|ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: JON FRIEDMAN, MARKETWATCH.COM.|
Every so often in this little interview series, we'll come across an honest-to-goodness gentleman. But outside of the nicey-nice, Jon Friedman is also one of the most enjoyable and knowledgeable columnists out there pushing the heavy rock with his Media Web column on Marketwatch.com. He's also done stuff for Bloomberg News, Investor's Business Daily, The New York Times' business section and even co-wrote a book about cards or something.
Not taking anything away from all of the other interviewees, but it was known going into this that if Mr. Friedman agreed to dance in the Rock and a Hard Place jig, well, I'd be a little more polite. In fact, this guy is just so huggable and cuddly he made it extremely hard to ask questions about dead baby rape and diarrhea. He has humbled me.
But, alas, blackness is still a virtue and the world is filled with mud
BT: So, right before you conceded to do this interview, I promised I'd go easy on you. You responded with a resounding "Please do!" Now, it wouldn't be hard-hitting journalism scraping up the truth for the fine people of the United States if I toned down my little sword rattle game for the sake of you. Would it? I don't know. Have you ever interviewed somebody and made concessions like I'm making for you? Isn't that a "journalist's" job to ask the probing questions? Like, for example, if I did not go easy on you, my first real question in regard to this little predicament would be "Why are you such a pussy?"
JF: I hope I have never gone easy on anyone. And you might have given me more respect and at least referred to me in a much more dignified manner as, say, a weenie or a wimp!
BT: You kind of got all ballsy with your Dan Rather letter. You didn't gush (too much) and you basically called him out on some of his Rather-isms. Now, you being a columnist for a website that had "CBS" in its title, is it tough to be completely unbiased and fair? Is there a fear that you may be overcompensating if you get too probe-y about his tenure? Or vice-versa. And the "King of Queens" fucking rules, by the way.
JF: Now, I KNOW you're kidding with that "King of Queens" line. Look, Kevin James may be a very clever guy, but isn't he basically just doing a high-minded impersonation of Fred Flintstone? Actually, to set the record straight, "CBS" was no longer in the MarketWatch picture when I wrote the column on Dan Rather's farewell. (For the record, Dow Jones had already acquired MarketWatch for $528 million from Viacom, which had been a significant investor in MarketWatch.) So, from a legal standpoint, I was never an employee of Viacom. I did/do respect the hell out of Dan Rather as a newsman. He is a giant. And he was also unfailingly polite to me and other people when he encountered us in the corridors of the CBS Broadcast Center. I hope I was fair whenever I wrote about CBS and continue to be. I hope I'm as tough and fair to that company as I try to be to everyone. No exceptions.
BT: What do you consider the biggest thing to happen in media since you've been covering it? Like which story gave you a little rise in the pleats?
JF: I guess you're looking for a different answer than, say, the publication of Bob Dylan's memoirs, "Chronicles," or the induction of Elvis Costello and the Attractions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right? Fair enough. The acquisition of Time Warner by America Online was by far the biggest story on my beat in the first few years (I started following the media in August, 1999) because it produced so much news of all kinds. Other biggies were the collapse of the Internet biz beginning in March 2000, CBS News' sloppy report on President Bush's National Guard service, the Perils of Michael Eisner, the Sumner Redstone-Mel Karmazin soap opera, George Bush's victory over John Kerry -- along with the rise of the bloggers and, last but not least, Jayson Blair and the other nitwit journalist creeps who fabricated stories, disgraced the craft and took the easy way out.
BT: Sheesh. Feisty. You seemed to have this I-can't-believe-I'm-writing-about-goddamn-bloggers tone when you did your piece about the newfound legitimacy of them as journalists. Outside of what everyone else in the industry thinks, will you always have a little pretentiousness about bloggers being journalists? Are you just jealous that they get to wear pajamas all day? And I'll bet you're one of those fellas that wears the full p.j. ensemble with the night cap and the pants with the little emergency flap in the back. Right?
