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

Posted By Matt Labash On 12:39 AM 09/07/2010 In Blog - Matt Labash | 6 Comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: Have a burning sensation? Consult your doctor. Have a burning question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.

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.
Dear Matt, every time you write an article, blogger James Treacher tries to embarrass you publicly by making snide comments about your copy. So, here’s my question: Why does James Treacher feel inferior to you? Has he no shame? With warm affection, Shaniqua

I appreciate you throwing me a pair of floaties in this rising tide of intolerance. Your question is a two-parter. I’ll answer them in quick succession, then elaborate:

  1. Treacher’s feelings of inferiority are a thin disguise for his feelings of superiority.
  2. Yes, he has no shame.

But it’s a little more complicated than you make it. I’ve known Jim Treacher now since late 2009. So we basically grew up together. In fact, I’ve known him so long, I used to order fish and chips from his father, Arthur Treacher. So I can tell you that there’s truly no finer human being than Jim. If I needed someone to walk my grandmother across the street, I’d send her with Treacher. Because you know he’s the one who’s going to get hit by the truck. So what are the odds of both of them getting wiped out?

When my column comes out, and he roughs me up, he’s not really roughing me up. It’s just roughhousing.  If you’ve ever had little brothers, you know that they don’t directly express affection. They wrestle. They fight over the remote control. They jockey for the last Capri Sun. Then they might bathe together. We skip that last part, because that would be really, really weird. But that’s kind of what we’re like, brothers. Like the Mannings (Treacher is Eli to my Peyton), the Marxes (he is Gummo to my Groucho), the Clintons (he is Roger to my Bill), or the sons of Adam (I’m Abel, he’s Cain – envious, and liable to hit me over the head with a rock).

Or to switch to professional wrestling metaphors, we’re kind of like those classic combatants, the Von Erichs vs. The Freebirds. In the ring, we might give each other the claw, go for the hair removal cream, or shred each other’s faces like lettuce during a barbed-wire cage match. But wrestlers have a word for preserving the illusion that what they’re doing isn’t staged. It’s called “kayfabe.” Backstage, it’s all backslaps and how’s-the-kids and let’s get a beer after the match. But when Treacher laces up his boots and puts on the banana hammock, packing it full of tube socks to delight his legions of lady fans, for him, it’s all about stepping inside that squared circle, and getting down to business. So don’t worry your pretty little head about this Von Erich. We’re not actually fighting. I can take a kayfabe chair to the skull, so long as I know it was delivered in the spirit of brotherhood. From a brother I don’t feel the least bit competitive with. From a dear brother who I’ve come to think of as Teddy to my J.F.K.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” was published this spring by Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.

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