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From AJR,   February/March 2012  issue

A Fearless Media Critic   

Slate’s Jack Shafer has distinguished himself with his uncompromising approach to his craft. Wed. August 24, 2011


By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

Just after AJR posted this piece, Slate on Wednesday laid off Shafer and a number of other employees.

On one of those typically molten July days in Washington, D.C., Jack Shafer is trying to explain why he must break a weeks-old interview appointment and the meaning of something called a reverse ferret.

Like every media writer on seven continents, his deadline on this day is dictated by the sudden decision of Rupert Murdoch to close his 168-year-old, 2.7 million-circulation News of the World. It is the most fragrant evidence yet that a scandal involving the hacking of the phone of a teenage murder victim by the British tabloid is in full flower.

As a media critic for Slate for the past 15 years, Shafer has written pungently, sometimes brilliantly, about Murdoch. His colleagues in the media criticism business love Shafer's jujitsu conference upon Murdoch the title of genocidal tyrant, a self-reference Murdoch once made when complaining of how he was depicted by the press.

Known for his prodigious research, Shafer went back among the books written about Murdoch and plucked from one the battle cry of one of Murdoch's tabloid editors. This editor thought the mission of Murdoch's tabloid properties ought to be to put a ferret up the pants legs of the powerful. When his tabloid overreached, as it inevitably did, the editor would yell "reverse ferret," and the paper would simply behave as though the story didn't exist.

Shafer clearly relished this archival scoop, the perfect blunt imagery and the authority of the source, which, as always, he carefully quoted and credited. Shafer has said he'd rather sit out a media scrum than contribute nothing original to the public discussion. Sending odorous weasel kin back up the genocidal tyrant's pants is Shafer's latest delicious contribution.

The curious thing about what Jack Shafer does is the people best equipped to evaluate him are his competitors, whose beats sometimes include one another. Ask them and they will put Shafer at or near the top of a short list of the best media critics in the country.

"Here is what Jack Shafer is," says Erik Wemple, who blogs about the media for washingtonpost.com. "Obviously, very talented, tremendously original and highly informed. But more important, he is utterly uncorrupted by friendship, money, power, anything. He is ruthless with people he doesn't know, but what is impressive is how ruthless he can be with the people he knows. He's impervious to outside influence, and it's a glorious thing to watch." Although he has been writing about media in one form or another for more than 25 years, Shafer's passion and fearlessness make him a favorite of a younger audience with expectations of the chainsaw opinion writing of bloggers, says Hamilton Nolan, who handles media criticism in his role as editor of Gawker.

Nolan sees Shafer as perhaps the sole media critic in the country who is consistently unafraid to print what others only think. "Shafer writes much younger, like someone who doesn't have as much of a career stake," Nolan says. "It's rarer to maintain that edge as you climb the ladder. He shoots from the hip, but it's not a mechanism, because you know when you read his column that he's a guy who has all this deep knowledge of journalism."

Nolan's assessment might amuse Shafer, 59, whose prose style and inspiration skew decidedly older. Unlike so many young practitioners heeding their J-school professors by promoting themselves before they have anything to promote, Shafer has gone largely undiscovered outside of the news business.

Shafer assists in his own relative anonymity, maintaining a personal Web site without any About Me tab. His four-sentence bio on the Slate Web site makes no mention of a personal life or interests and provides the barest outline of his résumé.

"I prefer backing into the limelight with my column," Shafer e-mailed when asked if he would sit down for an interview with AJR, "but understand that I can't write about the press and refuse to be written about. But fair warning: I'm a terrible interview subject."

In a later exchange, Shafer admitted to growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the son of lapsed Catholics. Although he delivered the Kalamazoo Gazette for five years, Shafer didn't get a journalism degree, graduating from Western Michigan University with a B.A. in communications. His disdain for the modern journalism degree in columns has irked some academics.

Shafer lived in California for five years, then hitched through Asia, New Zealand and Australia before returning to the states and freelancing. Inquiry, a libertarian magazine, hired him as managing editor, and he stayed there until it folded in 1984.

Russ Smith gave Shafer his real break in 1985, hiring him to be editor of Washington City Paper, "for which I will always be grateful, although I reserve the right to be peculiar about how I express that gratitude," he says.

Eleven years later he joined Slate, writing about the media and other topics before launching his Press Box column in 2000.

