Saturday, January 15, 2011

Donkey Jockeys

It’s a matter of professionalism. And a simple matter of self-respect. But everyone I make this argument to tells me to shut the hell up, that I’m simply wrong, or that I should accept that the battle is lost before it’s begun.

They tell me my criticism is minor compared to the larger crisis in journalism, the major issues we ought to be wrestling with to improve the state of things. But I’d argue the first crisis to be dealt with is the one journalists have created for themselves: their identity crisis.

Lately I’ve been getting out to a few press conferences. I don’t go so much as to write about Mr. Savisaar’s quit-picking-on-me rant du jour or to hear IMF representatives think twice before saying nothing. I go to get out of the house, to see how the world is turning, and enjoy the bizarre, snail-paced spectacle of what Estonians call the pressikas.

The press conferences I’ve witnessed are pretty much interchangeable. The gray mass of journalists quietly trickles into the appointed room, invariably choosing seats at the back of the room. Among the reporters are many sleepy young men in worn sweaters and jeans, hair jutting out in random places in the fashion American collegiates refer to as “nappy head.”

After a short delay, a suit-clad young man with a boyband haircut appears and provides speaker introductions vaguely reminiscent of Vegas nightclubs, even though the speakers are already known to all and name cards are present in front of each.

The speakers themselves appear professional, wearing suits, ties and shined shoes. But they seem terribly annoyed, as if they would very much rather be somewhere else and have deigned only under great duress to attend the press conference that they themselves have organized. Their expressions cast them as the adults who have agreed to indulge the children.

And so the two sides face off: the Narcoleptic Self-styled Bohemians versus the Antsy Irritated Establishment.

As I see the regular lament and hand-wringing about Estonia’s media, it more or less goes like this: The critics say that experienced journalists are too few, most of the senior ones having left long ago to pursue other, better remunerating ventures. Politicians seem to be routinely grumpy with the press, as if they cannot get a fair break, when, by western standards, it has always seemed to me that they tend to get off easy when question time arrives.

The press itself is refreshingly introspective, occasionally even self-flagellating. There is acknowledgement in their own pages that they could do better and they mourn the turn toward yellow led by a compete-for-clicks environment.

While I find neither the Bohemians or Establishment more in the right, it seems to me that like many other areas of Estonian life, the debate itself is healthy, and as long as it goes on we are only in for an improved quality of the press. Where the head goes, the body will follow.

What I would like to see—and where I am told my cause is lost—is an improvement in the appearance of the press. It is my belief that a polished exterior is often the mark of an organized interior. And when that is not the case, an exterior may rally an interior to live up to its example.

Not all Estonian journalists dress down, of course. Should Priit Pullerits, Priit Hõbemägi, or Sirje Rank be in attendance, they will be as professionally clad as their foreign colleagues who may be witnessed on C-SPAN pelting Mr. Obama with questions.

But while Estonia’s politicians and businessmen seem to have too little respect for the press, I can only hold the press responsible for having too little respect for itself.

“What you need to get through your thick foreign head,” says my wife Liina, who was briefly employed in public broadcasting during the Soviet era, “is that the press were bohemians. If you were in the press in Soviet times, then you were a rebel and you dressed the rebel part.”

To which I of course respond that it’s been 20 years since the Soviet Union and most of the journalists attending the press conferences are too young to remember it.

It is also difficult for me to see journalists as rebels. We are every bit a part of The System. One may argue our role is to keep the rest of the system honest (and I’d agree), but does that not make us more policeman than rebel? Have a look at a policeman’s haircut. Would he function better in his job with hair down to his ass?

And, most importantly, if a journalist can write like a rebel, then he hardly need worry about dressing like one. (Flaubert: “In order to write like a revolutionary, you need to live like a bourgeois.”)

A nattily-dressed Estonian editor friend of mine argues that she can’t pay her staff well enough to ask them to dress professionally. But I lack sympathy. Journalists are paid poorly in most societies and the more respectable newspapers still require them to turn out in a tie. And I argue that an affordable, presentable pair of trousers, jacket, and tie cost far less than the designer jeans some of her reporters wear low enough to reveal their pubic hair.

It isn’t as simple as everyone putting on a necktie, my editor friend argues. She’s right, of course. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt things. People treat you how you treat yourself, a motivational consultant once said. My French writer friend Guillaume says that his stylish countrymen “dress to show respect for a place and for ourselves.” Would a well-dressed, attentive, whip-smart journalist inspire better answers from the subjects he interviews? The Antsy Irritated Establishment can best answer that.

A tie-requiring editor I know in the United States likes to inspire his reporters by borrowing from Jeremiah when he sends them out into the world. He tells them to let their subjects “hear the snorting of our warhorses, let them feel the ground tremble beneath their feet, as we approach to devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who dwell in it.”

Of course it’s hard to leave that impression if you show up riding a donkey.

Read it in Estonian and join in the mudslinging here.