Vanity Fair critic and new blogger James Wolcott sinks his fangs into the plush hindquarters of Fox, CNN and the media elite.
The blogs terrorizing Dan Rather and CBS the past couple of weeks represent only a small part of the Internet media devoted to criticizing other media, particularly TV and print journalists. Whether they realize it or not, many of these armchair mediaphiles have been heavily influenced by James Wolcott, whose cultural criticism appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and Esquire before settling in Vanity Fair, where he is the culture critic. Well before all that, he had a memorable stint as TV critic for the Village Voice.
Wolcott’s cultural observations and deft vivisections are on fine display in his new book, “Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants,” in which he identifies the insidious form of agenda-driven conservative pundit that increasingly dominates the news business, mapping out their yapping universe. Nobody gets a pass; even seemingly minor players like Fox News contributor/columnist Cal Thomas, who “raised a dyed eyebrow at Howard Dean, a Congregationalist, for having a Jewish wife,” suffer from a sharp, swift yank of the leash.
Now Wolcott has joined the online masses, launching his own blog last month, which he updates daily on a range of topics, from “America’s Next Top Model” to the Republican Convention and CNN’s chronic inability to prove that Wolf Blitzer is real. (“After months of being buffeted by accusations and speculation, CNN subjected Blitzer to a series of forensic tests over the weekend and determined that his beard is a polyfiber synthetic and his lack of affect was attributable to a defective chip insecurely fitted into his fliptop head.”)
Salon recently sat down with Wolcott to discuss his blog, his book and the confusing state of the 21st century American media.
Is your blog connected to Vanity Fair?
Well, they helped set it up. I don’t know if we’re going to migrate it to the Vanity Fair site or if there will be a place you can link from the Vanity Fair site, sort of like what Kevin Drum does at the Washington Monthly. I guess they’re probably going to do it that way, but it’s sort of up in the air. I’m not sure. We thought, well, why don’t we get something started that can stand alone and then see what happens.
Many consider you the preeminent media critic in the country, and you certainly have one of the most influential audiences a writer could dream of, at Vanity Fair. But criticism has really taken off online, because of blogs, because of newspapers going online, and it all winds up on Romenesko. Now, that has a fraction of your Vanity Fair audience, and yet reaches a lot of the professionals and media machers who, conversely, may miss your column because it’s not online. Is the blog a way to reach that audience, the one that is most obsessed with the media?
Well, it probably will, although I didn’t think of it that way. It wasn’t intentional. It was more about what I’d be able to write about, the weird little subjects that I’d like to be able to ricochet off. I have a lot of interests that you can’t get into print, you know, just because they won’t sustain a 3,000-word piece. Now, of course, people say, you shouldn’t be bothering with that, you should be getting your major work done. But every writer knows the experience of — you do a big, long piece, you wait for some sort of feedback, and then [pause] the deafening silence that follows. Then other pieces, you get huge feedback on. The great thing about doing a blog is that the feedback is there, you know it immediately, you can almost measure it immediately.
Of course the temptation then is to find out ways that you can up the traffic. I’m not going to follow the Wonkette model …
No anal sex jokes?
I respect what she does, but I don’t need to work in those references.
But you’re also different because you’re an established writer, and most bloggers aren’t. In fact, a lot of blogs really posture on that point, about being on the outside.
A lot of it is the outsider thing. It depends on the blog. Some places have a fake populist thing. There was someone who got stuck recently — was it Douglas Rushkoff? He was complaining about blog ads, and he was saying something like, “In rave culture they didn’t have ads,” or something like that. I’ve seen a few bloggers and none of them look like ravers to me. If Josh Marshall wants to take out ads on his site, I don’t think you could say Josh Marshall betrayed the “rave culture.” I wouldn’t have blog ads on my site, but I don’t have any problems with that.
What I think is so fantastic [about blogs] is that there is so much more talent and braininess out in the country than you would know from just reading magazines. Frankly, if you go to a newsstand and read most magazines you’re reading the same damn people that you’ve read for 20 years.
And they tend to live within 10 blocks of each other.
Ten blocks of each other! And they’ve all worked in the same jobs. Or they all went to Harvard together. God, it’s like you could do a connecting map of Harvard — from the Washington Monthly to the New Republic to this to that …
You call it the Hair Club for Men in the book.
But hasn’t that clique taken the biggest hit from blogs? That whole Harvard Crimson-Washington Monthly-New Republic brain trust?
Yeah, I think it probably has. Although, see, they find their own way to keep it going. There is certainly a way that they all link to [New Republic alum and Slate blogger] Mickey Kaus. I love all the references to “my friend Mickey,” you know, “I have to agree with my friend Mickey.” But the great thing is, they carry, to me, no more sway in blogland than Atrios.
