David Sessions

David Sessions is the editor of Patrol, a culture magazine based in New York. He is a frequent contributor to Slate, and an occasional music columnist for the Christian newsweekly World. Sessions graduated from Patrick Henry College in 2008 with a B.A. in journalism. He grew up in Fairfield, Texas.

The Last Great Newspaper Movie?

There has probably never been a better time to appeal to nostalgia when telling a story that involves newspapers: they’re almost gone, but not so gone that we aren’t still sad about the passing. But it’s not only its character as a good-ol’-days journalism movie that makes State of Play consistently exhilarating. Adapted from a 2003 British television series that followed a reporter and a Member of Parliament, this condensed version is reworked as a throwback to vintage American political dramas, with the kind of all-around restraint that would have made modern thrillers like Russell Crowe’s last film, Body of Lies, more compelling. Rather than revel in car chases or shootouts, State of Play employs a powerful lead character, a complex narrative, and well-disguised twists, to keep the its pace throttled.

That front-and-center star is wavy-haired Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), who keeps to his salty self at the fictional Washington Globe, where the ship is sinking and new kids in the newsroom like Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) only know how to blurt their opinions online. As the movie opens, a pizza delivery guy is senselessly gunned down in a dank alley and, the very next morning, a pretty red-haired girl seems to throw herself in front of a train on the D.C. Metro. The deaths turn out to be connected to McAffey’s old college roommate Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), now a crusading, pretty-boy congressman with his share of enemies and secrets. Thus McAffey begins investigating a story that could make or break his best friend, an interesting inversion of the usual journalist-pursues-justice plot: this time, the truth-seeking reporter trying to prove someone innocent.

There are all kinds of things wrong with the basic setup: a huge, multinational corporation is using its deep-reaching tentacles to get the government to “privatize” national security, and one rising congressional star is out to bring them down. McAffrey’s editor (Helen Mirren) knows about his relationship to the man he’s covering, but isn’t interested in the blatant conflict of interest. (She also isn’t interested in getting a huge, juicy story-unlikely for someone who’s desperate to prove her paper can still reel in the big ones.) McAffrey and Collins have an odd, underdeveloped relationship that never gets passed its confusing implausibility. But if you love the raw exhilaration of a either political or journalistic scandal-State of Play has loads of both-these plot quibbles won’t enter your head until a good while later.

Not to gloss over its excellent pacing, competent screenplay, and beautiful use of a huge number of D.C. locations, but State of Play is carried by its performers, particularly the rotund, crotchety Crowe. He delivers the callous law-breaking and editor-bluffing like a seasoned pro, and despite plowing across a number of journalistic boundaries along the way, his ethics finally come through to make sure we end up mostly liking him. Affleck’s blank attractiveness is so like the young Washington type that no one will notice the fact that he wasn’t doing a whole lot of acting. The perfectly-cast Jason Bateman’s brief, shocking turn as a sleazeball PR playboy is a thing to behold. The only weak link is the colossally talented Helen Mirren, who sadly is not given much to do beyond yell in her classy British accent about deadlines and pout when they keep getting pushed back.

State of Play‘s blatant, pervasive moralizing about “real news” will certainly be the talk of the town for the next week or so, but, after an initial wave of emotion for a disappearing profession that I will probably never get to really experience, it failed to convince me that the sinking city newspaper is something we should mourn. Della’s bringing-it-all-home platitude (“I figured when people read a story like this, they should get some ink on their fingers”) is, when you dissolve the sucrose, so vapid that it’s in no danger of ever being uttered by a real person. McAffrey’s digs at the online staff-“I figured we should get a few facts into the mix”-echo the denial of aging reporters everywhere, but we get the distinct impression that such rantings are the movie’s editorial position.

At every step, this movie takes the easy route by glamorizing the old; the really courageous journalism movie will be the one that puts this story’s wrenching level of excitement into a setting that’s true to the times. A realistic, non-sentimental take on the state of journalism could only have made State of Play more wonderfully intense, but who’s cheap enough to begrudge newspapers one last cinematic hurrah?

This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.

The Art of Being Nasty

David Denby, Snark,
Simon & Schuster: New York, 2009.

David Denby has a good heart. He seems genuinely concerned for the men and women in American media and celebrity culture who find their reputations punctured by “snark,” those tiny, singularly inconsequential but collectively painful daggers that seem to fly from every corner of the internet these days. Vicious dress-downs are a necessary part of a healthy democracy, he admits, but do they have to be so ignorant and, well, so mean? Like yesterday, when Gawker writer Richard Lawson called Danny Gokey, arguably the best singer on this season’s American Idol, a “whistling idiot” who “whored out the untimely death of his wife at the preliminary auditions.” Was that absolutely necessary?

Snark, Denby’s defense of the world’s maligned couch jumpers, tries to give that kind of uncalled-for put-down a name. It’s “a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.” Not “trash talk,” “satire,” or “nasty comedy,” but rather the sort of thing you read on Gawker or in Maureen Dowd columns: insult as “blood sport,” insult based on the crude philosophy that everything and everybody sucks.

