Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bob Somerby talks about journalism, comedy and The Daily Howler

Bob Somerby is a stand up comedian and publisher of The Daily Howler media criticism website. While Somerby follows press error wherever he sees it, his deconstruction of the coverage of the impeachment and the 2000 Presidential election was a forerunner and inspiration for American liberal blogosphere.

Somerby is important to PR, because he teaches us that blogosphere can be our a friend as easily as a threat. It was reading The Daily Howler that made me realize that clients on the receiving end of a hatchet job could get a hearing in blogosphere.

I asked Somerby how he came to work for The Baltimore Sun, and he responded that, in fact, he had never been a reporter; he wrote occasional op-ed pieces on education. He was working as a schoolteacher in Baltimore’s inner city schools and did not think anyone was discussing such systems in a realistic way. He told me that he was inspired by Jonathan Kozol. Somerby had intended to drop bombshells but found he was temperamentally unsuited to the task. Burned out as a teacher, he turned to stand-up comedy.

He opened the Charm City Comedy Club with a friend during the eighties, when comedy was hot. Initially, the club did very well, but when the owner of the building where the club was located went bankrupt, a series of disruptions occurred that made it impossible to keep the club open. The club had handled its own PR, calling the local newspapers and telling them, “Paul Reiser is in town; would you like to interview him?” They were reasonably successful in generating publicity. Incredibly, newspapers turned down an opportunity to interview Rosanne Barr just before she was famous (but when it was clear she was going to be big).

After the club closed down, Somerby went out on his own as a comic and hired a publicist. While he did get some publicity, it was too early in his career for such a step. (Note to fellow flacks; we need to target our marketing to those ready for our services.)

I asked Somerby what it was like performing during the sniper incident. He said it was an odd situation. Somerby found himself experimenting with jokes, worrying “will the audience buy it?”

Much of Somerby’s comedy involves a send up of marketing, and I asked him how he had selected his material. He responded by saying that he didn’t exactly select it, it had grown out of a one-man show that was autobiographical, much of which concerned the role of consumerism in our society.

Somerby observed, that unlike politics, subjects like Kellogg's and Nike are instantly accessible to audiences. (Somerby has a long riff on two scoops of raisins that is indescribably hilarious.)

One of the funniest moments of Somerby’s routine is when he quotes Kierkegaard at length. I asked him how he figured out that comedy club audiences would respond to Kierkegaard humor. He said that he had experimented a few times with college audiences, and they had liked it.

I asked Somerby to elaborate on his criticism of Colbert’s work for the White House Correspondents’ dinner. He said that the discussion about the performance was interesting. Somerby had watched the event live on C-SPAN and didn’t think Colbert was funny. He admitted it is a tough event to work because the most famous person in the world is the guest of honor, and somehow you have to poke fun at him without being rude. Somerby thought Colbert had crossed the line; Comics are hired to make their audiences laugh. Somerby said he simply wouldn’t accept a gig with a group he did not respect.

Somerby has some basis for comparison; he did an event in 1995 where he followed Clinton on stage. That can’t be easy.

Comedy can be very powerful, but, as Somerby pointed out, you have to make an audience laugh before you can persuade them of anything. When Reagan was at the height of his popularity, Robin Williams had a routine whose essential proposition was that Reagan was a puppet of the right-wing. Williams is so funny that somehow the routine was successful in spite of Reagan’s immense popularity.

Somerby thinks that when scientists succeed in mapping the brain, they will discover that jokes bypass the denial centers in the brain. If you’re funny enough you can challenge your audience’s most fundamental assumptions.

Somerby could not specifically remember why he started The Howler. He said he thought it was the ridiculous debate over Medicare and how every story was twisted into a referendum on Clinton’s character. He “couldn’t take it anymore,” so he began to type out deconstructions of journalism. Somerby did not own a computer, so he typed his work up and gave it to his webmaster to put online. He did not have email for the first year. At first, he drove around to libraries to look at microfilm; but later, the Hotline gave him access to Lexus/Nexus. He said it is incredibly useful and that he would nationalize it if he could.

