|ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: THE N.Y. OBSERVER'S TOM SCOCCA.|
Tommy Scocca's the new monkey spitting ink for the New York Observer's media horny "Off the Record" column. He started writing the column while still dawdling as editor of the Washington City Paper. He was also a feature writer at the Boston Phoenix in the mid 1990s and co-creator of Funny Paper, "an arch take on the world of comics." Arch take. Yepper, that's what it says.
He moved to the city a couple weeks ago. So, muggers and rapists set your sights on the dopey guy wearing an Orioles hat and give him the proper welcome. We'll do our part as well, rock and a hard place style. Engage, Scocca.
To the window! To the walls!
BT: So, Scocca. You go from an scrappy alt city paper to New York's daintiest, prettiest weekly windbag, The New York Observer, to write elegant, back-handed buzz about the goddamn MEDIA. Honestly, what the fuck can you bring to this overstuffed cocktail party that 90% of us aren't already drinkin' or sniffin'?
TS: When you put it like that, I guess the answer is "scrappiness," huh? Maybe I can bring to your party the fact that I don't give a wet shit what you're putting in your gullet or up your nose. Yeah! That the alt-scrappy stuff you're looking for?
There are lots of reasons for me to worry about the saturation problem. It's not just that I'm following an incredibly knowledgeable reporter, nor even that I'm trying to compete for stories with who-knows-how-many veterans of the beat. It's that the readership itself knows this stuff so well. I came into this job almost entirely ignorant of the media scene -- especially the Who's Who stuff. Perhaps we can call that "a fresh perspective."
BT: Do you think you only got the job because your last name is Scocca? I mean, The Observer seems to have some sort of weird fecal fetish when it comes to hiring its media beaters: S-cocca? Sridhar Pap-pu? Gabriel Snyder? You follow? What's that about?
TS: Hey, that's a nice structure on the joke, but I don't especially want to go all hyuk-hyuk on Mr. Snyder behind his back. Man's been nice enough to me, so you'll have to stir up that beef yourself. As for the greater connection between feces and media criticism, I dunno. Ask my pal Dan Kennedy, author of the Boston Phoenix's Media LOG.
BT: Would you rather play captain fisty with Sridhar Pappu or do a Jager shot out of Gandhi's sandals?
TS: Man, that's all I have to face for the sexual/scatological dilemma? If it weren't for the danger of seeming to endorse your apparent thing against South Asians, this would be totally harmless. Now that I think about it, though, it's probably whatever ethnic revulsion you're harboring that makes this so easy: forced sexual congress with Sridhar would be the lesser evil in many cases; he is a dapper, well-scrubbed young man, and his hands are modest in size. But, shoot, I've been happily drinking Jagermeister since the days when you could only find the stuff in Germans' freezers. And the Mahatma, a clean man to begin with, hasn't even worn his sandals in more than 50 years. I fail to see how the concept is even slightly repulsive. Set 'em up, barkeep!
BT: When you get a story linked on Romenesko, do you sport an enormous erection? And do you think there's a way media coverage can appeal to people not involved in the media? Like, are you writing for an insiderish audience or are you writing for the Upper Westside mommies with platinum baby carriages and shit?
TS: I'm going to ignore your second question, because it makes you sound like James fucking Lipton. The answer to the first question is no. That's mainly because the "Off the Record" columnist gets Romenesko links ex officio, so it's no great credit to my work. I inherited Sridhar's links, and when I go, Maura McStool or Ben Scheiss or whoever will inherit mine.
That's one reason. The other reason, to return to your Romenesko-as-sex concept, is that I have no idea where Romenesko's G-spot is. I've given up trying to figure it out. The site is great to read, but I've edited and written lots of stuff I thought was worthy that didn't tickle his fancy. And he's latched onto items I thought were duds.
He basically ignored Funny Paper -- make that present tense; Funny Paper is still officially ON HIATUS -- which is by far the most influential media criticism I'd done before "Off the Record." We called out a Pulitzer winner, Doug Marlette, for plagiarism. We were cited as "Garfield" experts. We got quoted in "Trivial Pursuit." We found our names hidden in the artwork of the Sunday funnies. And Romenesko overlooked 99.5 percent of our work.
So I'm writing for whoever reads my stuff. If that's the guy who draws "Hagar the Horrible," aces. If it's some guy in the Smokies who subscribes to the Observer -- and guess what, 10017? Some do -- that's wonderful.
BT: Do you think covering the media is shitty? Is it self-serving? Like what are some of the best media stories in the last couple years?
TS: Yeah, I moved up here because I wanted the shittiest beat I could find.