To force himself outdoors, he added birding to hiking, which has taken him from Newfoundland to the Galapagos Islands. Shafer follows baseball, but says he is repelled by the $9 cup of beer at the park.

Nicole Arthur, a features editor in the Washington Post's Style section, and Shafer have two daughters, ages 9 and 6.

The man who is perhaps the foremost advocate for making swift and very public corrections in news stories would be required to post one about his suitability as a story subject. Shafer is as honest and enthusiastic about his work in person as he is in his column.

There are hundreds of books on shelves and in thigh-high stacks on the floor of Shafer's pie-slice of an office in Slate's editorial wing on the fourth floor of an office building just off of Dupont Circle. They are as much a resource to Shafer as anything he has on his office hard drives.

The day after "Murdoch Pulls the Ultimate 'Reverse Ferret'," is posted, Shafer is working on another Murdoch column, the fifth he has written in a week. He will write four more before the month is out.

Although the subject warrants it, the single focus is unusual for Shafer. His arrangement at Slate is the envy of anyone in the business. "Basically, I write what I want to write."

Shafer believes in a few fundamental rules for writing about anything: that the thinking behind the column be original; that the underpinning of a point of view be supplied by solid reporting; and that the conventional wisdom be avoided at all costs.

"When I write a piece I aim for reproduceability, if that's even a word," Shafer says. "In science, you lay out everything in an experiment, so that if someone followed you, they would be able to come to the same conclusion. That's the wonderful thing about the Web. You can write a column and send people to your sources and show them how you came to your conclusion."

It is the extensive linking to original sources that gives Shafer's columns their contemporary feel. But Shafer will quickly disabuse you of any notions that what he is doing is brand new. From time to time, Shafer explains in his columns what he is up to, but never more clearly than in a paean to A.J. Liebling he posted in 2004.

Liebling has been dead for nearly 50 years, is almost unknown outside of an ever-shriveling group of press people of a certain unpopular demographic, and Shafer doesn't care. "If Liebling didn't invent press criticism," Shafer wrote, "he might as well have."

Embedded in his veneration are explanations of what press critics ought to be. "Their work opens you to persuasion, makes you want to argue, and causes you to read and reread your newspapers and magazines with new curiosity." And what they ought not to be. He wrote in that 2004 column, "Instead of producing the next Liebling, the field of journalism saddles us with the worry-bead analysis of [Project for Excellence in Journalism Director] Tom Rosenstiel and the goo-goo intentions of [New York University journalism professor] Jay Rosen, for which there is no audience outside the industry (maybe not even inside it)."

Shafer also deplores media criticism in harness to political points of view and parties. Although his idol, Liebling, and sometime media critic Alexander Cockburn are both unapologetic leftists, Shafer says that both manage to be clear-eyed. And like Shafer, who has written about his own libertarian politics, they are driven in their criticism by a deep suspicion of authority more than any particular ideology, he says.

This helps to explain one of Shafer's most valuable assets, an inability to predict with any accuracy how he might come down on any topic.

While much of the rest of the press has developed a reflexive disgust for Arianna Huffington and her swashbuckling Huffington Post for their rampant aggregation, Shafer reported for those too young to remember that Time magazine was doing much the same thing with locally written news stories 80 years ago.

Dan Kennedy, a longtime media critic and a favorite of Shafer's, says the Huffington Post piece is typical of what makes a great column — an opinion arrived at only after real reporting and research. Now an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Kennedy says his esteem for Shafer is rooted both in his respect for the columns with which he agrees and the ones with which he disagrees.

"I had just been thinking about Huffington Post's aggregation, that it's way too aggressive, and then I read Jack's column, and it's, 'Time magazine, whoa!' That is really smart," Kennedy says. "I still think the aggregation is too aggressive, but I don't think I'll ever think of it in the same way again."

A couple of weeks earlier, Shafer performed vivisection on a 7,000-word political mule disguised as press criticism for Rolling Stone by Al Gore. Shafer's scalpel never strays from a straight excision of Gore's journalistic inconsistencies.

He might be best known for his regular and clinical defrocking of newspaper trend stories, particularly those involving the spikes in various narcotics use and in silly fashion turns.

