Turning the Camera Around

Through an improbable chain of events, I had an opportunity as an undergraduate to work as a summer intern at the Los Angeles Times. It was a great, life-changing gig–I found that I both liked journalists a lot and yet did not really want to be a journalist.

I was working with the editorial writers, so I didn’t interact that often with the interns who were out working on stories. The Times brought us together for events now and again, though. So I remember talking to two guys about mid-summer who were also rethinking whether they wanted to continue in journalism, but for a different reason than me. They had been sent to help with the coverage of a mass murder in a San Diego McDonald’s. 21 people were dead, some children, and others wounded. They’d been asked to go out and try to speak with the relatives of some of the victims and to take pictures. Both of them questioned the necessity for doing so: the people who did agree to speak generally just repeated the same kinds of “coping cliches” as they grasped for something to say, some way to process it all. But the interns also recognized that this was part of journalism as it was practiced, that the Times couldn’t choose to not do it without pointedly dissenting from broadly-held professional norms at the time (and for that matter, audience expectations).

Revealing accounts of “how the sausage gets made” are available about the inner life and processes that connect to a wide variety of professions. When they come from outsiders who have infiltrated or examined the profession, these looks tend to either be sharply accusatory (think Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death) or affectionate and explanatory (think Mary Roach’s books). Or occasionally they’re participatory, in the style of George Plimpton. When it’s an insider’s account, it usually takes the form of a memoir, entangled in a specific career and its details.

There are certainly many memoirs by journalists. And a few notable outsider’s exposes or explorations of journalism or of specific forms of journalism like war reporting. A few series or films that follow a specific newsroom or set of reporters, most of which ultimately are complimentary to either the integrity of at least one character or to the overall work.

But reading Ryan Schuessler’s short explanation of why he wasn’t going to continue reporting on Ferguson for al-Jazeera America made me realize that we’ve only rarely had something that we very much need, that could quite easily be done: a brutally honest visual documentary of what media professionals in a media spectacle do. A camera trained on the cameras, a crew following the crews. Something that shows us what Schuessler describes: the cajoling, the orchestration, the pushing aside of the experiential reality of the story itself, the crassness, the management of “talent”. But also the political economy of spectacle: where professionals stay, what they consume, how they pay off sources or buy access.

The obvious reason not to do it, of course, is that anyone with ambitions as a journalist knows that this is a “you’ll never work in this town again” kind of move, that much of what a documentary of this kind would show would be seriously embarrassing or damaging to many professional reputations, whether or not it was intended to or consciously slanted in that direction.

I don’t often give money to a Kickstarter, but if Schuessler or someone like him wanted to tackle this subject–spend a year going around to scenes of media spectacle and frenzy and filming what that looks like, talking to crews and reporters about what they’re doing, staying to look at the aftermath when the journalists start to leave–I’d donate enthusiastically.

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