I mean, sure, some of it's shitty. It's kind of a downer to have to confront the rank hypocrisy in your own line of work every single week -- the editors who send reporters out to ask civilians questions about their business, then won't talk to reporters about their own business. The spokespeople have this really cute line these days: "Thanks, but he/she's going to pass on this one." Like I'm coming around with a fucking tray of bacon-wrapped scallops on toothpicks. Chicken satay. I'm not offering you an hors d'ouevre, asswipe, I'm trying to get the answer to a fucking question. I've gotten that from both coasts.
I especially like it when an editor sends out a quote through a spokesperson. Oh, should I put that in quotation marks for you and pretend we talked? I'm sure a magazine editor would be really happy if one of his own fancy writers came in and said, "Well, chief, I couldn't score an actual interview with Sofia Coppola -- she passed on this one -- but her spokesperson e-mailed me some quotes." That wouldn't violate any journalistic standards.
Oh, shit. Did I just climb down off the turnip truck and start calling leading editors asswipes? What was that question about the self-servingness of the media beat, again?
BT: Was there ever a place you wanted to work, but you didn't get hired? And why was that? Was it because your name was Scocca?
TS: When I was 19, I tried to go back to my local weekly, the Aegis, in Harford County, Maryland, for a second summer as a cub reporter. They'd been bought by Times Mirror, and the editor said, sorry, but I can get journalism students to come in and work an internship for college credit, unpaid. That was instructive. Or maybe I was an asshole and they just wanted to get rid of me. Get some kid who wouldn't show up for work in a Doolittle T-shirt and blown-out Army shorts. I guess I was an asshole, come to think of it.
BT: What is one article that you've read in the last five years not written by me or you that totally floored you?
TS: Jeffrey Steingarten's Vogue piece about the making of boudin noir, starting with a living pig. Was that more than five years ago? Gory, unflinching, and yet appetizing -- and the best part was that it ran in Vogue.
Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post floors me with his ability to extract meaning and narrative from the travails of the perennially fourth-place Orioles, game after game, summer after summer. I get very sad whenever I see a second-stringer's byline on the Orioles story.
And my good friend and collaborator Joe MacLeod, of City Paper in Baltimore, wrote a column a little while back that consisted entirely -- or almost entirely -- of the word "cicada." Most penetrating piece of media criticism I've read in a long time.
BT: So, you'll probably be immersed in all this election bunk for the next couple months. Is it true you have to be clinically insane to run for high public office? I mean, you have to be ... right? Without getting all politically gabby, has there been somebody you've experienced first-hand where you were just completely floored by what a lunatic they were?
TS: Insane? Well, you have to somehow be able to act abnormal and inhuman all the time, without faltering. You have to pretend to feel warmth toward an endless string of strangers, even as you treat them all as interchangeable. You have to repeat the same finely machined idiocies over and over again for a pack of beat reporters who are just waiting for you to botch the script; meanwhile, the clever profile writers are hovering, piling up notes on how phony and insincere you are because you stick to the script. All that is probably easier to handle if you're a psychopath.
So in the minimal contact I've had with politicians on the hoof, yeah, they're freaky to see. But so is Ray Lewis running around clobbering people on the football field, if you think about it. Luckily Ray Lewis doesn't have to ply his trade in diners in New Hampshire.
BT: Do you like kites?
TS: Yes, though mostly in theory. I grew up kind of surrounded by woods, so in practice, a kite would get about nine feet off the ground before hooking in the bottom branches of a tulip poplar. [Takes swig of iced tea from Mason jar; wipes mouth on flannel sleeve.]
BT: Which publications have disappointed you in the last five years with new or different directions they've gone editorially? Like which ones have really shit the bed in your opinion?
TS: For years, I kept meaning to get a subscription to Harper's, because I liked reading it when I read it. Then I got a subscription and it just got more and more hectoring, month after month. The Washington Post has fantastic regular sports reporting, but its star sports columnists have all gotten too famous or too tired and have just quit trying. Only one of them even seems to watch games anymore.
I greatly enjoy the New Yorker, but this week the vaunted fact-check desk allowed my hometown Army base, Aberdeen Proving Ground, to be rendered as "Aberdeen Proving Grounds." No S, people! I demand some infallibility here!
BT: Is journalism a good way to pick up chicks? If so, why are so many big media people homos?
TS: I haven't seen much evidence it's a chick-magnet line of work, except maybe for VIP-room-hopping magazine writers. Journalists seem to pair off with journalists a lot. But my wife's journalistic career consisted of writing the fashion column for the Harvard Law School newspaper. You say there are lots of homosexuals in big-time media? That's interesting. I keep learning so many new things in this job.
BT: Yeah. Lots of 'em, apparently. Who do you think is the most intriguing media personality in the city right now. Like if you could go hang out with this person all night going crazy in the Flatiron district dressed up in poodle costumes all wigged out on toad venom, who would that be? Or maybe you'd just sit and talk with this person and that'd be perfectly fine as well...
TS: "Media personality"? Thanks, I'll pass on this one.
BT: Great. That's a pretty shitty way to end an interview. Just fucking great...