July 23, 2010
P.J. O'Rourke: 'Very Little That Gets Blogged Is Of Very Much Worth'
This week, Facebook announced that its number of user profiles had reached 500 million. But American satirist and journalist P. J. O'Rourke is not impressed. In an interview with RFE/RL's Luke Allnutt, he explains why he isn't very hopeful about the future of journalism and what he thinks of when he thinks about Twitter.
RFE/RL: This week Facebook achieved 500 million users. Are you one of them?
P.J. O'Rourke: No, I most certainly am not. Are there 500 million people with computers? I guess there must be.
RFE/RL: But it's a remarkable achievement, right?
O'Rourke: I guess so. You know, had you told me that 500 million people last week wrote their name on the bathroom wall with a magic marker I would be equally impressed by the number, but I don't think that I would be favorably impressed.
RFE/RL: You've been notoriously characterized as a technophobe. Is that unfair? Do you own a computer or do you use the Internet?
O'Rourke: I own a computer. I don't use the Internet very much. I'm not a technophobe. It just doesn't help me very much. Writing is a slow and a difficult process mentally. How you physically render the words onto a screen or a page doesn't help you. I'll give you this example. When words had to be carved into stone, with a chisel, you got the Ten Commandments. When the quill pen had been invented and you had to chase a goose around the yard and sharpen the pen and boil some ink and so on, you got Shakespeare. When the fountain pen came along, you got Henry James. When the typewriter came along, you got Jack Kerouac. And now that we have the computer, we have Facebook. Are you seeing a trend here?
RFE/RL: Well that's not a very rosy outlook for the future then. Anyone who's a writer or novelist might as well just hang up their hat now because it's going down the pan.
O'Rourke: I don't mean it that way, but I do mean that the ease and speed that one can put words into some sort of permanent state -- screen, paper, whatever -- does not improve the words that are put there. The real work goes on behind the eyes. And I find, I've used a typewriter for 40 years and so using a typewriter, [it's] simply automatic, it doesn't get in the way. I think [and] it goes straight to the page. I don't have to think about what I'm doing. When I try and use the computer I have to think about what I'm doing because I keep hitting the control key instead of the shift [key] and so on and so forth. When I'm really having a problem with what I'm writing, when it's really difficult for me, I will revert to longhand because that's how I learned to write in the first place. And I don't know, maybe if it got really really difficult I might revert to block printing like I did in first grade. I just find that -- everybody says the medium is the message, and there may be some truth in that. But when it comes to creating something, even something so modest a creation as journalism, it is the thinking that is the important part and the technology comes last and is least important.
RFE/RL: With that in mind, what do you think about the future of long-form journalism? And here I'm talking about 10 or 15,000 word magazine pieces. Do you think the Internet is threatening those?
O'Rourke: I do think the Internet is threatening long magazine pieces. Now some of them needed to be threatened. There was a time in recent memory, say 30 years ago, 35 years ago, when William Shawn edited "The New Yorker." And "The New Yorker was famous for 10,000 word pieces about wheat. There would be immense long pieces. "Granta" is an admirable magazine but I have known "Granta" to print immensely long pieces about [topics that] didn't need to be that long. Brevity is the sole of wit perhaps, but by wit, whoever said that meant intelligence, they didn't mean just being funny.
So brevity is a good thing and the Internet pushes us towards brevity. But is brevity always the way to go? Well, I think you could cut the last 100 pages out of "War and Peace" and not miss much. But you don't want to cut the other 900 pages out of "War and Peace." "War and Peace" is not a short form. "War and Peace" shouldn't have been tweeted. I think that kind of long-form writing -- well "War and Peace" isn't journalism, although it certainly has some of the best war reporting I've ever read in my life -- but I think long-form journalism will survive when it's needed. But frankly, it isn't always needed. So we'll see fewer long-form journalist pieces, but I think that they will be better justified in their length.
RFE/RL: When you hear the word "Twitter" what do you think?
WATCH: O'Rourke on Twitter
O'Rourke: Little bird noises. I hunt birds. In fact I'm an avid bird hunter. And believe me if one of those little Blackberries flew up in front of my dog it would get the full force of my shotgun. There's small talk, and then there's very very small talk, and then there's Twitter. I don't see the need or the benefit.
RFE/RL: Have you ever tried Twitter or read a tweet?
