Two recent articles on the woes of American’s military paint a gloomy portrait not of the military establishment itself but of the affects of a nation that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In [“The Tragedy of the American Military,”] James Fallows argues that the military is conveniently championed but otherwise not considered, the result are forces that are constantly deployed in impossible situations from which little good can come. What does that mean for the men and women who staff the armed forces? They are increasingly strung out, quite literally: drug use, both legally prescribed and illegally self-prescribed is rising and the military’s embarrassment over the matter means that the soldiers on the frontline of the drug war often get used and case aside. Such is the case, it seems, for Jane Neubauer according to Jacob Siegel in [“Spies, Lies, and Rape in the Air Force: An Undercover Agent’s Story.”]
[“The Tragedy of the American Military,”]: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/12/the-tragedy-of-the-american-military/383516/
[“Spies, Lies, and Rape in the Air Force: An Undercover Agent’s Story.”]: http://www.thedailybeast.com/feature/2014/she-says-she-was-raped-working-undercover-as-an-air-force-informant.html
To my mind, the Mike Daisey controversy — in which _This American Life_ aired a segment of Daisey’s monologue only to discover, thanks to real journalistic fact-checking by a reporter working for a different show that Daisey is a dramatist and not a journalist — reveals something I have long thought about _This American Life_: they are lazy. They are lazy because they are convinced of their own superiority. At least, that’s the impression one gets from listening to the narration in their work. They may not in fact feel that way, but if that’s the case then they need to change how they frame their stories.
It’s the same smugness that permeated David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction work and which made him a *cause celebre* among the literati and technorati. Hipsters loves themselves an *enfant terrible*. (A lot of French phrases here, no?) It’s a kind of unfair advantage they have in investigating the lives of others and reporting it among themselves: they (we) are free to snigger all we want.
_RadioLab_ has occasionally slipped into this mode, and as the show’s popularity has increased they seem more and more happy to lapse into this mode and the other weakness of public radio and television, which is something like “documentary lite”, where telling some sort of story is more important than reporting the substance of a matter.
Don’t get me wrong. Storytelling is important, but really interesting stories come out of the data itself, not out of pre-conceived notion of twenty-four minutes or forty-eight minutes or whatever the current Discovery Channel or NPR (or PBS) redbook is for various shows. RadioLab’s flexible short and long formatting should allow them to get around this, but I suspect that once you discover a successful genre or voice and you gain an audience and you are making a decent living, it’s hard to want to try a different genre or voice or point of view in your productions.
And I suspect this applies to more people than _This American Life_ or _RadioLab_. We know it applies to authors — and here I confess that my favorite commute listening is Clive Cussler — and it probably applies to scholars and scientists: you have some success in an area that’s interesting to you and it gets you going, but then you keep mining it, even when all the work there is to do is done. Or you are done. But you have to keep going because now you have bills that are a good percentage of the peak of your productivity and to switch now to something else would be too dangerous, too risky.
Sigh. And so then we end up with the embarrassment of Mike Daisey on _This American Life_.
I was not all that interested in the grunge scene when it first hit in the early 1990s: I remember making some of my first drives around my new home of Bloomington, Indiana and hearing the sounds coming out of the radio and thinking to myself, “Sounds like heroin is popular again.” (I’ve never done heroin, but I had listened to enough music from the seventies to know what it sounded like when it became rock music.)
All that noted, I also remember reading some of the great writing on music and musicians and the times that appeared on a regular basis when Rolling Stone was still going strong. Steve Hyden of AV Club has apparently found his inner Dave Marsh and is writing some nice pieces that chronicle the alternative rock scene of the nineties. He already has three essays up: check them out.