Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash Vol. XXVIII: Eleven steps to become a journalistic guru, and brother vs. brother: Jim Treacher unmasked

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How does a young person become a political journalistic guru? Does it involve sexual favors?  – Joshua Wright

For me it did. But everyone’s path is different. All I can do is provide vague and general directions, to offer sage, old-codgeresque guidance, such as, “Journalistic guruhood lies about a hundred miles yonder as the crow flies.”  But you will have to figure out how to actually get there on your own. I should say at the outset that I’m not really a journalistic guru. For being a guru requires having followers. If I wanted followers, I’d have joined Twitter long ago. But I don’t want followers, I want friends. Will you be my friend? I am so lonely.

Forget that I asked. I don’t want your pity. I move faster alone. I live off the land, and eat what I kill. If I had followers, I’d probably kill them and eat them. Then cure their flesh until they became follower-jerky. Then I’d put them in my journalistic knapsack, for when I run out of trail mix. I have, however, been knocking around long enough to have observed a few traits that mark successful journalistic gurus. I will share them with you now:

  1. Write what you know.
  2. If you don’t know anything, why let that stop you? Do what everyone else does: pretend.
  3. Give up any dreams of writing fiction. A house divided against itself falls. If you can’t give it up, then try to incorporate your fiction into your nonfiction writing. Then when you get caught, just say you were writing a composite character in order to explore the “emotional truth” of the subject. If you get drummed out of the business anyway, write a confessional memoir about how wrong you went, and how much you’ve learned since. Then try to sell the screen rights, and get signed on as the screenwriter, preferably fictionalizing your account of the nonfiction career you spent writing fiction.
  4. Always accept free drinks. Free food, too. Anything free, really. A journalist lives by the sweat of other people’s brows. If you’re paying your own way, it’s time to reassess, to get with the journalistic guru program, and to figure out how to be a less productive member of society.
  5. Wear lots of corduroy. Not only does it make you look more professorial and removed from the life of corporate drudgery that you’re trying to escape, but it’s extra absorbent in case you spill a free drink on yourself.
  6. Eat, pray, love.
  7. I was kidding about that last one. I don’t know if I hate that book, since I haven’t actually read it. But I can extrapolate that I hate that book, since I hate everyone who likes it. See how that works? Because I’m a trained journalist, I can form authoritative opinions with little or no information.
  8. If you’re a kind, generous person who strives to find the best in people and to overlook their faults, get out of journalism. You’ll die here.
  9. Whenever you get cornered in a debate with other journalistic gurus, say, “I was just in (fill in name of random Midwestern cow town), and voters there are very concerned about……” Your experience there is probably completely bogus, a purely anecdotal survey of people you gravitated toward to confirm your own prejudices. But you will still have the edge of moral authority over your colleagues, since they leave the office even less often than you do.

10.  Generally invoke “concerned voters” as frequently as possible. For editors love all things “concerned.” When nobody’s concerned about anything, it concerns them.

11.  As a journalist, you need to have a deep and comprehensive understanding of a lot of different things. So only read headlines – it saves time. Since nobody reads the papers anymore, you’ll still be way ahead.