Alex Ben Block: Confessions of a Reborn and Unrepentant Journalist

Alex Ben Block, senior editor of the Hollywood Reporter, is on a tear. Here’s what he wrote in to the John Rabe Blog:

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I am a reborn journalist and we are the worst kind. We can’t stop practicing our craft. We are never UNemployed because we can write, report and edit, so there is always that next freelance assignment while we subsist on the dream of publishing enough books to actually pay the bills, before we are forced to take PR jobs. Though the Internet is the greatest tool for journalists ever created, it has turned traditional journalism upside down. Where the ideal was to be a reporter, now it is to be a media darling. The days when journalism meant putting integrity first, when there was the profit motive AND the greater public good, seem to be gone. The great engine of investigative reporting, the independence that made Watergate a counter to Nixon’s Nazis, has stalled.

It wasn’t always like that. When I came to LA in ‘79 as an Assistant City Editor at the old Herald Examiner, we did the daily stuff but you could still develop stories for weeks, even months. Merle Linda Wolin’s landmark series on LA garment sweat shops went on for a year. Some of those articles might sit in a drawer for a while but when we put them into the paper they were breaking news. We had the luxury to accommodate schedules and budgets while also practicing good journalism. Today, a major exclusive can last seconds or minutes. Even when you get it up first, there’s about 15 seconds of credit before it’s a commodity on the web.

My gush of journalism nostalgia comes about because sometimes the old joy comes back. The cause this time was an article I wrote that not only served the readers of The Hollywood Reporter but got me excited about journalism once again.

It came about as part of my ongoing coverage of mega-grosser “Avatar” from its earliest days. I had known and interviewed director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau so I was invited to attend Fox Home Video’s junket for the home video release of “Avatar,” held in a West Hollywood hillside gated mansion. Nearly a hundred journalists from around the world were rounded up, cameras, pens and camcorders in hand and hauled up by mini-vans from the Sunset Boulevard adjacent hotel.
Cameron and Landau opened with an informal speech and showed four extraordinary clips of the 2-D video version of “Avatar” which goes on sale April 23. They laid out the plan to release on Earth Day, to highlight the environmental themes. Cameron explained how he purposely designed the movie in part as an environmental statement.

Then I waited to participate along with other journalists in a roundtable with Cameron, where half a dozen members of the media ask questions for maybe 20 minutes. The junket concept was created by PR people to assure the journalists would get as superficial but positive an impression as possible while making it as easy as possible for the talent, in this case Cameron and Landau, to participate.
So I waited. Then I waited some more. Nearly six hours after I arrived, I was ushered upstairs to interview Cameron. At the last minute a publicist said they were running late so there would only be time for one question from each journalist. After a six hour wait. One question.

When my turn came, I wondered if the environmental theme of the marketing for the video would not just inflame Cameron’s critics on the political right, who saw “Avatar” as anti-American because of the comparisons to Iraq.

That set Cameron off. You can listen to it here, or read my initial article, but for certain you should watch Glenn Beck’s response.

When I came to work at THR the next morning they were all talking Cameron vs. Beck. Millions of hits on the THR web site, so many it threatened to crash the entire system. IT soon figured out how to handle the load by moving it to another server, and canny columnist James Hibberd added the video and coverage of Beck’s response, in each case being first to get it onto the web.

What it taught me was that the principles of good journalism still count, but are now on steroids. In another era, I would have waited to file that article until the next morning. No longer. After that interviewed ended, I raced to my home computer to write and file the story, and make sure I was the first to get it out. First counts in this new world of gotcha journalism and Fox News spins.

I am proud to be a journalist and happy to work for a real journalist, my editor Elizabeth Guider. It saddens me that those who create content are not in fashion right now. However, we will be back. When all the pipes are built, all the platforms constructed, all the IPOs maxed out and all the cyber cafes open 24/7, they will need some fresh content to keep it going more than ever, to keep all those platforms buzzing with seductive words and images.

So do me a favor. Subscribe to newspapers . Give to public radio. Watch the news on TV when it’s more than “if it bleeds it leads.” Support the web sites that get it right. Blogging is not reporting the facts. The guys and gals in pjs who get up and blog add a new element to the dialog … but if we lose the real journalists, who ask tough questions, check their facts and stand by their stories, the world will not be a better place.

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