Pajamas TV is turning Joe the Plumber into a journalist, and the media class doesn’t like it one bit.
Joe Wurzelbacher is in Israel with a television crew in tow to talk to Israeli civilians about the war with Hamas in Gaza, and quite a few journalists — including the author of this media blog — seem personally offended that an out-of-work plumber who was recently the focus of their snarky asides might soon be counted as a peer.
On the surface, their complaint seems to be that that being a war correspondent — among the most glamorous and dangerous of media assignments — requires a specialized journalism background.
At the risk of bruising the fragile egos of some of these journalists — no, it doesn’t.
It never has.
Stephen Crane, the novelist and journalist best known for the Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, covered the brief Greco-Turkish War and the Spanish-American War, somehow completing his assignments without graduating from a string of colleges. Somehow Crane muddled by, despite not possessing a great deal of historical knowledge, military insight, or specific expertise about either the conflicts he was paid to cover or those fighting in them. Perhaps he was just lucky these were short wars. Ernie Pyle worked on a much longer and wider stage than Crane, and was known for his folksy, down-home stories of regular people serving in World War II. Pyle didn’t complete his degree at Indiana University, but he didn’t let that stop him from getting syndicated by more than 300 newspapers. He picked up a Pulitzer on his way to becoming the most famous war correspondent in American media history.
Today, Pyle’s torch is being carried by independent combat photojournalists like Michael Yon, who took perhaps the most iconic photo of the Iraq War in 2005 — an American officer cradling a mortally wounded Iraqi girl after a terrorist attack. The photo was Time magazine’s online photo of the year. Yon’s combat dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan are read around the world. Yon has no formal training as a journalist, and yet does the job far better than 99% of journalists in professional news organizations.
Another independent journalist, Michael Totten, is consistently one of the most distinctive voices covering the Middle East. Is he a Columbia Journalism School graduate? No, Totten hasn’t had so much as a single journalism class. But he does have an English Literature degree, which he credits with helping form his distinctive voice. This helped him win a widespread following, along with a 2007 Weblog Award (and a healthy lead so far in 2008’s voting).
As for those journalists that are reporting from Israel and Gaza, a significant majority are Palestinians or Arabs that work for news organizations in countries that have populations, governments, and news leadership openly hostile to Israel. As a result, their reporting is reliably and perhaps unavoidably biased.
Such biases led to the ready acceptance in recent years of the staging of news in this region, a fraud which became so pervasive it was dubbed “Pallywood” for stylized, often fictionalized events published as news. In the last war in the region, Reuters was forced to withdraw more than 900 photos and fire two employees because images had been doctored with Photoshop. Reuters has been found to have purposefully mis-captioned flares as weapons systems on no less than four photos in this current conflict.
The foreign reporters that attempt to temper their biases are hampered by the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of them have little cultural knowledge of the area and even less knowledge of military affairs, equipment, or tactics.
This results in gross incompetence, such as the multiple media accounts that have labeled M825A1 155mm artillery smoke shells as offensive chemical weapons.
I’m not expecting Pyle’s humanizing folksiness, nor Yon’s gritty incisiveness, nor Crane’s vivid imagery from Wurzelbacher. I don’t know if he can craft a coherent sentence or conduct an revealing interview. And perhaps he’ll be an absolute disaster as a journalist, even as he’s created a PR explosion for PJTV.
But there is an obvious fear among so many members of the media so defensively and preemptively dismissive of “Joe the Plumber” trying his hand at reporting. Deep inside, they must wonder if an Ohio plumber could really be much worse than the so-called professionals we already have. There lies the fear that underlies those mocking Wurzelbacher in the media. It is a bruise to their egos when they realize that almost anyone can do what they do.
As Michael Totten reminded me, there is nothing to keep a plumber from being a good reporter. After all, some of the best reporting of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War came from a cook.
Anthony Bourdain is a traveling chef and the star of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations. Bourdain and his film crew were in Beirut in July 2006, filming an episode of the show when the war broke out. A show based on travel and food suddenly became a show about the revelations of a man living through the surreal world of being a poolside spectator to bombing raids. It was a unique perspective of foreign nationals trying to escape a country at war, the grinding uncertainty of wondering if they’d be evacuated before they were bombed or kidnapped, and the unexpected kindness and hospitality those rescued found in the powerful arms and hearts of the United States Marines. The traveling chef was nominated for an Emmy for his reflections on his view of war. I doubt our plumber is aspiring to such heights, but that doesn’t mean he can’t produce something of value.
Joe is going to talk to average people as an average guy, to give them an outlet to vent their feelings about the near-constant terror war that interrupts their lives and targets their children, all for the crime of simply being who they are.
Somehow, I suspect that Joe the Plumber might be able to do that just fine.