It’s Tough to Be Funny on Zoom or Is it More?
I was on a Zoom call the other day with PJ O’Rourke, a political satirist who was a leader of the National Lampoon and is the author of 20 books.
“O’Rourke’s original reporting, irreverent humor, and crackerjack writing makes for delectable reading” describes his oeuvre.
He has addressed this audience many times before and it is a regular stop on his book tours.
Usually he leaves the crowd admiring his subtle wit and its oft-hidden wisdom about the foolishness — especially political — that surrounds us. This time, not so much.
Zoom might not be the best medium for that. It is a challenge to read the room when the room is row on row of faces or initials.
Nor is Zoom a great way to feel the energy of a speaker or the others in the audience. Likely some humorist will figure out how to tap whatever advantages there are to the new medium that has injected itself into our lives, but I am not sure that has happened yet.
Or maybe it wasn’t just Zoom.
O’Rourke observed that “we are not living in times of great humor.” He has a way of saying something that is undeniably true though we might not have thought of it in quite the way he did. It can be both funny and true.
He asked the audience, “Do journalists have the skills to cover today’s stories?” Zoom audiences, especially the larger ones, don’t usually get to respond because they are muted by the moderators.
His question lingered unanswered on the call, but it has continued to linger for several days, perhaps because the uncomfortable answer is “probably not.”
Journalists have been squeezed hard by bloggers who charge nothing for their words. Advertising has migrated online from print, and newspapers have closed throughout the country. The journalists who worked at those papers have gone elsewhere or nowhere.
That is only part of the story. The newspapers that have not closed are hanging by threads. Staffs and salaries have been cut and the job of being a reporter is far from what it once was. Yet economics has not stopped, and it remains the case that you get what you pay for in the market for capable journalists, and mid-range newspapers are no longer able to pay very much.
The smaller papers that have not closed are also being assaulted from the top as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and perhaps even USA Today (if people ever decide to stay in hotels again) are claiming ever larger shares of newspaper readers. When news is no longer delivered by truck, the biggest and most powerful can own any market that has enough electronic devices.
During a career in the finance business, I noticed that very few reporters had the slightest idea what they were talking about in a field I understood quite well. I asked an editor-in-chief how a journalism school graduate would react to being assigned to the business section.
“He’d jump out the window, but we are not on a high enough floor to do much damage,” was the reply.
“Then what training do you give the new reporters to enable them to cover the subject matter,” I asked.
“None,” he replied.
That certainly answered my question about the low quality of stories on business issues.
I doubt today’s reporters received much training in epidemiology, and many show vast gaps in their understanding of American history.
Perhaps, PJ O’Rourke, in his reporting days, would have observed the irony of progressives trying to tear down the statue of Andrew Jackson, a founder of the Democratic Party who joins slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, as “top-billing” in the countless Jefferson Jackson Day dinners that are staples of Democratic fund raising.
Some of today’s reporters know that but it appears that most don’t.
O’Rourke is now the Editor-in-Chief of American Consequences, a free online daily that seems to be sponsored by various elements of the finance industry. I have tried it for the last few days and it is off to a good start.
He had one other question that resonated on the Zoom chat.
“Isn’t someone supposed to be in charge?”
Given the absence of an answer to that one either, it is no surprise that there was little humor.