O'Rourke: I've read some "tweets," but no I've never tried Twitter, my thumbs are too clumsy to work the tiny buttons on whatever these personal communication devices are called. Random sharing of my thoughts is something that I do sometimes late at night in a bar with other people who are in the bar late at night, who don't remember much about it in the morning. I think that's the place for random sharing of thoughts, you know, and it will all be forgotten in the morning.
RFE/RL: Can we just go back to one thing on long-form journalism. One of the arguments that's made, in particular by Nicholas Carr with his article about whether Google is making us stupid, is that somehow with today's climate of social media, it's basically reducing our attention spans. And this is somehow because of the onslaught of tweets and Facebook status updates and mobile phones going off and Blackberries, and this is somehow impairing our cognitive function. And it's actually affecting the ability that we have to read, in terms of deep reading where you're sitting alone with a novel for 10 minutes. I know you said you don't use the Internet much, but have you noticed in your own personal consumption that you've found it harder to read or concentrate since the Internet has been around? Or do you think you've somehow managed to enclose yourself?
O'Rourke: No, I'm too old to have been affected by this. But I take his point about the shortening of attention span and I think he's right. But I think he's coming late to the argument. It's not the fault of computers or Blackberries or Twitter. This has been going on arguably since the beginning of mass communication with the radio. People have been less able to read long, difficult books since the end of the 19th century. All you have to do is go back to "Middlemarch" or the afore-mentioned Henry James. What kind of book like that has been published since? Well, there have been some books of that difficulty, but they weren't worth the effort. I mean what kind of book with the difficulty and the length of "War and Peace" or "Middlemarch" that was truly worth the effort of the concentrated reading required has been published since? The diminishing of the public attention span has been going on for a long time.
That said, there've always only been a relatively few people who were able to sit still and concentrate long enough to become experts in their field. I mean, if you go around and talk to people who are truly experts in their field, you will find that the one thing that they share is an ability to sit still and concentrate. I don't have it, that's why I'm a journalist. But if I did have it I'd be a scholar or something nobler than a journalist. But I think it's wrong to blame the computer on that.
That said, I do see one pernicious trend, which is blogging. I don't care much for blogging because it is undigested thinking, because it comes straight from the heart, or the lizard brain, or the mouth without due consideration. Very little that gets blogged is of very much worth. Almost everything should be thought over. Don't we all know it from things that we've said to our spouses? That you should think twice before you say anything.
WATCH: O'Rourke on blogging
RFE/RL: But would you actually think that blogging is a dangerous and damaging trend in journalism?
O'Rourke: I don't know if it's a dangerous and damaging trend. I think it's kind of a worthless trend. And I go into [what] my Irish great aunt would often say, too often because she drank a bit, "Come back my words." Think how many times you've said things you wish you could unsay. "Come back my words." And I wonder how many people wish they could un-blog.
RFE/RL: The argument in favor of blogging goes that it's actually a much more transparent and objective demonstration of the thought process, in the sense that we have thoughts and then we clarify them later. And that's something that we air in public.
O'Rourke: That's sort of like saying disemboweling somebody is a much more transparent look at the digestive system. I don't really buy the argument. Thought is difficult. Rational and reasonable thought is difficult, and it takes time, and it takes concentration. And the first thing that we blurt out, while it may be a true reflection of our particular feelings at that particular moment, is unlikely to be very illuminating for others. Blogging is very selfish. I mean, if you want a true picture of what somebody's thinking at a moment, kick them and see what they say. You'll get a blog. You'll get a tweet. You'll get a brief expression of how somebody feels at a given moment. But communication is all about the other person. It's not about the person who is communicating. It's about the person who is listening, or receiving, or viewing. And blogging is very self-indulgent. It's all about me. It isn't about the person who is reading the blog.
RFE/RL: I would probably take issue with that a little bit. I don't always think that blogging is self-indulgent. I think that tends to be a common perception, like the example people always use with Twitter, that's it's just people telling each other what they had for breakfast. And I think there are blogs that actually are fulfilling the function journalism used to of being the Fourth Estate. And they're run by civic-engaged people who are taking on the powers that be and they are also including their audience. I don't think it's always black or white.
