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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten: Jack Shafer


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Ten: Jack Shafer

By Wendy A. Hoke

Q: How did you get into journalism?

I studied communication, English and mathematics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I wouldíve been a math major, but I was working hard to get As and Bs, and math majors didnít have to work hard for those grades. I have no doubts that I could turn really good writers into B students in calculus. The two thought processes are not alien. In proving mathematics, youíre building a case step by step. If you flub up a step, people will call you out. I think thatís true in journalism as well, though I donít think I could turn math majors into journalists.

I got into journalism as a freelancer in Los Angeles when I started freelancing for alternative weeklies and a political magazine called the Libertarian Review. The minute I had any success, I left the country to travel. When I came back I went to Inquiry, which is now defunct and thatís what brought me to Washington, D.C. When I started writing, I realized I had something to say that I didnít think anyone else was saying.

Q: How did you become a media critic?

Inquiry magazine folded in 1984. So I was freelancing, writing a lot about drugs. Some of my first best stories were revisionist accounts of the war on drugs. In the summer of í85, I became editor of the alternative weekly Washington City Paper. I tried to hire someone as press critic, but no one would do it because they thought it would end their chance at working at The Washington Post. I had no aspirations to work at The Washington Post so I decided to be the press critic. (The Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive now owns Slate.)

Q: Slate just passed a milestone ó 10 years on the Web. Whatís the biggest change (if any) that youíve noticed in traditional mediaís view toward new media?

I donít think there was ever a group prejudice against online journalism. I think from the beginning established media judged fairly what people were doing in this new medium. In the summer of í96 when Slate launched, washingtonpost.com also launched. Itís not as if we were a decade ahead.

Q: What prompted you to join Slate?

Mike Kinsley was one of the only people I wanted to work for. I was a year into an editorship at SF Weekly when the opportunity arose. Working for Mike and playing around with new media proved irresistible.

Q: Describe your writing process. How many papers, blogs, magazines etc. do you read in a day (and in what formats) and how do you formulate your columns?

I read three dailies in newsprint ó Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. I read The New York Times online and look at both newsweeklies. I graze the monthlies and read the political weeklies. I watch BBC World News twice a day. Iím a big fan of (the blog) Boing Boing and have RSS feeds for a lot of topics of interest such as methamphetamine. Thereís nothing special about my news appetite; itís just a big one.

Q: You often back many of your criticisms with your own sometimes-extensive reporting. How much time do you spend reporting for your columns?

Itís deceptive on drug stuff because Iíve been writing about this beat for so long itís just stuff I know. People who know how to use the Web well can be pretty efficient in finding the reports and data for stories. For example, (a recent) pharm party piece (on teens partying with pharmaceuticals) I think I wrote the day I read the piece in USA Today.

Other stories may be on a backburner, and I may be gathering string for months. Like every reporter, I triage what I have going at any given moment. I wrote a piece yesterday about an alleged $48 billion ID fraud costs. I had already researched and reported out the ID theft story based on a New York Times piece, but then read a well-done piece in Business Week and followed up with another column.

One of biggest things I worked on was a two-part magazine-style feature on the movie Good Night and Good Luck. In that piece I congratulated the creators of that movie on capturing the look, tone and feel of the era, but also at having distorted history to make their political point. I saw that as press criticism because I went back to the historical documents even though it was a movie review. Iím as proud of that as anything.

Q: What column has garnered the biggest backlash from colleagues?

The most hostile response was when I wrote about a friend, Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette. I said she was squandering her talent with a-- f---ing jokes. Only in recent months has she been a little friendlier, but that really ended the friendship. How much of a break should friends get? Iíd be lying if I said I never cut a friend a break, but itís not that big a break.

(New York Times reporter) Peter Landesman told (blogger) Daniel Radosh heíd have me fired the next day (after criticism of Landesmanís article on sexual slavery appeared in the Jan. 25, 2004 New York Times Magazine). I think heís the only person to threaten to have me fired.

Q: You tend to be critical of trend stories. Why? And what are some of your other journalistic pet peeves?

Whenever a civilian reads a news story about something he knows a lot about, heís appalled at the thinness. I try to approach every story with skepticism I think a civilian expert would have. Whenever you write a trend story, show me the data. Donít show me the press release. Show me some demonstrable uptick in usage or occurrence. Where there is no data, it doesnít necessarily mean there isnít a story. Some are anecdotal stories, but that doesnít always make it a trend.

I do like to write good stuff, too, like a piece about David Von Drehleís 1989 Hurricane Hugo coverage and how it defies clichť and an appreciate of Marjorie Williams as a profile writer after her death.

Writers are the people Iím beating up on, but surely the editor bears some blame, particularly in the handling of the Duke rape story and the New York Times WMD coverage.

Iíve been gratified by the way the press turned around on the issue of anonymous sources; at least theyíre paying lip service to reducing them. (Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter) Dana Priest is a good example of how to use anonymous sources. When sheís breaking stories like the CIA black prisons, she says this is who Iím interviewing without naming names. Thereís a specificity to her reporting that makes it hard for government officials to knock it down.

Q: What is the role of a media critic in society?

To satisfy his editor. Seriously, I wouldnít want to define it too narrowly. Is Jon Stewart not a media critic? He makes a point with humor, but heís sending up the news media as well as people in news. The Onion is another journal of media criticism.

Q: What advice do you have for young journalists?

Be skeptical. Iím surprised at the lack of skepticism for our own stories, because weíre always skeptical of others. People donít really seem to ask hard enough questions. You canít teach skepticism. If itís not part of your character, then itís very hard to acquire.

Good journalism is like good science and should produce reproducible results. Science is my inspiration when Iím writing my pieces and building in links. Thatís why Iím so critical of insider anonymous sources. Itís much easier to believe a story if you give great specificity.

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