Press Box media columnist Jack Shafer helped forge Slate’s sensibility.

The Media Critic Who Gave Slate Its Sting

The Media Critic Who Gave Slate Its Sting

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Sept. 30 2016 12:10 PM
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“I Regard All of My Columns as Failures and Hate Them Equally”

Jack Shafer did as much as anyone to forge Slate’s sensibility.

Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty

When I asked Jack Shafer to reflect on his Press Box column, which he wrote for Slate from 2002 to 2011, his responses were typically blunt.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

Why did the world need Jack Shafer’s press column, I asked him via email, fishing—perhaps a little lazily—for the concise yet eloquent manifesto that would give this post its theme. And I suppose that’s what I got. “I don’t think the world needed my press column,” Shafer replied.

A favorite column he wrote? “I regard all of my columns I wrote as failures and hate them equally.” Something big he got right or wrong? “Did I ever write anything big? I don’t think so.”

Shafer’s right in at least one sense. He rarely wrote columns that were grand in scope or ambition—that wasn’t his gig. He famously had zero use for awards, journalism awards least of all, and he wasn’t likely ever to win any for columns such as “Stupid Drug Story of the Week,” “My Frank Rich Bitch,” or, for that matter, “So You Won a Pulitzer: Who Cares?” The awards, he groused, were a parade of self-congratulatory “industry peacockery.” To remedy this, he proposed balancing out the ledger with new categories such as “the Worst Editorial Page, the Most Compromised Local Paper, the Most Predictable Critic, and the Most Tractable White House Reporter.”

The Pulitzer board does not seem to have taken Shafer’s suggestion, but that’s OK. Because, for nine years, Slate readers—including a bevy of big-name journalists who read Press Box religiously—had Shafer himself to dispense just these sorts of (dis)honors to those in the media business who most deserved them, along with a few who probably didn’t.

At a time when media criticism tended toward moralism and pedantry—I’d name names, if only I were as fearless and as sure of my ground as Shafer—his column was gleefully irreverent, less a press box than a hyperliterate peanut gallery. What set it apart was not only who he targeted but the grounds on which he targeted them. Eschewing his profession’s preoccupation with journalistic propriety, Shafer devoted his considerable energy to puncturing journalism’s hollow conventions, detailing the dirty ways media barons wielded their power and calling out dullards, hacks, and hypocrites.

Shafer was catholic in his distastes. His targets over the years included “pussyfooter” Howell Raines, liberal journalism icon Helen Thomas, Tom Friedman (in 2005, before it was cool), the “perfectly obvious” Cokie Roberts, the “perpetually perfervid” Martin Peretz, children’s author Maurice Sendak (!), and too many others to catalog here. (If you’re interested, Shafer keeps a full archive of his old Slate columns, which is worth a read for the headlines alone.) In the tradition of fellow Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens, who famously trashed Mother Teresa, Shafer achieved rare form when he took on the most seemingly unimpeachable of subjects. These included no less an idol than Edward R. Murrow, whose myths Shafer revisited with skepticism in a deeply researched two-part takedown of the movie Good Night, and Good Luck.

What made his critiques all the more convincing was that Shafer was always ready to admit when he’d been wrong. His very first Press Box column mocked Michael Crichton’s media doomsaying; six years later Shafer admitted that Crichton hadn’t been so far off. And he had a habit of defending the same people he pilloried if he felt the tide had since turned too far against them. Even two of his bêtes noires, Rupert Murdoch and Judith Miller, found themselves the unlikely subjects of Shafer-typed defenses. (Murdoch’s was headlined: “In Defense of Rupert Murdoch: A brief word in support of the genocidal tyrant.”)

But my favorite recurring Shafer target was the Gray Lady herself. Shafer, like many early Slatesters, came from the world of alt-weeklies, having helmed the SF Weekly and the Washington City Paper before Michael Kinsley chose him to co-found an online magazine at Microsoft in 1996. As one of Slate’s top editors in its formative years, Shafer instilled in it something of the alt-weekly’s brawling sensibility, which proved a welcome complement to the wonky intellectualism Kinsley imported from the New Republic.

One of the essential roles of any good alt-weekly is (or was?) to tweak the local daily metro newspaper, providing curious readers with intelligent counterprogramming and highlighting the alt-weekly’s own superior intellect and wit. (A superior intellect and wit are the consolations a journalist reaches for—along with whiskey—when his salary, job security, readership, and public stature are undeniably inferior.) If Slate was a sort of national alt-weekly, the New York Times was a fitting target for its upward jabs, and Shafer was the perfect puncher to deliver them.

He landed some of his most memorable blows in a series of columns that called out what he dubbed “bogus trend stories”—works of journalistic hackery that piled anecdote upon cherry-picked anecdote until some editor decided they added up to something that could pass for a convincing argument. In 2007, for instance, Shafer mocked a Sunday Times feature that found consumers growing “web-weary” and online sales losing “steam.” In the process, he demonstrated his keen eye both for the gaping holes in the story’s evidence and for the mealy language the authors used to paper over them.

By this point I’ve probably managed to misportray Shafer’s column as an ever-boiling font of dyspeptic bile. In fact, he more often played the sober optimist than the shrieking pessimist, especially when it came to the upheaval of the news business. Neither a Luddite nor a techno-utopian, Shafer greeted the disruption wrought by online media with equanimity born of historical perspective. At the height of the mainstream media’s panic over online aggregation, he wrote a column headlined “Don’t Get All Huffy Over the Huffington Post: The sort of borrowing it does is in the American journalistic tradition.” While others panicked over technological disruption, Shafer unearthed a similar panic that had gripped journalism in 1938 and predicted the current one would prove equally unfounded. Chaos, he reminded us, was a near-constant in the history of media, and the media would always evolve and adapt.

Slate itself evolved in a way that eventually left Shafer out. Like a lot of great writers, he often seemed to write for an audience of himself, and perhaps there were Shafer columns whose actual audience wasn’t much bigger. I don’t have the facts or the figures, but Shafer told me that when Slate chairman Jacob Weisberg and then-editor David Plotz (whom Shafer had given his first job in journalism, again at City Paper) laid him off during a round of cuts, they offered him a weekly freelance column that could be about “anything but the press.” Shafer realized he had little interest in writing about anything but the press, and he took a media column at Reuters instead.

Shafer never shied from making enemies with his column, nor with his aggressive Twitter persona. As anyone who knows Shafer will tell you, however, behind the pugnacious pose lies a generous heart. When I started at Slate as a summer intern in 2010, Shafer took me and my fellow interns out to lunch, quizzed us on our interests and our dreams, and listened intently. He did this, I later learned, for every class of Slate interns. That’s virtually unheard of in a media business that tends to regard interns as thirsty nuisances who are hardly worth the minimum wage, let alone a voluntary hour of one’s time. There may be people who worked with Shafer at Slate who don’t remember him as a sweetheart, but they’re not among the many I’ve talked to.

One more gift of Shafer’s to which I can only aspire in my least plausible dreams: brevity. He routinely tackled such polarizing media figures as Michael Wolff, Julian Assange, and Arianna Huffington (check the classic Slate headline on that one) in 1,000 words or less. I’m now at close to 1,500 on Shafer. If he regards all of his own columns as failures, I shudder to imagine what he’ll think of this one.