O'Rourke: Of course you're right. The test is always in the content. And blogging is a very quick, easy, and inexpensive way to reach out to a large audience. If you have information to share that's worth sharing, information to give that's worth giving, great. The more communication between people and the easier that communication is, the better. Is this the majority of the stuff that fills the blogosphere? I'm no expert, but not so far as I can tell. There's a great deal of people sitting around in pajamas giving each other their opinions. I think that's undeniable. Again, the tweet, it's just like the cell phone. There are times in modern life when it's unbelievably handy to have the cell phone. You wonder how the heck did we get along without this. If you need to get me at 12:45 I'll be passing the phone booth at the corner of 48th Street and Third Avenue. I mean, how do we do it?
And yet on the other hand that's one out of the 100 phone calls that you get. The other 99 are "Will you pick up a loaf of rye bread on the way home?" "Honey, where are you?" "I just landed in the plane." I travel a lot, so I end up listening to, one half at any rate, of people's cell phone conversations. In the years of people commonly using cell phones, I have yet to hear anyone say: "You mean, it's a boy!" or "Gosh, I'd better sell that stock!" or "Oh my god call 911!" I keep waiting to hear the half of a really important cell phone call. But it's always "O.K. honey, I landed, I'll be home in about half an hour, plane was a little late." Or more often: "Huh? What? Oh yeah? Yeah, yeah that's what I meant. Huh?" You could do this without the cell phone and be communicating just as much to that other person.
RFE/RL: Just back to blogging and journalism, the big new thing over the last few years has been citizen journalism. Do you think the idea that news organizations potentially have millions of correspondents, armed with cell phones with the ability to take photos and videos, is a good thing?
O'Rourke: It is a good thing. It's particularly a good thing when something awful happens. We can imagine the value of this kind of citizen journalism when some terrible event happened that the powers that be attempted, successfully or unsuccessfully, to cover up. We can imagine the power that this kind of citizen journalism could have had to mitigate the Holocaust, if this [was] being recorded. Some things, [such as] the massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn forest, may have happened too fast. But it would've been known much sooner with repercussions. The question of the Armenian genocide and the Turkish role in it would be settled if we had all sorts of citizen video of this.
On the other hand there is the Rashomon effect. One thing a professional reporter knows that I'm not always sure that a person who isn't a reporter knows is that it is very easy to see part of an event and miss the more important part of an event, to see one thing when something else has happened. You have to be very aware of how complex most events are, and how narrow one's vision of most events are. And the police will tell you -- my father-in-law is a retired FBI agent -- and he will certainly tell you that there's nothing as unreliable as an eyewitness. You don't even have to go to the movies to see Rashomon. Just take any couple that you know that's been divorced and ask for his story of what happened, and then ask for her story of what happened.
(WATCH: O'Rourke on cell phones)
RFE/RL: And is that where you see the role of journalists coming in? We're faced with this infusion of content, this explosion of content, and do you see the journalist's role now more as someone who has to curate and filter that content and still do the very important job of making sure that content comes packaged to the audience in an objective way?
O'Rourke: We always had to do that. Maybe we have to do a little bit more of it quantitatively than we did before. But that was always the job of the experienced reporter. It really isn't any one person. It's the experienced news organization that filters this out. There's a reason those old movies about newspaper work [show] the reporter getting on the phone and saying "Give me rewrite!" Well, it's the rewrite man's job to take in the reports from anywhere from one to a dozen reporters and put this together in a story. Does this in any way make us some sort of Supreme Court judge of information and insure the accuracy of that information or the validity of that information? Alas, no. Mistakes can be made not only at a micro level but even worse mistakes can be made at a macro level.
The test of any news organization to me is not one given story but the way they deal with a variety of different stories over a long period of time, so then you establish a certain trust. I don't always agree with "The Economist," but I have a certain feeling of trust in "The Economist" because they feel that their mission is to deliver accurate information to businesspeople who are going to use this information. If the businesspeople find out the information is inaccurate they're going to quit taking "The Economist." So there is a positive value. A tabloid newspaper on the other hand, they want simply to attract readers. So accuracy of information does not have [a positive value]. Prince Charles, as it turns out, is not a space alien no matter what the girl on page three said. So it is our job to filter, organize, make sense of, edit all this information and now there is more information coming in. I think that the general fact of more information coming in is not a bad thing by any means. It's a positive good. But does it guarantee that the information coming in will necessarily be more accurate? Not perfectly sure on that.
RFE/RL: The big question now in journalism since everything's moved online concerns the future of newspapers, and in particular how to monetize online content. And we've seen Rupert Murdoch experimenting at the moment with putting up pay-walls, in particular with "The Times" in London. Do you think that's the way forward?
