Further to the Washington Post’s Bitchgate: Alastair Cooke is Spinning in His Grave
One of the most depressing things about (a) being a certain age and (b) watching what passes for elite journalism these days is the memory of what was.
Not what might have been — though I’ve occasionally pined for mythical glories of the days when giants walked the earth and E. R. Murrow swept all before him (before being rudely dealt with in the way that media proprietors have always dealt with the help that gets above themselves). But rather what was, in the specific context of Dana Milbank’s and Chris Cilizza’s now notorious beer sketch.
All the stuff people are saying about it is true: it’s sexist; it’s moronic on its own terms (seriously — this is the kind of stuff that hits the floor at high school humor mags); it’s poorly produced (guys, there’s this thing called lighting…and you might want to think about the framing from cut to cut before abusing your viewers with serial close ups of two such unappetizing faces….); and worst of all — for Milbank and Cilizza — it is such a brutally sharp spotlight on the qualities of their own minds.
That is: You would have to have a supreme sense of your own perfection to think that such an amateurish and painfully unwatchable piece of dreck should see the light of day. Even if you think calling the Secretary of State a “mad bitch” is acceptable (or wise, given that journalists do not usually profit from so publicly slagging powerful sources) there was nothing about the video that approached the level of competence either in video craft or that dreadfully difficult business of comedy.
But what got my goat, old bat that I am (mixed metaphor alert –zoology division–ed.) is the shame Cilizza and Milbank bring on themselves by the implicit comparison they make between themselves and the late, truly great Alistair Cooke.
Cooke for most Americans of a post WW II/post Bobby Kennedy age was simply the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, the program being parodied, down to a reworked version of the music and opening pan in Milbank and Cilizza’s pathetic “Mouthpiece Theater.”
In that program, Cooke played a part: the epitome of of upper-crust British taste and elegance, the bearer of civilization to the hungry-for-cultured entertainment. And he did so with such perfection that he received the true accolade — a magnificent parody by the good folks on Sesame St., where his alter ego, Alistair Cookie, could be found introducing quite intriguing versions of some familiar classics.
(Note to Milbank and Cilizza — when the Cookie Monster eats your lunch, you know you have massive fail.)
But, as any of my mother’s generation knew, Alistair Cooke was a real journalist, with one of the great careers in cultural and news reporting ever achieved. Click the Wikipedia link above for the details, but this is the guy who interpreted America for the Brits and Britain for the Americans in Letters to each — the American version of which he wrote and broadcast for fifty-eight years and almost 3,000 episodes. He was foreign correspondent for The (Manchester) Guardian for 25 years, and performed the same service for The Times of London as well. He was within a few feet of Bobby Kennedy when he was shot. He became an American citizen six days before Pearl Harbor, and then promptly turned around and over the next two years toured the American countryside, producing the only major journalistic account of the American home front from that period.
He worked his craft, he made every public performance look effortless — the product of who-knows-how much sweat and thought out of sight of the microphones — and he was never, ever, careless rude or publicly boorish.
The thought of Cilizza and Milbank pirating Cooke’s mantle as an interpreter of our times simply stinks — especially coming from two whose failure as real reporters during the Bush years and whose desperate condescension to those trying to do real work now has had seemingly no consequences,
One last note: they will say, I’m sure, that they were merely telling funnies, and that everyone should be able to tell the difference between parody and what they really think. To that I say that the grim secret of comedy is that it holds up what the comic and the audience that laughs recognizes as unspeakably true — unless wrapped in a joke.*
When your audience doesn’t laugh, all you are left with is the horrible fact of your own miserable reality. Live in it, boys, but don’t come bugging me no more.
Oh, and just to complete the necessary formalities…this is another in a seemingly endless series of posts echoing the DeLong question: why oh why can’t we have a better press corps/Washington Post Crashed and Burned dept.
*see, for a less than life and death example, this clip for which I am always looking for an excuse to post: