Reuters press critic Jack Shafer spoke to TPM recently about how he is “blessed with insomnia,” covering Rupert Murdoch and what he would do if he weren’t a journalist.How did you end up writing about media?
I was the editor of the Washington City Paper from 1985 to 1995. I tried to find somebody to write the media column for me, and I couldn’t get anybody to do it. Most people said, ‘Well, I don’t want to write critical stuff about The Washington Post. It’ll make it harder for me to get a job there.’ I never wanted a job at The Washington Post, and I thought, well, that qualifies me. My interests grew, of course.
Briefly describe your own media consumption.
I am blessed with insomnia. So I get up at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock, and read aggressively from my RSS reader and front pages of the Times and The Post and the Wall Street Journal, and scan Twitter … especially to see what the Brits are tweeting about. Once I get to work, the media consumption continues apace. I get to the hard copies of those three newspapers and the FT. I read all the usual suspects when it comes to magazines. I have two large monitors tempting me with all the goodies that can be found on the web all day long.
What are the media doing well right now? What are they doing poorly?
That’s a question that doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know what the media is. I don’t know how you can generalize like that, because I can’t.
What’s the biggest media story of 2012 so far?
Rupert Murdoch, simply because of the column inches that have been devoted to it. Murdoch is somebody who has a 50- or 60-year-long media imprint. Everything he’s ever done is remembered by somebody and therefore regurgitated, hopefully. Regurgitation can be a good thing, to provide context for his current crisis.
What’s Rupert Murdoch’s future?
I never predict. Whenever I predict, I’m wrong. But I would say, never underestimate Rupert Murdoch. He has a knack for escaping the hangman’s noose.
What in your opinion is the most under-covered story right now?
I don’t think there is such a thing as an undercovered story. If I knew about it, it would be almost by definition not undercovered. You could say anything … the comeback of the Detroit Lions. But then how would you prove it? How would you demonstrate it?
Are there any subjects you won’t criticize?
I don’t think so. I’ve never overdone it criticizing the organizations I work for. That’s too ombudsman-ish. If I wanted to write something critical about Slate, they could be persuaded to publish it. Reuters, they would probably publish it. I don’t think there’s anything off limits.
I think everybody’s up to conjecture. That’s what journalism is. It’s an inquiry into the world as it exists. If you learn or attain new knowledge and new interpretive framework, you have to be subject to correcting your own record. I wouldn’t say I’m malleable plastic. I’m obviously open to criticism and changing my mind. I read across the spectrum of political magazines, looking for new ideas and I’m interested in ideas I hold dear being challenged.
What’s your writing routine?
No daily writing routine. I have a great editor, James Ledbetter. Often when I don’t have a good idea, he will have a good idea. He’s splendid to work with. Readers are most interested in topics that are in the news. Topics are more likely to be popular if they’re topics in the news.
I like to tweet during the day and if readers respond well to one of them, it will make me think that there’s probably a whole column in it and I’ll commence to writing one based on it. I wouldn’t say there’s an average day.
For me, Murdoch has been a dream assignment. He provides endless fodder. He contradicts himself. He repeats himself. He stands at a sort of anti-heroic role in our culture. Heres a man who makes Richard III look like a nice guy, makes King Lear look like a reasonable father. He’s a delight to write about. We need more Murdochs, for my purposes.
How has it been transitioning to Reuters from Slate?
At Slate, they treated me like a prince. At Reuters, they treat me like a king. I was very happy to be at Slate for 15 years and Reuters where they want Jack Shafer to be Jack Shafer. I’m very, very happy here.
Who are people you admire doing good journalism?
That would be a huge list. And I think I do compliment people in my work. But that would be a gargantuan list and probably a pretty boring list. I think this is the golden age of journalism. If I were to single out a dozen people, I would have left out 11 dozen equally deserving of commendation. I wouldn’t go there. I have so much great admiration for so many different journalists. The trouble with lists and listicles is they limit our understanding of what’s good out there and what’s bad. So that’s like predictions, I’m afraid of lists.
Fill in the blank: Journalism is the (blank) job in the world.
If you weren’t a reporter, what would you do?
I’d be a house painter. I was good at it with a steady hand for window work. The hours are good, the pay not bad, and you can work outside most of the year. Plus, I like heights and the smell of oil-based paint.