And we didn’t, until recently, even know who he was!
He does terrific stuff. He’s figured out a really smart way to do it. He doesn’t always tell you what he’s posting about. He’ll simply post a headline and it will say something like “Oh no, not this” and then you have to click and find out where it is. It’s a very clever thing where you don’t have to pontificate each time.
Have you received feedback on your blog from other bloggers?
I noticed, in looking at the track-back system, there was a lot of indignation that I put “Fahrenheit 9/11″ on my Hit Parade for movies. Michael Moore is the great divider in the blog world. I know, for example, that Jeff Jarvis, who was very generous in giving me technical advice, and announcing that I was doing a blog, he got a lot of flak from his readers. People saying things like, “I am hurt!” “I feel betrayed!”
And it overlapped with the sense of “Well, you Manhattan magazine types, you all cover for each other!” If people only knew — this doesn’t apply to Jeff Jarvis — how nervous and anxious people in the magazine world are these days. They’ve been nervous and anxious for three years now.
About the ad recession, about where magazines are going, about how formulaic magazines are, that even if you get a good job at a lot of magazines you’re just doing junk. The days of triumphalism, when there were big magazine parties with lots of money being thrown around, those days are gone.
This is a different medium for you — who is the inspiration?
There is a model I had in mind, but I can’t follow it, because it would be libelous. One of my favorite writers in the whole world is Auberon Waugh; he did a diary in Private Eye, which was a mixture of things that really happened, and utterly scandalous, malicious remarks he made about people. For example, he would call Prince Charles “Prince Batty” and say things like, “I loathe him getting his clammy fangs into this delicious Princess Diana.” He would write these really funny things, make up going to lunch with the queen, going to lunch with this writer or that writer. In the book form of the Private Eye diary there would be hilarious footnotes where the editor pretends to correct all these things. And I thought, that’s a conversational way of doing it. But then I realized, no, I couldn’t keep up a diary, it would just be too much work, I’d have to be filing two or three times a day. I want to hit a conversational, offhand but slightly absurdist tone.
I did a thing, which people took seriously, on the Kitty Kelley book, in which I talked about Laura Bush chain-smoking Kools, and wondering why the ranch staff didn’t have any “strapping bucks” like they did in the movie “Mandingo.” But I saw people citing this and being indignant, “I don’t see why people on the left sink to the same level and libel people on the right.” And others saying, “It was a joke!” That was a very Auberon Waugh thing to do.
How much of the blog will be devoted to media criticism?
I’ll be doing a lot of it on the fly, just as things happen. I just have to figure out how. I don’t want to overlap with what a lot of other people have said. But I do feel like one of the things that has to be ongoing is the deterioration of CNN. What in the world is going on there? I can’t even tell anymore if it’s malice or just ineptitude.
In your chapter on Fox News, you have a kind of grudging admiration for them, that there’s a little more energy in what they do, whether it’s propaganda or not.
I actually thought Fox did a better job of covering the Democratic Convention than CNN did. In many ways, they struck me as being more fair than CNN was. CNN would give you a speech then cut to [GOP chairman] Ed Gillespie, who’d criticize it. The worst was that band of schoolmarms they have at CNN who are their pundits. After Al Sharpton made his speech — a very lively speech, got the audience worked up — they cut to the panel and the first thing they said was, “Well, the speech went 18 minutes over, and this pushes the event back, and I’m not sure if the Democrats are going to be happy with that.” I was like, “Are you guys just standing there with a stopwatch? He got the crowd worked up!” Before, they were claiming that it was “too boring.” They’re doing that nickeling, petty sort of thing.
Fox did less of that in the Democratic Convention. I think they enjoy it when someone like Al Sharpton cuts loose. It’s good TV. At CNN, they’re acting like there’s a hall monitor. “Please don’t run in the hall. Please! No! Everyone needs to walk the same pace.”
What is the biggest problem with CNN right now?
There’s no one in charge, and I don’t think they know what they want to do. I mean, with Fox, you know Roger Ailes is running it, his whip crack can be heard. With CNN, I don’t think they know whether they should be imitating Fox, trying to be more authoritative, or what. Everybody on CNN is overexposed. It seems like you get Wolf Blitzer and Judy Woodruff 20 hours a day. And Larry King. I do like the fact that Larry King doesn’t seem to fit in any known universe. It’s like, you’ve got news, news, and then “Larry King talks to psychics! Ask your dead relatives a question! Tonight!”
Well, he clearly has an audience. A much older audience …
A classic Larry King show: “Remembering Liberace”!
But as big an audience as he has, it’s not as big as Fox’s, usually. Is CNN just content that Larry’s audience is big enough?
