Jack Shafer on losing his job, and the state of things
I called up the legendary media critic Jack Shafer after word got out he'd been laid off at Reuters. There was some idea of putting it all together into an article but he speaks too well for himself for us to publish it any other way than as a Q and A. So here you go.
Shafer: I thought I was lucky at Slate, where they treated me like a prince. But at Reuters, they treated me like a king, and I had a great run. I don’t fit their game anymore, and I’m completely understanding of that. They’re treating me well on the way out. So there’s no reason for tears. It’s our business, right?
Capital: What are your future plans?
Shafer: Right now, my immediate plan is to go to work as a lay therapist at The Intercept to bring the healing there so John Cook and Matt Taibbi can return. I have great interpersonal skills.
This was news to me in the early part of this week, and I don’t really have any plans. I got a book review assignment today, but that was from somebody who didn’t even know that I’d been laid off from Reuters, so my next plans, I think, are to read a book and write a review.
Capital: Are you looking for another full-time position?
Shafer: Of course. It’s the job of kings. Ours is a great business. I’d take your job. In fact, I’m going to call Tom [McGeveran, the co-editor of Capital] and tell him, I want Peter Sterne’s job.
Capital: We would love to have you on staff, I’ll tell you that.
Shafer: Oh, that’s very sweet of you to say. In fact, I see in my inbox I have an email from Tom, so maybe he is contacting me to offer me your job.
Capital: This is the second time in three years that you’ve been laid off, not maliciously but unceremoniously.
Shafer: No! It’s wrong to say it’s “unceremoniously.” The job is theirs. The job belongs to Slate or the job belongs to Reuters, not to me. The day that they decide that job doesn’t exist or they don’t want me in that job, there’s nothing unceremonious about it. We know this going in. We’re mercenaries.
If, tomorrow, you don’t like the editing or the headlines or the paper stock at Capital, and you want to do something else, it’s not unceremonious to give Tom your two weeks’ notice and walk across the street, so it probably shouldn’t be unceremonious for Tom to tell you, “Peter, we’ve had a great run here, but you know, I’m going to bring in Shafer to do your job.”
No one ever cries any tears for a publication when somebody leaves it for another publication. It’s inconvenient as hell to lose your job. I’m not trying to cast any aspersions about people who go through real trouble and real pain when they get sacked. But we know that going into this business, and it’s the way this business has always been. I would reject the idea that it’s “unceremonious.”
I mean, the way that I was treated at Slate for so long and the nice package I got going out, likewise with Reuters. There was never a better place that I’ve worked in my career than Reuters. If they decide that they want to do something else with their space and their money, god bless ‘em. They’ve been very good to me.
Capital: Do you think that fewer publications have press critics and media critics these days?
Shafer: If I did a head count, I would say no, we probably have more people writing about the press than ever. I started writing about the press when I was the editor of an alternative weekly in Washington in the mid-80s because no one else would write about the press because they were afraid they wouldn’t get a job if they wrote unkind things. I figured, it was a fluke I had a job anyway, I was never going to get another one, I might as well write about the press because it interested me and I had something to say.
With the rise of the alt-weeklies—and practically every alt-weekly took it upon itself to criticize and critique and examine that major institution in the city which was the daily newspaper—and then the advent of the web, the culture is mobbed up with press critics. I think there are plenty of press critics, and it’s a good thing.
Capital: So you’re not concerned that Slate no longer has a press box columnist and Reuters no longer has a media critic on staff? You think that there’s enough press criticism out there?
Shafer: There’s not enough until I’m employed again. Then there is the perfect number. The perfect math. I think that ours is a fluid business. I don’t think that there’s a magic number of how many press critics there should be. I think that if you ask anybody, if you ask some of the old veterans of journalism, if they’ve ever seen so much press criticism and so much watchdogging in their careers, they’d say, no, this is the high-water mark.
I think that’s one of the reasons that ombudsmen are sort of dying off because the publication said, well this is really the hand that gums us. The real criticism that’s biting and telling and completely independent tends to come from outside. But then there are even guys who are press critics inside, such as Erik Wemple, who do a very good job. He talks about his own institution sometimes. I think it’s a bronze age of press criticism, and all we’ve got to do is work hard and make it golden.
Capital: You’ll be at Reuters until the 22nd?
Shafer: No, no, my last day in the office, with my phone ringing, is December 2nd.
Capital: How many more columns will that be?
Shafer: I don’t have any column ideas right now. I don’t know if I’ll write another column. I don’t know if I’ll write four. If I had not been busy today with a colonoscopy, I would have written a column about: “Yeah, why shouldn’t Uber investigate unscrupulous, rotten journalists? Just be upfront about it.” That’s the column I would have written today if I hadn’t been busy on the doctor’s gurney. I don’t think anybody wrote that, did they?
Capital: No. Dylan Byers wrote a thing attacking the criticism of the Uber executive, saying that he was being stoned by a digital lynch mob. But no one really defended his position.
Shafer: I like Dylan, but I think he’s misrepresenting what a lynch mob is. Yelling and screaming at somebody? If that’s what a lynch mob is, then when I edited City Paper, I was lynched weekly. You’re going to be criticized. This guy seems to be ready for rough and tumble. You don’t use fighting words and then become really surprised that it’s caused a fight. If I said, “Fuck you and your mother with a stick,” you’d say, “Whoa, Jack!” And then I couldn’t say, “I’ve just been lynched by Peter Sterne.” Anyway, I think Dylan got it wrong, but I’m a great believer in the right to get it wrong, because if we wait until we get it right every time, we’ll never get it right.
Capital: After the 2nd, where can we expect to see your writing, or can we not see it until you get snapped up by someone else?
Shafer: Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t have any outstanding job offers. I believe that when possible, never turn down an assignment.
Capital: Well, call me back or email me and let me know when you do get snapped up by another publication, and I look forward to reading what you have to write for many years to come.
Shafer: So do I, Peter, so do I. Thanks so much for the call.