(Another classic from the mcarp archives… the prophetic genius and brilliance are his;
the ones/zeros, pixels, pictures and subheads and pull-quotes are mine.)
The ordinary viewer is just so… ordinary.
“You know what your problem is?” My news director was putting the question to me â€” not in an accusatory or critical tone, but with the demeanor of a doctor telling his patient he has a terminal illness. “You haveÂ no style and no class.”
That was actually part of an employee evaluation I was given. (And here’s a bit of free career advice: if, during your first evaluation, you’re given an assessment like that, don’t think things will get better if you just hang around another 17 years.)
When I was recruited for my first TV news job, just five years earlier, I had gone to work in a newsroom full of people from working class families just like mine. Some were liberal and some were conservative, some Protestant, some Catholic, some Jewish.
But no one was there with the sense that the circumstances of their birth, or the fact that they were on TV, entitled them to some special place in the social order.
But five years later, Ronald Reagan was president, and the Ewings ofÂ Dallas were America’s TV family. And the term “working class,” at least in my profession, had become pejorative.
And although it is no longer my profession, the profession’s attitude seems the same.
Before Joe the Plumber
Have you ever heard of “Joe Sixpack?” He’s the ‘typical viewer’ for whom television news managers program their product. He is, by most accounts, an overweight, undershirt-wearing, lowlife who plops down in his ratty, squeaky, vinyl-upholstered easy chair at six pm, rips a Bud out of the plastic six-pack ring, and props his feet up for the news. Every morning, in newsrooms across the nation, executives and producers meet and talk about what Joe Sixpack will want to see on the news that evening.
Want to see a picture of him? Go look in the mirror. Because, unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, stock broker, or someone similarly situated,Â you are Joe Sixpack.
TV news personalities, in their need to separate those with “style and class” from those without it, have informally divided their public into two groups. The first group consists of the aforementioned doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, plus a few charismatic politicians â€” and, of course, TV news personalities.
The other group is ‘trailer park trash,’ consisting of everyone else.
But the grim reality for these provincial news celebrities is this: the affluent, fashionable folk with whom they want to associate, and be associated,Â don’t watch television news.They’re all tuned to the Discovery Channel, orÂ Crossfire. The local TV news constituency is the very mechanics, convenience store clerks, letter carriers, plumbers, insurance salesmen, and the like whom one of my coworkers once dismissed with a single word, or rather, sound effect: “Ew.”
For the TV news reporter, the quandary is this: how to produce a news product for the mass of citizens who actually watch the newscast, and buy the products advertised â€” while simultaneously nudging the rich and trendy with a wink and a smile, as if to say, “Don’t pay any attention toÂ that. Really, we’re just likeÂ you.”
One afternoon at an upscale shopping mall in the city where I lived, two gang members got into some kind of friendly scuffle outside the Swiss Army shop, and one of them accidentally shot the other in the butt with a small handgun.
We didn’t make any bones about it in our live coverage: the story was not that a black teenager had been shot. The story was that a lot of upscale white bystanders, whom our anchor described as being from the city’s ‘select neighborhoods,’Â could have been shot.
Years later, weÂ interrupted programming to report on a shooting in a similarly exclusive mall â€”Â 250 miles away. One indignant caller demanded to know why we thought anyone in our audience cared what happened in the Dallas Galleria. One news executive shrugged and said, “EveryoneÂ I know shops there.”
You Might Be Surprised…
A pipe bomb exploded one evening in a suburban, semi-rural community east of the city. The teenager who had assembled it was seriously hurt. Our reporter on the scene â€” born and raised in one of those ‘select neighborhoods’ â€” began her live report by saying, “You know, you might be surprised. There are actually some pretty nice homes out here.”
In fact, though, TV reporters generallyÂ aren’t like the affluent upper classes from whom they seek acceptance. They may have been raised in those kinds of homes, but in the competitive, cost-conscious world of modern TV news, they’re paid far less than they would be making if they’d actuallyÂ become doctors, lawyers, or stock brokers.
So, they try to make up for it by just toadying and name-dropping (“Omigawd! Do you haveÂ any idea how hard it is to get a Rolex repaired in this city?”), and leveraging their tenuous status as celebrities for the chance to stand on the fringe of sophisticated society. They’d rather be the lapdog of the establishment than the watchdog.
But frankly, the glamour of exclaiming “Just take a look!” in front of a nightly procession of car wrecks, house fires, and drive-by shootings is often lost on people who have spent ten hours performing open heart surgery, or made new case law, or gotten in on the ground floor of an IPO that tripled in value in eight hours.
Life Without Apology
The guy who first tagged me with the ‘no style and no class’ criticism eventually got fired.Â His boss â€” chief enforcer of what the company described as the ‘aura of affluence’ â€” was escorted from the building under armed guard one day, along with most of his family, while auditors pored over the fat leaseback deals and inflated expense reports he’d written for himself at the owner’s expense. That’s how he’d gottenÂ his ‘aura of affluence.’
I’m more than two years out of the business myself, now. I decided to go do something else for a living â€” something that didn’t require me to start every day by apologizing for having ‘no style and no class.’
I’m not dramatically wealthier than I was, but getting off the ‘best car/best restaurants/best neighborhoods’ merry-go-round left me financially more independent than I ever was as a reporter.
But there’s another kind of independence that’s even more valuable. That’s the freedom to be your own person, choose your own friends, form your own values, and not portray a semifictional character created by a boss, or a consultant, or your coworkers â€” or even by yourself â€” to please someone else.
(originally published by Michael Carpenter, republished with permission.)