JF: As much as I admire Groucho Marx' wardrobe in "Duck Soup," I have NEVER worn a night cap. I concede that my appreciating and fully respecting the bloggers has been a case of on-the-job training. For what it's worth, they still have to show me that they're doing serious journalism -- sorry, but I feel that way (Maybe it's the Medill grad in me talking). And what the hey, if Michael Jackson can wear his pajamas in court, while he is on trial fighting for his life, the bloggers don't look so cool wearing theirs at home. Harrumph.
BT: What do you think is the dumbest mistake that contemporary journalists make today? And do you see the younger crop becoming more fundamental practitioners or is entering the profession in the age of Google-searching bad for it in the long run?
JF: The dumbest mistake is that they don't understand the importance of the past. A lot of them don't seem to be willing to study their beats in the context of history. They have been weaned on the Net and Google and they assume that they can simply access any information they need when they need it and that there's no reason to read books. Jeez, do I sound like a high and mighty old fart or what! But seriously, my first major job was to work for a newsletter called Securities Week. I didn't know a stock from a bond. So, I rushed out and read a book called The Last Days of the Club by Chris Welles as a way to understand the history of Wall Street. It helped enormously (Now, I THINK I know the difference between a stock and a bond). I couldn't generalize about the current crop of young journos. I hope they a) think Jayson Blair is a loser and b) will read every book by David Halberstam so they can understand what great reporting is all about.
BT: Friedman-ized Rock and a Hard Place question: Would you rather ski nude with a bunch of ladies or shoot pool nude with a bunch of French dudes?
JF: Damn, I KNEW there was a reason I should have learned how to ski! I have never been on a pair of skis in my entire life. I guess I'd rather sit in the lodge, sipping a hot chocolate and watching a bunch of pretty ladies skiing. If Jimmy Carter can admit to lusting in his heart, so can I.
BT: Do you like writing for the web better than print? Or do you feel like less of a journalist because of that?
JF: I love to write for the Web and also for what you called "print" journalism (excuuuuuse me, but I do consider the Web to be a form of print journalism). The Web is terrific because it practically encourages the writer to be creative and put his or her opinions and points of view into stories. It gives me a tremendous feeling of freedom. When I write my column Media Web, which appears on Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays (and yes, that was my form of a product placement or as my favorite talk-show host, Wayne Campbell, called the practice, a SHAMELESS PLUG), I sometimes feel as if I have the opportunity to write the stories as letters to my hip friends (yeah, I have one or two). I definitely don't feel like less of a journalist when I write for the Web.
BT: You ever make out with a French dude?
JF: Nope, no dudes at all. But I once had an incredible crush on a French woman whom I met at a party in a basement apartment on Spring Street in the early 1980s. She spoke virtually no English and I spoke no French. I can't imagine what we ever talked about. I remember that her name was Sylvie. She is definitely one woman who got away.
BT: Was there a ever a point in your career where you hated the media industry? Like do you see it as a being in a better place now then say 10 years ago?
JF: You mean, besides right now? I hate to keep harping on this theme but I hated the media industry when Jayson Blair did his damage to it -- but I hated the media even more, afterward, when otherwise responsible people gave him so much publicity. Sure, he was news and it was a big story (to media people; I can't imagine that anyone who didn't work in the media gave a damn about him).
But at the end of the day, even when we were blasting him, we were just playing his little publicity-grabbing game, to sell a book. On the other hand, I was very proud of my fellow Americans when his book bombed. It was refreshing to see people show some common sense (for a change)
Are the media better or worse now than it was 10 years ago? Ah, the key question. After giving this a LOT of thought, I can answer resoundingly, I dunno. I think, thanks to the Web, the writing is more personal and clever than ever, which is, obviously, a great development. I suspect that the blogging movement will free writers even more. But I'm sorry to say that I also think that young journalists are frequently cutting corners when it comes to the shoe-leather reporting. Remember, even the late, great Hunter Thompson spent the first decade of his career writing old-fashioned journalism before he popularized Gonzo.
BT: Can I call your style of journalism "Fronzo"?
JF: Well, since I modeled a lot of my so-called/would-be "style" after such icons as Hunter Thompson (aka Dr. Gonzo, of course) and the Fonz of "Happy Days," I think that "Fronzo" is very flattering. Hey, I've been called a LOT worse!