"Will the New York Times Styles section please change its name to the New York Times Bogus Trend section?" Shafer wrote in a November 1, 2010, column, giving the back of his hand to an exposé of abandoning personal hygiene as a fashion statement.

"Styles, which appears on Sundays and Thursdays, has previously tortured readers with bogus trend stories about dudes who love cats, chicks who are proud of their flat chests, fellas who think being chubby is hip, hotties who wear special contact lenses so their eyes look like saucers, and New York babes who ride bikes."

Bill Keller, executive editor of the aforementioned trend-conscious newspaper, says Shafer reminds us what needs to be done journalistically to back up trend-spotting. "I don't agree with every example he's cited in his campaign, obviously, but I think it's good to keep us all on our toes," Keller said in an e-mail exchange.

Keller has also been the subject of laudatory columns by Shafer who, Keller says, is working at a very high level. "I admire Shafer for taking his subject seriously enough to do his homework and think things through," Keller said. "He's working in a field that sometimes seems to have been overrun by the snarkoleptics, who blow raspberries for a living. He's fun to read, but there's usually an actual idea in his pieces, and some reporting, and some sense of history.

"Besides, a few years back he wrote not one but two columns entitled 'Sympathy for Bill Keller,' when I was being pilloried by the right for publishing the NSA eavesdropping story and by the left for not publishing it sooner. How can I not love the guy?"

Shafer created the template for his anti-authoritarian column at what became a most productive hothouse for media criticism, Washington City Paper. When Shafer left City Paper in 1995 after a decade as editor, he was followed by his hire, David Carr, now at the New York Times, who might be the best known media writer in the country. Wemple, who now writes what he calls "a reported opinion blog on news media" for washingtonpost.com, became the paper's editor in 2002.

The Shafer version of the Washington City Paper story is relatively simple. City Paper is an alternative weekly. Alternative weeklies make their living taking potshots at the major institutions in their cities. The Washington Post was a prominent target in a city that attracted a lot of young, ambitious, inexpensive writing talent. How could the paper not succeed?

"If he goes all humble on you, don't believe a word of it," Carr says. "He invented it, laid down the track and brought it to excellence. All of us who came after walked around in his giant footsteps. Of all of Jack's accomplishments, that might be his greatest. It is still an amazing paper."

Serving as the media critic, a sort of second ombudsman for the Post, Wemple says, helped each editor who did it better understand what it took to make a better City Paper. Shafer set the standard for criticism grounded in journalism, rather than subjective views about a particular reporter or story, Wemple says.

During his time at Slate, Shafer has established himself as a sort of long-ball hitter on topics mostly of his choosing, without getting mired in some of the moral and ethical lapses others specialize in, Carr says.

And while he respects and enjoys Shafer's work, Carr is not entirely complimentary of the way Shafer has staked out his territory. He differentiates the kind of reporting Shafer does — a lot of background research in texts and documents — with the deadline phone jockeying that he and Wemple do.

Shafer "is Buddha, all knowing and all seeing," Carr says.

Shafer has not endeared himself to academics by writing about what he sees as the uselessness of a journalism degree. Tom Goldstein, recently named interim journalism dean at University of California, Berkeley, and editor of "Killing the Messenger: 100 Years of Press Criticism," says Shafer's success makes it tougher for educators to sell their departments to students.

"I think he's wrong on journalism education," Goldstein says. "He had no formal journalism education and therefore thinks it is of no value. I think he makes a false extrapolation there."

Media historian James L. Baughman, former director of the School of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, has the students in his opinion writing class there read Shafer's columns. Baughman was particularly impressed by Shafer's willingness to declare respected former Los Angeles Times Editor James O'Shea's "The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers" myopic and badly written.

"I can imagine that didn't make him too popular with some journalists," Baughman says. "What makes him so important is he will dare to challenge the conventional wisdom. Shafer to me, and I really mean this, is the ideal communicator because he always makes you think. I tell my students I want them to have his guts."

This fearlessness is what sets Shafer apart and what will help his work endure, says media critic Seth Mnookin, who begins this fall teaching a graduate science writing program at MIT. Many media critics, Mnookin says, write for other media members, forgetting just how small that audience is.

"Jack Shafer is very aware that you can make a choice. You can write for the cubicle next to you or you can write for everybody else," Mnookin says. "Because he doesn't write for the person in the next cubicle, he is not afraid of offending the person in the next cubicle."