Writing for the Mainstream
Z: Over the years you have written
in a lot of venues, ranging from newsletters to national left
publications to mainstream periodicals and Time
magazine. To what do you attribute this success?
EHRENREICH: Is it success, whatever
exactly that is, or just compulsive productivity? If
it’s the latter, I can explain a little: One, this is
how I have made my living for over 20 years. If I don’t
write, we don’t eat. A writer friend, who happens to be
a beneficiary of inherited wealth, once innocently told me
that she wished she had an incentive like that. (I refrained
from suggesting a way she might attain it.) Two, I like doing
it. Each article, column, or even short review is a temporary
obsession, characterized by frantic research and moments of
wild mania, tempered with crushing self-doubt. Adding up to a
heady, thrill-filled life. Three, I figure this is the best
contribution I can make to an improved world. I tried being
an organization-type person, but had to give up after too
many weekend-long meetings in windowless rooms.
Suppose there were five progressive
writers with precisely your skills and energy, or even more.
Do you think all five would be published as you are now, or
are there very limited slots for such people?
I don’t know. There’s
evidence on both sides. On the one hand, a number of other
progressive writers do get into the mainstream—for
example, Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, Molly
Ivins in her syndicated column, Katha Pollitt occasionally in
the New York Times and the New Yorker. On the
other hand, there are jobs I didn’t get because (I
assume) of my politics. USA Today for example once
approached me about writing a weekly column. I was thrilled.
But after I sent them some sample columns, as requested, they
told me frostily that they had chosen Susan Estrich instead.
Was it my politics, my overly cutting style—or perhaps
some flaw in my personal hygiene?
Why don’t the power lunches
seduce you and turn your priorities around? Once plied with
cooptive offers from publishers and editors, few people
retain their integrity. What is key to doing so? What advice
do you have for leftists who try to write in the mainstream
rather than only for progressive outlets?
No one has made a big effort to seduce
me with pelts, power lunches, or "cooptive offers."
I wish they would—just as a test of character, of
course. In my experience, however, those high-priced lunches
leave me needing a slice of pizza two hours later. But what
probably makes me relatively co-optation-proof is that bit
about obsession mentioned above. I can’t write about
what I don’t care about or if I don’t feel I can
say what I want. For example, about two years ago, a magazine
offered me a tempting sum to fly out to Hollywood and do a
profile of Sharon Stone. This is, of course, the drift these
days—the religious adulation of celebrities. But I
don’t give a flying fuck about Sharon Stone, so, for
purely practical and writerly reasons, I had to pass.
What do you think the difference is,
editorially and otherwise, between the various media
publications you have written for? MJ, the Nation, Z,
and whatever others you can think of? What do you think is
the origin of these differences?
This question is more than a little
vague. There are all kinds of differences. Some places are
too controlling and over-edit. Some don’t edit enough.
And so forth. The most interesting editorial difference I
have run into, though, is that between the U.S. and the UK.
For years I wrote a column for The Guardian in the UK,
where I found that much more in the way of nastiness, satire,
and general poor taste is allowable than here. Columns that
had been published in The Guardian would sometimes be
rejected by left publications here, on the grounds that they
were too gross or might hurt someone’s feelings.
What’s mainstream, in your
experience, as a reader and writer, about mainstream media?
What is the process that causes the New York Times’s
content to be so skewed, even distorted, compared to reality,
both factually and editorially? What distinguishes Time,
do you think, from General Motors?
I have no idea what goes on at the New
York Times, or inside Time, for that matter. My
relationship to these places is almost entirely virtual and
conducted by email, phone, and fax. I don’t know how the
editors make decisions or even, in most cases, what they look
like. I figure this is how it should be: I don’t write
for the editors, I write for the readers, and the less I have
the editors in my mind, the freer I am to address the
Okay, you don’t attend
editorial meetings or sit in the office of the owners
plotting strategy. But surely you have some view as to why
mainstream media operates as it does and on whether it is
just another corporation, seeking profits by selling audience
to advertisers, or perhaps has some special attributes that
also have to be considered to understand its behavior.
Like you, I know something about how
the media operate from reading McChesney and Herman,
Bagdikian, the folks at FAIR, and many others. As you
suggest, they increasingly operate like any other business.
But that is not exactly breaking news. It’s time to move
beyond being shocked by the fact that the media are
profit-driven and conglomerate-owned and start paying more
attention to how these facts distort not only "the
news," but our entire culture and politics. Example:
Crime reporting is profitable in that it attracts viewers and
readers, hence the extravagant over-emphasis on crime
(especially on local TV news.) Hence also the punitive frenzy
that drives ever more vicious sentencing, the boom in prison
construction, prison privatization, etc.—even as violent
crime declines. Other examples: Terrorism. It makes for hot
news (though it seldom happens, especially at the hands of
the stereotypical Arab fanatic) and leads to ever-more
surveillance and other limitations on personal freedom in the
name of anti-terrorism. We are talking, in short, about mass
delusion: a culture whose collective perceptions diverge
wildly from verifiable reality because the delusion is far
from eye-catching and profitable to print than anything that
might be actually happening.
Another kind of distortion is
represented by the recent Princess Di phenomenon. In an
article in the Washington Post a few years ago, Todd
Gitlin and I referred to this sort of thing as a media
"spasm," in which the media and the public get tied
up in a temporarily unstoppable positive feedback loop: First
the media give us the story: Di dies; Saddam invades Kuwait;
whatever. Then, if the story sells well, they give us more of
it, along with accounts of how we, the public, feel about it.
