March 17, 2010

What Journalists Should Learn From the Paparazzi

It took me years of searching, but I think I finally found the aggressive, audacious, uncompromising media our democracy needs.

While channel-surfing the other day, I came across a fresh-faced, young reporter for a cable network aggressively following an important person around an airport and refusing to let up with his questions. The unwilling interviewee grew angry, suddenly snapping and shouting at the reporter to leave him alone.

“Do you think you’re immune to questions?” the reporter shouted back repeatedly.
I was speechless. “Do you think you’re immune to questions?” It was perfect—such a simple and powerful question.

This would have been the most hopeful piece of journalism I had seen in years if it weren’t for one small detail: This was not a journalist from CNN or Fox or MSNBC. In fact, this wasn’t even a journalist at all. And the important person? No, he wasn’t a politician or a Wall Street CEO or a government official.

The exchange was between an E! network reporter and a Hollywood celebrity.
And that’s when it clicked. Could the news media learn something from the paparazzi?

The paparazzi paradigm shift

Sounds ridiculous, right? But hear me out. Just a few seconds after I watched this exchange, my channel surfing landed me on C-SPAN, where I watched members of the press pool ask lame questions about President Obama’s smoking habits instead of probing ones about healthcare legislation.

I started to imagine that paparazzi reporter in the press pool, doggedly pursuing a line of questioning and refusing to take “no comment” for an answer. In an age of woefully tame media, old D.C. journos could learn a thing or two from reporters traditionally considered at the bottom of the news industry’s barrel. Imagine if Washington journalists were as aggressive and relentless as a paparazzo desperately trying to get a Brangelina quote. Imagine if the media demanded real answers from the Wall Street investment firms who tanked the economy, got a taxpayer bailout and then paid out exorbitant bonuses to executives.

If aggressive, unremitting paparazzi reporters were on Capitol Hill and Wall Street to hound our lawmakers and CEOs, we might finally get some answers—and persuade them to actually work in the public’s interest. Picture the paparazzi crushing our flabbergasted elected officials with cameras and questions as they leave closed-door meetings, asking over and over, “Who was in the room? What was said?”
The mortgage crisis might not seem as sexy as the sordid love life of the Twilight casts, but with continually aggressive questioning of the bankers, policymakers and lobbyists who wield so much power, we might actually avoid future financial disasters, foreign wars and corrupt elections.

Media twilight zone

The news media should collectively be a watchdog for the public interest, but they seem to have lost their bite. Has it really gotten so bad that I’m left wishing that Los Angeles’ finest trash-talking shutterbugs were on Capitol Hill?

It’s starting to feel like we’re stuck in the Media Twilight Zone. Mainstream media are increasingly using cost-cutting measures like slashing jobs and reorienting their newsroom staff to cover the kind of “soft” and cheap-to-produce entertainment and gossip stories that the paparazzi specialize in. Today it seems that journalists aren’t celebrated for publishing a hard-hitting story—they’re celebrated just for asking a few hard-hitting questions. In other words, we have come to expect journalism that doesn’t actually challenge those in power. When journalists actually do, we start handing out awards. But asking hard questions shouldn’t be an award-winning feat: it should be the norm.

But it’s no use to blame the journalists. Consolidated media has meant only a certain kind of journalist makes it to the top and gets press credentials: the type who ask softball questions that politicians can hit with their eyes closed – and that don’t compromise the media companies’ own interests. I’m ready for a new media era where reporters have bosses who actually want them to get the story, and where the news isn’t run like a corporation, by and for corporations.

What I want will take big structural changes – the kind that will put reporters back to work, pump more money into our public media system to pay for journalism and ensure that those who ask the tough questions aren’t denied the benefits of an open Internet.

Still, with CNN’s homepage regularly plastered with celebrity “news”—will the Tiger Woods saga ever end?—it doesn’t seem unfair to ask journalists to learn a basic lesson from the paparazzi: Don’t take no for an answer.

This was first published by

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