I think they are. The thing about Larry King is that at least he doesn’t do the harm that Judy Woodruff and the rest of them do. And the “Capitol Gang”! God Almighty, if we could exile them to an island, maybe they would cannibalize each other. During the Republican Convention, I saw them all responding to a Schwarzenegger speech, and all of them went on about how wonderful Schwarzenegger’s speech was! I was like, you people went to college, presumably you’ve studied great speeches in the past, you know something about democracy, and this pathetic litany of Chamber of Commerce clichés — just because they’re done with an accent — and pathetic things like the “girly man” comment.
And for me, the big question with CNN is, what is Bob Novak still doing on the air? I honestly do not understand how Bob Novak, with all the slimy stuff he’s done over the years, is still not only on the air with CNN, but one of their main players. I think it’s an inside Washington thing. It’s an elite thing, he’s been there forever. They all take each other for granted. They don’t see how corrupted they’ve become. And how sleazy things are. To have Novak sitting on “Crossfire” when they’re actually discussing the Valerie Plame case!
In the book, you differentiate attack poodles from pundits who are partisan but fair, and who will admit when they’re wrong. Are there any like that still working regularly?
I’m beginning to wonder. The recent Swift boat thing made me think there aren’t any.
People love to talk about Michael Kinsley and William F. Buckley, about “Firing Line” being kind of the last time that it was a civil affair …
Yeah, that was a different time. Look at what a pathetic old coot William Buckley has become. He made a very lame statement about Iraq, but when I saw him recently, promoting his new book, the main thing he wanted to come out for was the family marriage amendment. Oh, man! You’ve lived your life, you’ve learned all you’ve learned, you’ve met all these people — and this is what you want to come out for? This is your last hurrah?
Something that really struck me: The people I would have thought were a little more classy, a little more moderate in the conservative ranks, they jumped on and defended [the Swift Boat ads]: George Will, Bill Kristol. Now that may be a sign of how desperate they are for Bush to win. In the past, the classier conservatives would have disassociated themselves from that sort of thing. Also, the more serious conservatives would have taken a step back and said, Well, what is going on in Iraq? How wrong did we get it?
The right is incredibly disciplined in having everyone close ranks and stay on message.
I think part of it is that the left doesn’t have the proper infrastructure of opinion that the right has. Like with the Swift Boat thing, it bubbles up. First you’ve got the ads, then the pictures get leaked to Drudge, then talk radio starts talking it up, then it moves into Fox, then the other people in news outlets feel that they’ve got to cover it. I think the left is beginning to put that infrastructure together. Through the blogs, through Air America. They’re beginning to make more of a link-up.
There’s a kind of a freaky admiration that media biggies have for the right wing; they sort of admire the nastiness. They consider people on the left wimpy. And even though Democratic senators have actually served in uniform, the swagger is on the right. A lot of this is masculine mode. If you look at the way Chris Matthews talks about certain people, he gets turned on by a certain kind of machismo in politicians. It could be a totally false machismo, but that is often what people get turned on by.
Also, one of the things they like to do with liberals is call them whiny. They like to portray them, in effect, as women. There’s a lot of sexism involved, not to mention there is also a tremendous amount of racism. That’s where I think the liberal, the neoliberal press needs to do some real examination.
Can you give an example of racism?
The way they talk about Al Sharpton. They write about him in a dismissive way. They never write about racial issues. You go through those neoliberal writers who came up through the New Republic — racial issues have never really been much of an issue for them, and women’s issues have never really been much of an issue for them. There’s a real white-guy solidarity. I believe people think that he’s nuts, but I think Norman Mailer was right when he said that the kind of wars we’re having now are the last stand of the white male ego. There is a lot invested in that white male ego. Even in the media, even people who don’t like politics, they somehow feel that, “Well, Bush embodies that better than these liberals with their flip-flopping and their equivocations and their nuances.” You’ve got people who went to Harvard and Yale who sneer at nuances, and at being articulate!
Who would you identify as the worst attack poodle?
I can’t pick one. For a certain type of pious smarminess, you can’t do better than David Frum, because he pretends to care. I think that if I were going to do an updated book, I’d do a whole section on Michelle Malkin, who I think is one of the nastiest pieces of work around. That is a classic case of the attack poodle machinery at work. She brings out this book, it starts to get talked about on the Internet, talk radio, then she’s on all the shows.
She seems completely manufactured.
Completely manufactured! There are all these people writing all these very good critiques of her history, in terms of internment of the Japanese, and how she got the history wrong. And I’m sure she did. But to me that’s not the real purpose of the book. One of the things I always do with the attack poodles is, I ask myself, why are they doing this now? Why this, why now? One of the things she’s doing with the internment is she’s laying the groundwork for all sorts of ethnic considerations and profiling. That’s part of what she’s doing, because if you justify the Japanese internment, you can then justify the internment of other people. If you look at her other writing, she is big on racial profiling.
