by Tom Avila
Tom Avila is a contributing writer to Metro Weekly news magazine and a staffer for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).
My rock stars are not rock stars.
True, some of my rock stars write about rock stars, but they aren’t taking the stage and telling Cleveland audiences that they’re the best audiences in the world. Even when they do take the stage, I don’t think any would do this … unless they were being ironic.
My rock stars are writers. In the place where some people keep Iggy Pop and the Stones and the Ramones, I keep Sarah Vowell and Chuck Kloesterman. My mix tapes are anthologies of non-fiction writing and essay collections by writers whose literary skills and intellectual archives floor me more than anything Hendrix ever did.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some of my adoration rests in the imaginary glamour of what these people do. In my mind, these folks spend long, luxurious stretches conducting research and reading in archives and visiting locations where buildings once were or will be soon. I envy their solitary pursuit, picturing the work of the non-fiction writer with all the accuracy of a Hollywood movie.
But it’s the uncanny knack some of these writers and journalists have with making connections that also attracts me, the ability to look at something quite pedestrian – as Vowell literally did when she used a single intersection to trace the history of both Chicago and the entire country in her essay “Michigan and Wacker” – and craft something absolutely profound.
A perfect case in point is a recent piece done by writer Kurt Anderson on his public radio art and design show Studio 360. In discussing the architecture of the new headquarters of Central Chinese Television (CCTV), Anderson noted a curious connection between the form of the building and the function it serves. (The building, at right, is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.)
When Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeran designed the building, it was their intention to “carve out of this building a public path and let visitors into the building to actually see absolutely everything and maybe generate the most transparent or accessible television station ever built in the world.” And CCTV approved the plan.
Think about it – as Anderson did: Chinese state television including transparency not in a mission statement, but in their building. And this is no simple or anonymous glass and steel high rise. This is something that, to my mind, is a closer cousin to the Super Friends’ Hall of Justice. CCTV’s building is the second largest office building in the world, with its gravity defying trapezoid housing 10,000 employees. The largest is our own very earthbound Pentagon building. Needless to say, no “walkways of transparency” were built into that structure.
True, this architectural transparency mandate is most likely not going to be the thing that suddenly revolutionizes China’s approach to news gathering and reporting. The 10,000 employees of CCTV can’t even Google “Tibet” in their “all things in the open” structure. The CCTV building metaphor can be taken a step further with the vast empty space at its heart representing all the things not being said on those state-run airwaves.
But who’s going to go that far? What kind of person spends that much time thinking about the irony inherent in a piece of architecture?
My rock stars.
My writer rock stars, like their musician counterparts, have groupies willing to go anywhere with them because their passion resonates. John Sellers writes about how indie rock saved his life with the same zeal that Lynne Rossetto Kaspar rhapsodizes about a good tomato with the same unashamed enthusiasm that Benjamin Nugent put to his book "American Nerd, The Story of My People."
In the opening chapter of Nerd, Nugent tells readers that he’ll be taking a “serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly, which is a nerdy thing to do.” It’s a fervor that breaks down the barrier that would cause most people to stop a conversation in mid sentence and think, “No one really cares about the comic book code of 1954.”
I recently had the opportunity to participate on a panel at the UNITY: Journalists of Color quadrennial event in Chicago. The session was looking at how various issues might impact the election, including those issues most affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. What elements have been missing in coverage of the marriage debate and military service and blood donation? How might journalists approach framing these so-called wedge issues in a fashion that informs readers without risking having them being seen as advocates?
And then an audience member asked what I’ve come to think of as the most important question I’ve heard asked in any journalism discussion ever. “If we do all this, how do we avoid looking like elitists?” This was in reaction to a line of discussion that had focused on polling numbers that show the majority of the country being against marriage rights for same-sex couples. How can journalists approach these LGBT subjects as though all of their readers are at the same place? How do they avoid earning that liberal elite label some audience members are already plastering on the side of their television and radio stations and newspaper buildings?
When the question was asked, I stumbled through an answer that I’ve come to realize is the only answer. We don’t. The reality is that part of the job of being a journalist is, in fact, being the smartest person in the room on a given subject. Not because you’re particularly gifted or necessarily waiting for that MENSA card to arrive in the mail, but because we’re curious. We ask questions. We find the people who know more about a subject than anyone else (unashamedly so) and steal everything they’ll give us.
Think about it this way, if you go to see a doctor, do you want to see the guy that didn’t want to stand out in class for fear of being seen as an elitist or do you want the gal who not only knew what she had to know, but the procedures no one else would be hearing about for months? Do you want to be on the flight with the pilot who was just one of the guys or the one who a few thought was a know-it-all?
Agreed, there is a negative connotation to the elitist label that isn’t appropriate when thinking about that passion for knowledge. But it’s equally true that the fear of being labeled such is far less important than feeding that inner hunger to know more and everything about the subject of your reporting and sharing that information with your audience. Don’t be afraid to be the smartest one in the room. Embrace your inner nerd.
And who knows? One day you might be greeted by a sea of people swaying gently side to side, lighters aloft, asking you to tell them one more time about health-care reform.*
*OK. Probably not. But it’s one heck of a nice image. Tom Avila is a staffer for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. The essays that he writes are his own opinions and not those of his employer … particularly when, like this, he writes nothing about LGBT coverage.