O'Rourke: I do think it's the way forward. Something that you get for free is usually worth exactly that. There is no way we can get decent journalism without somebody paying for it somewhere. If I have a gripe with the Internet, it isn't short attention spans, it isn't blogging, or it isn't ease of idiot communication. It would be that the initial effect of the Internet, probably because it has academic origins rather than economic origins, was to devalue content. And I mean that in a gross monetary sense. The idea was that information was suddenly free. Information is not free. You [always] pay a price for information. Sometimes the price is just paying attention or being careful. But usually there's a monetary price involved because it costs money to get people out there who know what they're doing and have reasonable judgment and knowledge and perspective and background, and you don't want it to be free. It's not going to be terribly expensive, it's probably going to be cheaper than what newspapers have come to cost. Of course advertising can pay for some of the content. I've got to say that advertising on the Internet is a whole lot more annoying than advertising in newspapers is. Or even in magazines with the exception of those ads that smell. I can't stand them.
RFE/RL: You said that information shouldn't be free. The problem is that now a lot of information is free. But also the people who are producing it are quite happy with it being free. And I'll just give you a real-world example. In this town I used to read the local restaurant reviews in the newspaper. Now there's a couple of food bloggers who blog for free and have great restaurant reviews. They don't want money for what they're doing. They're happy. It's what Clay Shirky described as the cognitive surplus, the idea that people are happy to spend their free time doing these things. So that makes it quite difficult to say that the information shouldn't be free, right?
O'Rourke: I take your point, and the fact that the Internet has made information less expensive is probably a good thing. And it probably doesn't matter whether something like restaurant blogs are free. But when it comes to the more important analytical side of news, where it is important say for instance for a news organization to have a team of experienced reporters in place with the background knowledge of the place they're in and contacts they've developed over time, you can't replace that with a random backpacker tweeting from Tajikistan.
RFE/RL: If you were teaching today at a journalism school in America, or anywhere around the world, what would your advice be to young journalists at the beginning of their career?
O'Rourke: Well I haven't taught at a school but I have taught classes, and actually I'm going to teach a couple of classes this fall. I'm going to two different schools in the United States to [hold] a kind of guest artist [position], an artist is overdoing it, but that's what they called me. I have pretty much the same advice to would-be journalists, which is: Please don't approach this as a calling, or even a profession. It's mainly a craft. The world of journalism came from lower-middle-class origins, educated lower-middle-class origins. If you were a working class or lower-middle-class kid -- even as late as [in] my era growing up in the 1950s -- and you liked to read and you didn't like to get up real early in the morning and lift heavy things, you basically had two choices. You could become a newspaper reporter or you could become a priest. You didn't go to "J School" to do this. H.L. Mencken, one of the greatest newspaper reporters who ever lived went straight from high school to become a reporter. You went and served an apprenticeship, starting maybe [as] a copy boy, or writing "deaths elsewhere," or covering the sewer commission. And you worked your way up to journeyman and eventually to some sort of master of the craft.
But you always knew that what you were doing was a trade, like brick-laying. And like brick-laying it's a very difficult trade at times. It takes skill. It takes experience. But your job was simply to be the public rubberneck. You were the person who was allowed inside the yellow police lines to look at the car wreck. Everybody wanted to know what happened in that car wreck and you were the person who was allowed inside the police lines and could come back out and say to the public: "That was a bad car wreck. Guy's head went right to the windshield. Always wear your seatbelts." The job wasn't to speak truth to power. Anybody can speak truth to power if they're far enough away from the power. I can sit right here and say anything I want about Robert Mugabe. Maybe [that wouldn't be] so easy if I were in Zimbabwe.
Too many people in journalism today are there on a world-saving mission. They should've joined the Peace Corps. At a formative age they saw "All the President's Men," and they saw Woodward and Bernstein bring down a wicked president of the United States and make democracy safe again in America. And they thought, "Boy, that's me! I'm going to do that and be played by Robert Redford." Somehow nobody ever saw themselves as being played by Dustin Hoffman. Dustin Hoffman looks much more like an actual newspaper reporter than Robert Redford does. But they're all going to be played by Robert Redford in the movie of how they saved democracy, and that's baloney. You're a paid rubbernecker. You are there as a surrogate for the public to see what's going on and if you're an honorable person you'll report this as accurately as you're able to. If you're a dishonorable person you can go to work for one of the tabloids or a cable TV station or something.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty © 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. All Rights Reserved.