Somerby said that the press got “completely crazy,” reaching fever pitch during the 2000 election. He can’t understand why Democrats do not talk about press bias and described the Democratic National Committee as a dumping ground for party hacks, like Bush’s FEMA. He saw the DNC arranging for Jim Nicholson, of all people, to have interviews with talk radio personalities covering the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Somerby has lost contact with operations at the DNC and has no opinion as to whether Howard Dean has made any difference.

He first learned that he was having an impact when a friend of his told him of being at a meeting and hearing Sydney Blumenthal say, “I’ve found the most amazing website!” At one point, he got a call from Hillary Clinton’s office desperate for a place they could correct wrong information. He also received an email from Michael Moore, asking if he could get updates automatically emailed to him.

I asked him if The Daily Howler had built his audience for his stand-up act. He said no; he even fears it may have lost him gigs. He is sure people have done Google searches on his name and gotten The Daily Howler, and not hired him because they were worried he would rant about The Washington Post. Having seen his act, I can assure readers that his routine is completely unrelated to The Howler.

I asked Somerby if there were any journalists he admired, and he simply replied Krugman. I was stunned there were not a few more, and he said he did not include Gene Lyons and Joe Conason, because he assumed I was only asking about the most famous journalists. Somerby also admires the work of David Maraniss, Michael Weisskopf, and Eric Boehlart.

At one time, he was rumored to be working on a book. He said he was thinking of writing one answering the question, “How did the worst President in history get elected?” Somerby criticizes both the Democrats and, surprisingly, the liberal web for not calling the press on their scripts.

Somerby has mixed feelings about liberal blogosphere; he said a friend of his had characterized it as Nader squared, because of its hostility to several of the best known Democratic Presidential hopefuls.

Somerby has no site statistics, because he is afraid to know how few readers he has. I suspect he would be pleasantly surprised. While he knows what Technorati is, he has never checked his links. Neither has he considered adding comments, especially after the brouhaha at The Washington Post. He said comments were “one more thing to spend time on.” Somerby confesses to not regularly checking his email when he has written something sure to displease his liberal audience.

Every morning, Somerby has breakfast at the local bagel joint and reads The New York Times and The Washington Post. Previously, he also read The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Washington Times. He does not read magazines but does watch cable news, including Hardball, O’Reilly, Special Report and more recently the Abrams Report. He does not watch The NewsHour, as he does not think it drives the political dialog in the United States. Blogs he reads include Talking Points Memo, The Washington Monthly, Firedoglake, Hullabaloo, Tapped, TNR Plank, and Media Matters for America. He also scans Huffington Post.

I asked how he came to coin the phrase Celebrity Press Corps. He said that he wanted a lightly comical phrase to describe the tendency of people to become lazy and fatuous under the influence of money and fame. He characterized nationally known journalists as “flouncing around around like celebrities.”

Inspired by Kozol, Somerby had always want to report on inner city schools. He feels their stories are not being properly covered. Too many of those who write about education have no classroom experience.

Recently, he has started to write about education, drawing on his experience as a teacher in the Baltimore public school system. He said that there are no materials available to help children who are behind their grade level; that what is needed is reading materials, not endless testing regimes.

Edit -
Somerby is writing a book. How he got there. The press corps' war against Candidate Gore: How George W. Bush reached the White House


Paull Young said...

Great post Alice! Extremely interesting read.

As an Australian I'm not familiar with Somerby, but I'll be following him now.

I think that humour is an extremely underused resource in PR communication.

When used appropriately, humour can be a hugely effect communication tool.

However, it's tough to use appropriately and can backfire. I guess that's what often scares us of...

I wonder what the rule is for use of humour in professional communication? Do we use it, or shy away from it because it can be 'dangerous'?

Alice said...

Humor is difficult to use, precisely because it is so powerful. As you say, it can blow up in your face. For my part, I don't try to use humor very often.

But I think PR can learn a lot from Somerby.