Jeff Pearlman is a successful author who recently managed the impressive feat of writing an uninteresting book about Bo Jackson. Ruminating in an interview last month with Awful Announcing on what advice he'd give young journalists, Pearlman said, “The number one thing is, you have to make yourself indispensable; you just do." He went on:
[I]f you’re covering a team—let’s say you’re covering Wichita State basketball for some newspaper. Ask your bosses if it’s OK if you start a podcast too—a Wichita State sports podcast. Build up an amazing Instagram following, and start doing TikTok videos about Wichita State sports to the point where you’re known as the guy on TikTok for all things Wichita State. Find a million different ways; build up your Twitter following.
Pearlman was at least aware he was describing a lamentable reality ("I know it sucks," he said. "It’s hard. It’s brutal."), but the hell he caught for it was because he persisted in the jolly delusion that indispensability could be had in an industry getting stripped for parts. No one much liked that bit of "pull yourself up by the podcasts" respectability stuff, either.
A few days earlier, Paul Farhi, a Washington Post media reporter who retired at the start of the year, had weighed in on a related matter: the sudden resignation of Kevin Merida, the richly credentialed top editor at the Los Angeles Times. In The Wrap's telling, Merida's departure was precipitated by a through-the-looking-glass contretemps with the newspaper's owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, during which the billionaire showed himself to be less of a toady on the subject of Palestine than the star journalist. (On other issues, well, plutocrat gonna plutocrat.)
The dispute goes back to November, when a number of Los Angeles Times journalists signed the carefully framed open letter condemning both the violence against reporters in Gaza and the "dehumanizing rhetoric" of the Western news media. The former is a matter of record; so is the latter, at least by my lights, but even a staunch denier would have to concede that language surrounding war and racialization is subject to constant debate among reporters and editors. LAT journalists expressing professional concern about both the violence and the rhetoric were acting well within the established norms of journalism. Nevertheless, the paper, under Merida, responded by barring them from covering Gaza for three months, reminding the newsroom that a “fair-minded reader of the Times news coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the organization is promoting any agenda.” Per The Wrap, Soon-Shiong and his "activist daughter" Nika disagreed with the decision, though they did not make any demands to roll it back.
And here's where Farhi came in, the voice of the media establishment, here to assure everyone that the establishment was behaving properly.
“Kevin’s decision was conventional,” Farhi assured The Wrap, as if the very point of the letter hadn’t been to contest the conventions of journalism. “It just doesn’t comport with the views of a younger generation of journalists who feel they’re entitled to express their opinions.”
Those entitled kids. Tenured journalists tend to read the recent newsroom conflicts over coverage—whether it's Gaza or transgender identity or George Floyd—as generational disputes, a matter of overwoke millennials and zoomers failing to internalize the timeless doctrines of objective newsgathering. This confuses effects for causes. What Farhi perceives as entitlement has everything to do with the negative space of Pearlman's advice, the conditions whereby young journalists have little choice but to grind out four jobs at once, where reporters of Farhi's era were required to do only the one. The distinguishing characteristic of this "younger generation of journalists" is that it has borne the greatest burden of media's proletarianization, the deskilling and reskilling and multiskilling, all while—not coincidentally—fulfilling the industry's mandate to diversify its newsrooms.
Our two old media hands were in an obnoxious sort of dialogue with each other, Farhi gassy in his condescension, Pearlman glib in his complacency, both of them clueless about what was actually happening to the young people in their industry. Without realizing it, Farhi, with his sneery aspersion about entitlement, was describing the expressive dimension of a class war in journalism that Pearlman could only dimly discern.
Any heightening of class tensions in journalism will inevitably play out along the axis of journalism's "standards." This makes sense. The codes of the professional newsroom—which are more recent and historically contingent than journos like Farhi suppose—matter less and less to people who are being systematically deprofessionalized. Denied the perks that journalists won in exchange for their voice and point of view during the professionalizing drive of the last century, part of what Victor Pickard calls the media's "postwar settlement," many young journalists have come to see the codes themselves as a terrain of struggle. (What can “balance” mean, anyway, to a young Black reporter at the metro daily that has just published the headline "Buildings Matter, Too"? What does “objectivity” mean to a young trans reporter at the newspaper that has mounted a crusade on the premise that there are too many trans people in America?)
Call it antiprofessionalism, call it entitlement—it's the people at the bottom of a workplace, fighting to win some piece of it back.
"I freaking love this industry," Pearlman said, wrapping up his pep talk, "and I want it to continue, and I want to help you.” But who is being helped and what exactly is being continued when more young journalists are getting fed to the boiler? Perhaps sensing what sort of objections might arise, he pleaded, "I'm not trying to get into a war here." That was the problem. The war had already come to journalism, and he had no idea.