Sunday, January 13, 2008

Obstacles on the career path

To a certain extent, my enjoyment of working in the journalism field is tied to the fact that I get to put my name on top of the articles I write, and then get paid for it. There's a low level of some kind of celebrity involved in being a working reporter, regardless of how small or obscure the publication is that one works for.

That said, I'm nowhere near the "big leagues" occupied by the Important Journalists who have become household names. There's a vast and yawning chasm between my job and that of, say, a Bob Woodward or Christopher Hitchens. They are, and I think deservingly, the "rock stars" of the journalism business.

Whereas, I'm currently something like the fourth violin in some backwater philharmonic.

How does one make the leap from this low, entry-level position to that exalted talking-Beltway-head status? Apparently, there are a few requirements, but several ways to go about pulling it off.

To use the above examples, there's Mr. Woodward, who by all accounts took the traditional route to fame and quiet fortune -- working his way up through the Washington Post hierarchy and being fortunate enough to be involved in what was perhaps the biggest tip of the 20th century. While Watergate was certainly a career-defining moment for Mr. Woodward, one can't ignore the fact that he's also an incredibly diligent reporter.

Hitchens, on the other hand, while also serving as a reporter and foreign correspondent, seems to have rocketed to fame by aligning himself with certain political activist groups and by writing things that are hugely unpopular -- such as his remonstrations of people like Ghandi, Ronald Reagan, Mother Teresa, and God.

The fact that Hitchens is also an accomplished scholar and rhetorician shouldn't be forgotten, it's notable that other famous "journalists" have acquired at least similar levels of fame without the erudition or study that he has. Ann Coulter, the lawyer-turned-slime-spewing-harpy for the GOP, is probably near the top of that list.

So if certain levels of fame and renown are the goal, how should one set about determining a career path? There are a few immediate things to put on the "to-do" list:

- Accumulate various unrelated degrees, such as law, political science, or anthropology; anything that adds letters to one's suffix will apparently do;
- Take up several controversial positions and loudly denounce everyone who thinks differently.

On this second point, I don't mean to automatically discredit or brush away all of the positions taken up by writers I've mentioned here so far. To be sure, I think Hitchens has excellent arguments and bases for even his least-popular ideas. However, I'm not sure that his star would have risen to the heights it has if he hadn't been noticed for thinking things that a lot of people find shocking, and I'm absolutely positive that Coulter wouldn't have a career at all if it wasn't for her rather disgusting propensity to revile and insult people who are generally considered undeserving of such abuse. Things like that, it seems, make people sit up and take notice.

(I'll note here that re-reading the last paragraph, I'm regretful to have mentioned both Hitchens and Coulter in the same breath -- I'd hate for anyone to think I consider the two comparable in any way, shape, or form, other than for the fact that they're both noted political writers. Hitchens is a well-spoken, well-educated scholar who is willing to go on the attack; Coulter is a stupid brute whose published work bespeaks a seriously underdeveloped mind that might be more at home with similar chimps in front of the large black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Anyway, I've got at least half of my to-do list planned -- I'm hoping to earn a master's in political science within the next two years. Now, all I need is a few controversial positions. So far, I've only come up with one, which I hardly really believe myself: that the Beatles were an overrated group of average musicians whose catalog of music is at least half-full of songs that are actually very embarrassing on reexamination.

I don't think that's going to be enough to rocket me into journalistic stardom, though, so I'm going to have to spend some more time at the drawing board.

My problem is, I think, that the more I try to learn about current events, the more I'm faced with what I'm now convinced are glaring and inexcusable holes in my education. I never learned anything about the period between 1950 and 1980, for example, in any educational setting, save for a few scraps about the Vietnam war.

That makes it tricky to really feel confident about any ideas I have about the Middle East or Africa, which have been practically left out of any history curricula I've received. I do know that the more I learn -- on my own, that is -- about those two areas, the less I realize that I know. A little additional education, as it turns out, can be intellectually crippling; unless, that is, one undertakes to learn the whole kit and kaboodle. And who's got time for that?