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Late Night: Annals of the Journalistic Passive Voice

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Via @ourmaninchicago, here’s another example of something I talk a lot about:

Yet, Harper and Wells remain in shadow while Jones stands in the spotlight.

“It reminds me of Anna Kournikova,” said Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

This was a reference to the former Russian tennis player whose looks received far more attention than her relatively meager skills.

“It’s really a sad commentary on the industry Lolo is in,” Forsyth said. “Limited opportunities are there for women to gain a foothold unless they sell themselves as sex kittens or virgins for sale. I don’t know if this is Lolo being Lolo or part of a marketing scheme to remain relevant in an Olympic industry where if you are not the Olympic champion, you are nothing.”

The spotlight is a revealing metaphor. I was once put in charge of an actual spotlight for an eighth grade musical (I don’t sing) and let me tell you: those people on stage have no control over the spotlight. They don’t shine it on themselves and they don’t control where it goes. I sneezed during one performance and, looking for a tissue, shuttled through every one of the many colors available to a spotlight operator, ultimately settling on “off” and leaving the poor girl on stage shrouded in darkness. The relationship between athlete and media spotlight is no different—maybe the media descends upon you if you aggressively push a given narrative, but ultimately every outlet controls what it covers and what it doesn’t. Lolo Jones isn’t an assignment editor.

One of my least favorite journalism things is lamenting something for being covered while … covering it. A writer describing something as a “media phenomenon” while ignoring the obvious fact that said writer works for a media outlet.

We see this all the time in political coverage. The media machine is self-perpetuating, especially if you’re conservative: You go on TV, and you’ve been on TV, so therefore you’re worthy of being on TV some more. And then you’re worthy of being on magazine covers, because you’re “a phenomenon” or “popular” or “have garnered attention.”

I’m thinking of the Ann Coulter profiles specifically, or the ones done on Pam Gellar (the attention given to conservative women being a pile of sexist socks I can’t even sort at the moment), or even the stories about Glenn Beck before his implosion, the wuss-voiced “people seem to like him and we have no idea why despite the MASSIVE exposure we are giving him via our television network system machines.”

It’s all part and parcel of media absolving themselves of repsonsibility for coverage, which is the standard response to any type of criticism: We’re not choosing to do this! We’re just giving people what they want! Politicians lie to us, but we can’t refuse to cover them! Twenty-four hour news cycle! Internets! Speed of life these days! PR people are so skilled now! Access is so much harder! I don’t want to go to school MOOOOOOOOM!

Lolo Jones ain’t forcing anybody to write anything about her whatsoever. She’s certainly not forcing you to write vaguely pissed-off stories about how dare a woman use her sex appeal and personal history to get attention and make money. Because as we can see from this NYT piece, that never works.



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Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel is a 10-year veteran of the newspaper business. She publishes First Draft, a writing and politics blog, with her partners Holden, Jude and Scout. She is the author of the books Chicago's Historic Irish Pubs (2011, Arcadia Publishing, with Mike Danahey) and It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal, about a great liberal journalism institution (2007, Heritage Books). She also edited the anthology “Special Plans: The Blogs on Douglas Feith and the Faulty Intelligence That Led to War” (2005, William, James & Co.) Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Daily Southtown, Sirens Magazine, and Alternet. She lives in Chicago with her husband, two ferrets, and approximately 60 tons of books.