One is impressed by just how credulous the reading public can be. That would be you.
You see what I just did there? I just insulted you. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that insulting one’s readers is not the best way to start an article, conventional wisdom is pretty stupid, too.
It’s called “contrarianism,” and it’s what Christie Blatchford and Christopher Hitchens practise and practised, respectively, to a tee. And, as they know and knew, it’s good journalistic business, not least because readers will fall for it every time.
These thoughts — or rather, insults — are inspired by the response to Blatchford’s recent
National Post Globe and Mail National Post column on man-hugging (I have trouble keeping track of who she’s writing for this week), and the recent outpouring of tweets and status updates beginning “I still can’t believe Christopher Hitchens supported the war in Iraq, but . . .”. Hitchens, of course, came out in favour of the invasion early on, and remained stridently unrepentant to the end. Blatchford’s column was on a less keen matter — the alleged sissification of the modern male, especially in Toronto — but the widespread astonishment that anyone could hold such an opinion, much less write it down, was about the same.
Dear Stupid Readers: these people don’t write broadsides and columns to be liked — they do it, at least much of the time, to rile you up. Why? Do I really have to write this? Because then you will continue to buy their books and newspapers. Thus endeth Street Journalism 101.
Readers don’t return to a writer or publication because the writer or publication is correct — they do it because, as a seasoned editor once taught me, to my own youthful astonishment, they have developed an emotional connection to the writer or publication. And outrage will do the job as well as any other emotion. The easiest way to forge this sort of codependent relationship with the reader is to look for a widely-held assumption and then argue its opposite. Babies cute? Babies suck. War in Iraq bad? War in Iraq good. Rinse and repeat.
It also gives the writer something new to say. After a decade-or-two of spouting left-wing pieties, even the most earnest of fellow-travellers is liable to hanker for a change of subject. This explains P.J. O’Rourke. For some reason, it doesn’t seem to work the other way as often — right to left — though we are currently seeing a variant in David Frum’s reinvention of himself as a critic of the Republican Party. In Frum’s case, though, it is likely a matter of survival — having been frog-marched out of the clubhouse, he doesn’t have much choice.
This is not to say that these people don’t believe what they write — I have no doubt Hitchens was sincere in his support of the Iraq invasion. It just means that, when they sit down to put their unpopular thoughts out into the public sphere, they don’t get all quivery and “Gee, maybe I shouldn’t say this.” Instead, they go, “Oh goody.” Because they know how you are going to respond.
And so, dear Stupid Readers (as well as the rest of you), you might save yourself a lot of turmoil if, when Blatchford produces her next unspeakable column about how, really, smoking is good for you or Stephen Harper is actually kind of cute, you smile and respond, “Oh, Christie” (and perhaps also observe how freaking funny and well-written her stuff is).
And by the way: Babies really do suck.