So how do you think it works? Do you think that Michelle Malkin is smart enough to know that she’s laying a groundwork, or do you think someone’s coaching her?
They don’t necessarily need the coaching. You see that with people who follow a guru, the guru teaches up to a point, but then at a certain point the guru doesn’t have to say anymore because they know.
I don’t want to make it sound as if they’re all simply assigned hit men, because a lot of them just are into their shameless careers. One of the things you find out about people is that there is a real addiction to being on TV. And once people start appearing on TV, they can’t bear not appearing on TV. If you get to a certain point, the car will pick you up, take you to the studio, you go in, do your bit, the car brings you home. If you watch cable news on cable TV, you see the same people, sometimes the same person on two different networks the same night. That car service is really working overtime.
A lot of what these people do for projects, is simply another way of getting a round of TV appearances. Like Ann Coulter has a book coming out — it’s about something like, “How to Talk to Liberals, if You Must” or something like that, and I thought, that’s real desperation, that’s sort of when you really run out of topics.
You end the book prescribing more “wolfhounds” on the left to maul the attack poodles on the right. It’s a sort of grim solution, fighting one form of attack artist with another. Is it the only way?
Frankly, I think it is. I don’t think there are any grown-ups anymore. I think the adults have left the building. I think it’s the only way. When I look at the Swift boat saga, it shows you that the media is too slow in unraveling the lies.
Do you have a favorite wolfhound?
I think Paul Krugman has just been heroic, particularly because Paul Krugman was very much alone. This is interesting because it shows me part of the media phenomenon of today: Krugman was not only being attacked by conservatives, by people who like Bush, but he’s getting ripped regularly by people who are considered more liberal. “Oh here’s Paul Krugman again, being shrill … ” Krugman’s really off on his own.
Even ones I think do get good at it, like Paul Begala and James Carville, they do become caricatures of themselves. That whole show is just a caricature. I love Carville. For me, one of the great moments was when Carville went on “Meet the Press” and said he was gonna take on Ken Starr. When you look back on that, again, nobody else was doing it. Ken Starr was really being able to run amok. For me, that was a real wolfhound moment, Carville saying,”I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna get this guy!”
I wouldn’t call him a wolfhound, but I will tell you who I think is great, just because of the way that he thinks and his skepticism, is Keith Olbermann. I think he is one of the best. He does not run with any pack. He clearly thinks for himself. Chris Matthews has had some great moments recently with the Swift Boat Veterans and with Michelle Malkin, but he gets so excitable you never know what he’s gonna do.
Slate ran a piece recently about the cult of A.J. Liebling, and the frequent obsession over who his successor is as Great American Press Critic. You’re frequently mentioned. But why is there that obsession? Is there a great need for press criticism today?
There’s always a nostalgia for the “where are the so and so’s of today?” Every once in a while I even repeat that. “Where are the Lester Bangs of today? Where are the Pauline Kaels of today?” What people don’t realize is that the people who are sitting down and writing are bringing it from their lives. Pauline wasn’t really getting published big time until her late 40s. She was a child of the Depression, she came out of a whole different world. Pauline I knew very well. I mean she was incredibly sweet, incredibly smart, but she had a toughness to her that, frankly, all the women writers I know today, all the feminists, Pauline could just run roughshod over them. Because she came out of a different generation that had it very, very tough.
The writers who really had more to do with influencing me were not Mencken or Liebling, although I respect them, but from the ranks that I like to call Jewish hipsters: Albert Goldman, who I was friends with, Pauline — she had a sort of Jewish hipster side — Marvin Mudrick. These are the guys whose style and swagger on the page I really liked. I can’t pretend to do Jewish hipster, but they had a lot more to do with my style than this notion of Liebling and Mencken and these other people. Marvin Mudrick said, “If I don’t entertain the reader, I’ve failed.” And that doesn’t mean you do setup jokes — “I want to make people laugh.” The humor has to come from the energy you bring to the page.
What about your peers who you think are really good? Culture critics?
There really aren’t that many. William Logan does wonderful stuff in the New Criterion for poetry. But there really aren’t that many that I get excited about the way I used to. There are a lot of bloggers I like, but not so much because of what they do with media criticism. It’s a very strange time now. No film critics have the power that Pauline Kael did. If you asked people to name a theater critic they draw a blank. The loneliness writers feel now — a lot of writers feel like they’re on their own. So much of the great work has been done and we don’t know what’s coming next. There’s a sense of real isolation.
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