As these accounts multiply (tragic scenes of mourners at the
palace, etc.), our feelings grow, leading us to want more of
the story— which the media of course give us, along with
more news of "unprecedented global mass outpouring of
grief." The spasm goes on—crowding out all other
news—until we overdose on it and the whole thing just
gets boring. (Of course, it is the media exec’s who
determine when we’ve had enough and it’s time to
move along to the next story du jour.)
Media spasms illustrate an important
point about our profit-driven, pack-oriented media industry:
It doesn’t just "manipulate" in an
old-fashioned, propagandistic way—it’s extremely
sensitive to the public or at least to what media execs think
the public thinks and wants. (They do lots of polling to find
out what we want.) Of course, much of what we think and want
is already shaped by the media—hence the feedback loops.
But models of top-down manipulation don’t tell the whole
story of our market-driven media. We, the readers or
consumers, are very much a part of what is going on. We are
Isn’t it a little like saying
we are complicit in the policies of GM because we buy cars,
or in those of TV because we watch, or in election outcomes
because we vote? Sure, it’s true in one sense, but if
owners, publishers, political parties set the range of
available options very narrowly, and then we choose among
those, we are choosing, of course, but only in a very limited
sense. Those spasms you mention are never: "Cigarette
Manufacturers Kill Millions—Leave Crime Families in
Their Dust as Murder Incorporated"; or "U.S.
Starves Iranian Babies Without Mercy or Respite—Story,
Pictures, and Further Revelations at Eleven"; or
"Prison Building Robs Monies from Social Services even
as Crime Rate Drops."
We have more of a choice about what we
want to believe or get excited about than we do about, say,
whether we should own a car. Social movements like the civil
rights and feminist movement were not inspired by exciting
headlines; the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s
grew with little or no cheerleading from the media.
Similarly, people have a choice of whether to obsess about OJ
and cry over Di—as opposed, for example, to getting
worked up about the toxic factory in their neighborhood. You
have to have a car to get to work, but you don’t have to
get sucked up into the media spasm of the moment. I’m
not blaming people: In a lonely and atomized culture there is
a great temptation to join in whatever fleeting surge of
communal feeling they can find, whether it’s adoration
of foreign royalty or the Green Bay Packers. But people do
have a choice.
Have you ever experienced a direct
overt impact of advertising on editorial policy, either in
the mainstream or alternative media? What about the more
subtle impact of the need to sell advertisments—that is,
the fact that the overall impact of the periodical on its
readers has to be such that readers are open to ads, ready to
buy what is offered, including being able to afford it?
Have I ever encountered
advertising-based censorship? Is the Pope Catholic? Yes, and
I have encountered it in an "alternative"
publication as well as the biggies. This is, after all,
capitalism, which is not quite the same as the perfect first
amendment democracy. The problem arises when the editors are
less than forthcoming about their concerns. If, for instance,
they say something like "this just doesn’t, um,
work for us" rather than: "Dammit, you know the
rules: No saying mean things about advertisers." I am
left wondering why didn’t it "work?" That can
be real torment: trying to distinguish between actual
censorship and the straightforward rejection of an article
which, for some reason not apparent to the writer, sucks.
In light of the Teamsters recent
strike victory, I wonder how you regard the way in which
class issues are dealt with, both in mainstream and
alternative media. How much do you think coverage of class
and economic issues suffers from the fact that so few people
who do the reporting have any material solidarity or shared
experience with working-class people?
Class issues are not dealt with in the
mainstream media, for two reasons: One, every publication
strives for "good demographics," meaning affluent
readers who will appeal to potential advertisers. No one
wants their rag to be known as the favorite reading of truck
drivers or word processors, no one even wants them reading
it. Two, media decision-makers (editors and executives) are
largely unaware of any class alternative to their own, unless
it is the truly rich or the long-term jobless poor, who are
invariably seen as drug addicts and muggers. When they do
notice what we would call the working class, they see it as a
vestige of the 1930s, and usually as an eyesore. I could give
dozens of examples of class cluelessness in the media.
Here’s one. It was the 1980s and I was pitching a column
on how middle class women could solve the fabled man shortage
by marrying blue collar men. The editor screwed up her
expensively maintained face and said, "But can they
Or for another example: I was
struggling to explain the concept of class polarization to
the editor of a stylish national magazine, but we
couldn’t seem to get past the concept of class itself.
We got into how class isn’t just about income, but about
"culture" (which is, of course, very much affected
by income) and somehow I found myself saying that the
different classes even favor different foods—e.g.,
yuppie brie vs. proletarian Kraft individually wrapped
slices. "Gee," he finally said—reflecting on
that great insight—"Do you think you could base
this all on a cheese?"
What makes you continue the media
work you do? Is it just a good job? Or are you just fighting
the good fight with little hope? Or do you think we can win?
In addition to the pleasures of the
craft, I am sustained by the occasional letter or encounter
with someone who tells me that, thanks to my stuff, they know
they’re not the only nut in the world. I also bear in
mind what a staff member at the Communication Workers of
America once identified to me as the "marble"
theory of social change: You have a whole mass of marbles on
the floor. You roll one toward the center of the mass; it
hits another, which maybe hits another; and, if you’re
lucky, and if a whole lot of other people are rolling theirs
in the same direction from time to time, maybe all the
marbles will eventually, bit by bit, begin to move.