Malcolm Gladwell Laughs At Journalism
Before we start this, for the record, we like Malcolm Gladwell. His books and articles are always interesting. When he met him at the Moth Gala last year, he recommended a book to us and pointing out a bug scampering on the floor, which for the sake of symbolism, might as well have been a moth.
At the event, Gladwell told a story about his mischievous days at the Washington Post, which was used on a recent episode of This American Life. While he was at the Post, as Gladwell puts it, he had a ???Jayson Blair moment,??? when he realized mistakes he put in the paper could have a major impact on the world. He went on to goad the National AIDS Conference to hold their annual meeting in Sydney, Australia because he hadn???t been there before.
Still bored, Gladwell and another employee held contests to put ridiculous expressions into the paper. There???s nothing wrong with having a predilection for a phrase; we end up using ???self-hating??? far more often than necessary. But Gladwell and his colleague wrote up stories that lacked news value to use the phrases ???raises new and troubling questions??? and ???perverse and often baffling.???
Gladwell???s story is funny enough to for listeners to forget that he wasn???t pulling pranks on the high school principal. He was pulling pranks on the Washington Post and their readers. Call us a curmudgeon, but that???s not so funny.
At the end of the Gladwell???s segment, Ira Glass, offhandedly tells listeners:
By the way, if there???s any ambiguity in here at all, young journalists, please note: putting false information into the newspaper is wrong.
But of course there is ambiguity in that story. After Gladwell gets the phrase ???perverse and often babbling??? onto the front page of the Washington Post, he announces, ???All those doubts about journalism melt away. And I say, ???This thing called newspaper writing, I can do that.??????
This story wouldn???t be humorous if Gladwell weren???t a great journalist today. But the fact that making a mockery out of a national newspaper inspires him to go on become to one is troubling. In fact, as Gladwell would put it, it???s perverse and often baffling.
I had the same sort of reaction. He cheated his and the paper's readers and what's more, showed an inherent disrespect for the language. The more I think about it, the more cheated I feel. (Having read one of his books.) So those books of his, were they just another cute way to get another phrase into the general lexicon? Or does he really have something to say? How will we ever know now?
Guys - The stories told at the Moth Gala aren't necessarily true . . .
Malcolm says himself…
As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.
Once again, the joke's on you.