Thursday, January 8, 2009

Joe the Reporter

Fresh off his book deal, Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher is now heading to Israel as a correspondent for PajamasTV.

The book deal, as I'm sure you remember, was greeted by howls of protest from "real" writers everywhere. Who was this man who thought that he could actually write something, or might have something even remotely interesting to say? Where did he get his degree in writing? And on what awful things might he spend his advance that should have gone to other, more deserving authors?

Watching so many self-proclaimed smart, savvy, and experienced writers be so unaware that Joe would have a smart, savvy, and experienced editor and, most likely, co-author was rather delicious. And much the same thing is happening now, too. Only this time, the "real" reporters are unleashing their objectivity in a hailstorm of journalistic integrity. For my money, though, no one has been more unintentionally hilarious—or shown more obliviousness to irony—than Kyra Phillips of CNN:

Hey, Joe, what do you know? No, seriously, what do you know? Since that whole plumbing thing didn't work out, I mean. Now, Joe Wurzelbacher is decamping to the Middle East. That's right, the plumber slash author slash singer.

His latest career gambit? War correspondent. He's going spend ten days in Israel reporting for the conservative Web site And he says he hopes to air Israelis' views on the Gaza offensive. Lord, help us.
Lord, help us indeed.

Lord, help us with the network that intentionally held back on reporting the full extent of the "awful things" that were taking place in Saddam's Iraq. Lord, help us with the network that aired reporter Nic Robertson's stage-managed tour of the damage to supposedly civilian targets from Israeli bombs in Lebanon back in 2006 without a single disclaimer that Hezbollah terrorists were controlling everything that he saw and was not allowed to see. And don't even get me started on a network that hires an anchor who refers on air to the children of North African immigrants in France as "African-Americans."

CNN mocking the as-yet-untested journalistic skills of Joe the Plumber? "Pot, Kettle, African American" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Just in case anyone might still be willing to give Joe a chance, however, Kyra continues:
Just want to remind you that Joe the Plumber has no journalism experience. No war zone experience either. But he thinks he's, quote, "pretty well protected by God."
You said it, Kyra: "Lord, help us" with people who think they're "pretty well protected by God."

Here's what Joe actually said:
I'm a Christian. I'm pretty well protected by God, I believe. That's not saying that he's going to, you know, stop a mortar for me.
And here, from what Kyra said, I had the impression of someone fanatical enough in his religious faith to go into a war zone expecting God to, you know, stop a mortar for him. But that must be my own misunderstanding. Because experienced, "real" journalists like Kyra Phillips and CNN never quote someone out of context. That sort of thing just isn't done.

Of course, "real" journalists and journalistic enterprises would never claim that a picture of a helicopter is actually a picture of a jet, either. After all, even if a reporter somehow made this mistake, the mainstream media have layers of experienced editors and ruthless fact-checkers. Or so we're told.

Maybe Kyra Phillips and the rest are actually worried that rather than just being bad, Joe might not be a "responsible" reporter. Something like what Noah Pollack over at contentions touched on a few days ago:
Allow me to propose a metric for evaluating whether a journalist is behaving responsibly or not: If he reports that Israel bombed a UN school and killed 30 civilians, he is irresponsible. If he reports that Hamas used a UN school as a weapons cache and base of operations for launching mortars at the IDF, and the IDF’s return fire killed the Hamas cell along, tragically, with a yet-unspecified number of civilians, then he is behaving responsibly. If he wishes to be particularly scrupulous, he might additionally note that Hamas had rigged the school with explosives which detonated after the IDF took out the mortar team, killing a large additional number of civilians.
You know, the kind of detailed, responsible reporting all the major media outlets worldwide have been giving us regularly since the Gaza fighting began.

I have the feeling Joe Wurzelbacher understands what Noah Pollack is getting at, even if he might not be able to say it as elegantly or concisely. And if he ever gets an interview with a dictator and sponsor of terrorism like, say, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, I also have the feeling "Joe the Reporter" won't waste a single moment of it asking which songs are on Bashar's iPod, like "real" reporter Diane Sawyer did.

Or maybe he will. Joe might turn out to be a pretty lousy reporter. And if he fails, then he fails, and no one will need the journalistic establishment to clue us in on that fact. It should be pretty obvious to one and all. But let the man do some actual reporting before you write him off. At least for myself, I've spent too many years watching too many "real" reporters never ask even the most basic, obvious questions—like the one "Joe the Plumber" asked Barack Obama during the presidential campaign. In one question, he got an answer out of Obama that gave me as much if not more insight regarding that particular candidate than any of the official debates or interviews with the professional media. You may or may not have liked Barack Obama's answer, or Joe Wurzelbacher personally, or the media circus that ensued. You may even think PajamasTV hired Joe for the publicity as much as for anything else. I certainly do, but then, it's not as if the CBS Evening News hired Katie Couric because they were convinced she was a gifted hard-news reporter who would also keep their ratings low. And none of this changes the fact that Joe did something far too many "real" reporters had little interest in doing—asking a question that would make Barack Obama uncomfortable.

And the "real" reporters sit there and wonder why so many of us are willing to give someone like Joe a chance.


UPDATE II: CNN stands behind the video. Ed Morrissey isn't buying it.

UPDATE III: France 2 television gets a reminder about how journalists "must be very attentive on verifying sources."

UPDATE IV: Eric Trager makes a serious argument against Joe the Reporter, and Jeffrey Goldberg has his own "helicopter vs. airplane" story.