fides, then you probably don't have working class bona fides. That if you're commenting on working class voters in the national media, your perspective may be somewhat distorted by all those tax brackets between you and your subject.

(Via Memeorandum.) Smith makes a good point about faux-proletarian media types, but his conflation of "talking heads and journalists" bothers me. He is perpetuating the myth that journalists make big money.

TV talking heads make big money; journalists don't.

People who aren't in the news business read about the multimillion-dollar contracts of top on-air TV talent -- Katie Couric, George Stephanopoulos, Brian Williams -- and leap to the erroneous conclusion that journalism is a high-paying industry. It's not.

The people you see on TV news make big money not because they're journalists, but because they're on TV.

A TV news anchor is a TV star, so he's paid like a TV star. The rest of us poor slobs -- especially the miserable wretches in the rapidly collapsing newspaper business -- are paid less than post-office workers. Or truck drivers.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Columnists for the New York Times reportedly make $300,000 a year, but none of those guys are actually journalists -- i.e., they never worked as reporters covering fires, floods, county commission meetings, etc. Say what you will about ex-theater-critic Frank Rich, he actually worked at a newspaper before before becoming a columnist, which is more than can be said of Paul Krugman or Bill Kristol.

The popular misconception of journalism as a high-paying career has been propagated in part by how Hollywood portrays the news business. In my lifetime, at least, there has never been a Hollywood portrayal of a newsroom that wasn't so laughably wrong as to become an instant joke among actual newspaper people. An example is the classic TV/movie depiction of the "investigative reporter" as a sort of detective or spy, sleuthing around in dark alleys. It's just not like that.

So when Peter Smith (who is, in point of fact, an advertising executive) writes about "all those tax brackets between" journalists and the working class, he's propagating a dangerous myth.

Why is this myth of journalism as a high-paying career dangerous? Because some otherwise bright and promising young person might go into the news business thinking it pays handsomely, and thereby consign himself to a life of poverty. A tragic fate . . .

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