Like a lot of other aging losers who no longer get to drink all day and night on Sundays, I spent something like an hour this past weekend watching 60 Minutes and specifically enjoying the feature (which I believe was a re-airing) about Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei, who has famously shamed tyrants in his country’s government and made them look insanely foolish for some time now.
While there are countless messages and metaphors that could be found in Sunday’s segment to draw parallels to what a lot of people feel is a creeping authoritarianism under President Trump, there is another takeaway that I felt was additionally worth noting, as the news about our POTUS and his ties to Russian powers enters realms of true perplexity that are especially strange and unfriendly terrain for many reporters. Because with a very few exceptions, like those who are breaking serious stories on these fronts—the New York Times, the Washington Post, you get what I’m saying—I don’t think that most mainstream outlets are equipped to cover all the craziness afoot.
Those of us who toil in the independent press are used to digging in the sort of deep dark holes where so much Trump junk slithers out of and to doing our spelunking before underground political phenomena go viral. In my case, I actually spent several months five years ago tracking the alt-right—way before anyone called it that—for a book titled I Killed Breitbart. That adventure took me into hideous ideological gutters and nooks of the web to which I wouldn’t dispatch my worst enemy. Which I say not just to humblebrag but to help explain why suits and hairdos on your favorite TV newscasts may be unfit for the task at hand.
Segueing into the aforementioned 60 Minutes segment, the reporter introducing the piece gave a disclaimer that it may contain offensive material. I believe they were referring to the selfies Weiwei took in which he raised his middle finger to the residences of depraved international leaders (yes, the White House in DC was among them). Meanwhile, a significant part of the report was about the death of several thousand children. I personally found that portion to be much more offensive than any finger which the artist held up to power, and while I don’t think that a special intro was necessarily needed for the footage of kids being crushed inside of cheaply constructed school buildings, I did find it extremely telling that producers deemed the artist’s radical photos more worthy of a trigger warning than the images of mangled girls and boys.
Mainstream journalists have seen some ugly shit. From shootings to bombings, even the most superficial morons on the evening news may need some therapy. At the same time, while they are often numb to conventional horrors, many have reactionary impulses that result in the wrong kind of attention being given to countless issues. At the national level these days, that may mean they freak out because Trump says something asinine on social media, but they address the dismantling of healthcare like it’s business as usual. Locally, TV reporters often act like marijuana is a public menace but report on topics like homelessness without any theatrics, if they cover them at all.
I’ve heard the common knock on independent and progressive media, with detractors saying that we’re too hysterical. I guess what I’m trying to say is that whenever you hear somebody make that kind of claim, you may want to take a look at which ridiculous stories have them reaching for more hair product.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.