Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing in Coffee Houses

Years ago, I read David Mamet's Writing in Restaurants and it had a profound impact on me. But the title of this blog is not autobiographical. Yes, I occasionally match laptop to latte and answer a few emails or surf the web while enjoying the coffee house view. But I write in the solitary confides of my home office, where real objective commentary can take place.

As Mamet said, the restaurant writer can be "both observed and unobserved" - at once an actor in the scene and its audience. But even if the writer goes truly unobserved, it "affects not a jot the scourge of popular opinion on his overactive mind." In that sense, the title "Writing in Coffee Houses" is a metaphor for our present media culture, where newscasters cover stories while being inexorably entwined in them. Trying to be a referee while playing in the game.

Case in point: MSNBC's "Morning Joe," which is not only brought to you by Starbucks, the hosts sip from Starbucks cups during the newscast and joyously profess their addiction to it. The network apparently has no qualms about this shameless product placement and the potential conflict of interest.

But this morning that conflict morphed from theoretical to real. While reporting a news story on a new Temple University study that suggests caffeine does not "sober you up" when drunk and may even make matters worse by creating the illusion of sobriety (an ominous finding given the scourge of drunk driving), "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski hugged - yes, literally hugged - a bag of Starbucks coffee grinds emblazoned with the "Morning Joe" logo and did a pitch for it ("did you know you can get this in your local grocery store?") as she questioned the news story's accuracy and relevance. "I just drink it to get rid of the [alcohol-induced] headache," she protested - therein endorsing both the product and the exact destructive behavior the coffee study was meant to discourage. If that isn't a journalistic conflict of interest, what is?

But "Morning Joe" regularly takes product placement one step further, also product placing their heavily biased political opinions into their news coverage - again with no qualms about the inherent conflict. When his book, The Last Best Hope, came out last fall, host Joe Scarborough regularly injected plugs for his conservative "how-to-defeat-Democrats" handbook into the news coverage and political discourse - oblivious to the inherent conflict of interest.

Doesn't anyone at MSNBC realize that when they embrace this mix of analysis and advocacy, shamelessly plugging their own books that argue one side of the very subjects they are ostensibly "reporting" on, they are breaking the time-honored rules of journalism? They are not merely writing in coffee house; they are the customers and owners.

A lot of what I write in this blog will be personal - some meant to be funny, some meant to be insightful. But if I start writing in a vacuum of self-denial, let me know. In which case, I'll close my laptop and enjoy my latte and the view.

No comments:

Post a Comment