Some years ago I set forth with a co-conspirator on one of my only freelance assignments to provide coverage of a live event. We were to conduct interviews and gather film footage and still photos. Lest you be overly impressed by this prestigious description, I feel obliged to inform you that the affair in question was a cat show being held at a community college in upstate New York. The journalistic product resulting from our endeavors was nothing short of abysmal and included a female octogenarian throwing cat litter in my face. Why, you might ask, am I bringing up this story? The answer is simple enough. Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher is taking it upon himself to launch a new career as a war correspondent in Israel for Pajamas TV.
The point here is that journalism, as with most professions, requires its own set of skills, training, and perhaps even a bit of native talent. History is sprinkled with tales of savants who seem to have been born to excel in one field or another, and for all we know, Mr. Wurzelbacher is the next Edward R. Murrow. It’s possible that he may be poised to usher the news neighborhood into a new era of gentrification, but I fear the odds seem rather long.
Millions of Americans soaked in the spectacle of David Archuleta during last year’s edition of American Idol. Far fewer will recall being treated to Emma — her surname is unimportant for our purposes — who emerged in the same leg of the preliminaries. She proceeded to screech like a hoot owl on a hot plate until Simon charitably brought out the hook. The lesson to take from this is that we must often wade through a sea of Emmas before striking it lucky with one David.
Have we any indication of how well Joe the Plumber might fare? Thus far the only talents on display seem to have been a knack for emerging onto his lawn at an opportune moment and putting a rather blunt question to a presidential candidate. Joe’s roller coaster ride in the spotlight has been the epitome of what Bob Dylan famously termed a simple twist of fate. If we are to be truly honest with ourselves we must admit one thing: had Barack Obama taken ninety seconds longer to eat his waffle that morning, it might well be Pete the Pest Control Guy packing his bags for Damascus this week. And for all we know, Pete actually is the next Murrow, or would have been had his mother not kept him out of J-school in favor of a more honorable and honest profession.
I have no objection to this internet sensation seeking to extend his fifteen minutes of fame. By all means, write a book, hit the Sunday morning chat circuit, or even run for Congress. These are opportunities for any American and Mr. Wurzelbacher should feel free to pursue them all. But we should probe a bit deeper into Joe’s qualifications as a war correspondent, as this is generally not the first assignment a cub reporter pulls upon joining a network. We might expect him to have a command of, or at least a passing familiarity with the languages spoken by the locals. He should be well versed in the history of the conflict, the primary participants, and the leading power figures. Lastly, as a reporter, we would expect an engaging figure on camera, exuding competence and armed with excellent communication skills in his native tongue. Have we any signs of this?
Late night comedians were quick to seize on any indications to the contrary. When asked how he was preparing for his new role, the media dilettante informed us that he was hard at work learning to properly “pronunciate” the names of the leaders on each side. I remain unsure where the bar of expectations should be set, but at least he’s not “Joe the Kennedy” or he might have to work twice as hard at it.
What quality of media product shall we consumers receive should Joe, in defiance of all expectations, succeed on this mission? The goal of cutting through the perceived bias of the mainstream media filter is an admirable one to be sure, but is this what our newly hatched journalist will deliver? The resultant reporting should be an unvarnished look inside Israel’s struggle with Hamas, examining the lives of those on each side. But might we be left with a suspicion that the reporter in question has a personal agenda? With such a thin resume as a reporter — stretching generosity to its limits — these remain difficult questions to answer.
Providing live coverage from the scene of a war seems a far cry from watching a televised political debate from the comfort of your couch and tapping out a few witty retorts on a blog. During a recent interview, Joe informed us that he felt his safety would be well augmented as a good Christian, since he expected to enjoy “the protection of God.” Our parting question should be: Who will protect the Israelis and the global news audience from Joe?