Actually, that “sort of thing” may not exist. It’s rather impossible to locate a clear line where witty insult ends and Denby’s idea of “snark” begins. He spends a rather astonishing number of pages on what snark is not, and his attempts to give a positive definition are the book’s weakest passages. He glues together a daisy chain of examples: a feisty Wonkette post, a random Fox News headline, a Paul Begala remark in a fundraising email, a Perez Hilton graffiti job. Somehow because these all happened on the Internet, and not, say, in a closed-door meeting or scrawled on the wall of a bathroom stall, they’re evidence of a disturbing new idiocy that threatens to replace all serious thought and intelligent discourse. We all know anecdotal evidence is the number one indicator of a bogus trend story, and it’s just as telling in Snark, a book that manufactures a megatrend from scattered bits of valid insight.

There’s little debating that sarcastic Internet writing can be idiotic, lazy, and apathetic. It can target unfairly and deliver its punches clumsily. But Denby is wrong to dismiss it all-what ever “it all” is-as witless and effortless. He’s just as misguided to charge snarky writing with being inherently unimpressed by merit or success, unable to care or applaud when something happens to be praiseworthy. “Even when something original or great comes along,” he mourns, “snarking writers cannot turn off their attitude for a minute and celebrate.”

That’s not only demonstrably false, it’s a high-horse misunderstanding of the role “gossip” blogs play in the new media ecosystem. Gawker, Defamer and Wonkette are around to pick on the bad stuff, to peck at the liars, wannabes, and copycats. (Who are now, we should note, more ubiquitous and obnoxious than ever.) They’re not around to stage High School Musical-style celebrations of the latest breathtaking art or athletic achievements. Their bloggers appreciate a good film like anyone else (you’d know if you were on Twitter), but penning the thoughtful, wistful paean is A.O. Scott’s job. And point me to the posts where snark blogs ragged on Michael Phelps during the Olympics, or even after he was caught hitting a bong. (The Gawker post about Phelps’ mom that Denby cites is actually more of a snark on the silliness of endorsement deals than a rag on her “frumpy”-ness.) If I recall, even Gawker was pretty impressed with all those gold medals. So yeah, this alleged large-scale insulting of earnest, classy, talented people who are having their success and minding their own business? Where is it happening? Denby whales at the piñata, but doesn’t really connect.

When snarkers do attack, it’s not because they’re purveyors of an angry form of discourse that values cruelty as an end. Rather, it’s a means for expressing defeated idealism, for raving at the absurdity of entrenched institutions insults that insult our intelligence and sense of fairness. Underneath their “comically defeated” voice, as former Gawker editor Emily Gould described it, snark writers do believe in something-they just use their sarcastic jokes to dull the pain of constantly confronting a comically out-of-touch media and shameless celebrity culture. Instead of wondering why the “Manhattan party kids” are angry, and why their rage might be justified, Denby grumpily sends them to the corner for a time-out. You! You irrelevant little Gawkers! Go sit over there with the YouTube commenters and be quiet until you learn to get over yourselves. The grown-ups are trying to write.

This attempt to lump respectably talented young Internet writers with witless hacks like Perez Hilton encapsulates this book’s fatal flaw: its inability to separate the truly idiotic from the intentionally exaggerated, the inane from the ironically lowbrow. Too often, Snark tries to bundle divergent strains of public discourse-irony, idiocy, criticism, slander, libel-into one convenient little ball, then hurl it at whoever Denby happens to dislike. He distinguishes randomly and incoherently between media figures: Gawker rags without values, but Jon Stewart is a defender of civic virtue. Maureen Dowd “doesn’t have a single political idea in her head,” but Keith Olbermann is “intelligent as hell.” (All of the above, one could argue, are occasionally ruthless entertainers who attempt to illustrate the truth with sarcastic humor.) As a rule, his analysis makes sense in its most specific examples, but snaps when stretched toward grand theories.

More broadly, Snark is another tired argument against new media, an elitist rebuke cloaked in hip Webspeak. (Ironically, Denby’s obvious unfamiliarity with the everyday routines of the internet generation-instant messaging, Twitter, many of the blogs he quotes-casts him as transparently out of touch.) We heard this same line about talk radio, about Fox News, about people reading news online: the experts are losing control of the discussion. Snarkers react viscerally to the highbrow notion that intelligence and objectivity are sequestered in a few ritzy office buildings in Manhattan, and having too many voices out there-and God forbid having anyone compete for an audience-muddies the intellectual waters.

What Denby really wants, he says, is a civil discourse that values deliberation, nuance, and authority. He wants people to believe in things, to defend them passionately, and to insult their opponents honorably. But it’s unclear how attacking a vague concept like snark as inherently illegitimate-and dismissing all those who use it intelligently to express real outrage-really does anything to further those goals. Like a true old-guard alarmist, Denby insistently ignores the fact that people can read snark, have a laugh, and leave it in its proper place: lowbrow entertainment with the occasional incisive insight.

This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.