Language of snide

Or, Unlikely lessons from American Idol coverage about a particular kind of political commentary

I’ve been kicking the idea around for some time. If you read a lot of political blogs, as I do from time to time, you would (perhaps) reach the same conclusion I did: An inordinate number of such blogs use snide or snarky language. (Nota bene: In today’s context, snarky is often used as a compliment.)

I have wondered about what it all means. Some snidefests are the author’s work; others thrive in the comment threads, like a party in a house without the owner’s consent. Others have the owner’s full participation, or reflect the owner’s own party-animal sense of self.

A TV columnist’s take on, of all things, the last American Idol episode unexpectedly pushed my thinking in a new direction. (I suppose I must confess that, because in our part of the newsroom the TV is tuned to StarWorld when it’s airing American Idol, I have not missed any episode this season. I know, I know. It’s scary.)

Lisa de Moraes is a gifted writer, who writes the TV column for the Washington Post. She is also a past master in the art of snide.

Consider her column which chronicled the unexpected exit of Idol favorite Chris Daughtry.

Presumed "American Idol" winner Chris Daughtry went down last night.

No one seemed more surprised than Daughtry himself, who just 24 hours earlier, during Elvis night on the singing competition, had prattled on happily to show host Ryan Seacrest about his mess o’ fans, the Chris-aholics, and all the great stuff they’ve been showering on him, like belt buckles, cologne and junk food.

He wanted all the Chris-aholics watching at home to know he wears boxer briefs.

We think that’s what did him in.

Chris definitely should have taken a strong pro-boxer or pro-brief stand. It’s this shilly-shallying around with "hybrids," as Seacrest called them, that does so much to undermine the resolve of the "Idol" voter. That’s our story and we’re sticking with it.

It continues for five more well-turned, entertaining paragraphs, each an example of high snark.

The thing is, De Moraes writes this way, about Idol or other television topics, almost all the time. In fact, columns like the one above share the generic, giveaway title: "We watch so you don’t have to …"

For some reason, last week’s column set me thinking. De Moraes is not exactly a disenfranchised member of the powerful American press; she writes a well-known, well-read column for the Post. Three years ago, Jack Shaffer wrote a trenchant appreciation of De Moraes’ many gifts.

As a former Hollywood Reporter journalist, de Moraes has excellent sources and commands a nuanced understanding of television. But while great sources are necessary for the kind of journalism she produces, they aren’t sufficient. The irreplaceable thing about de Moraes is that she’s willing to write with caustic, honest wit about a corrupt and contemptible industry that likes to pretend it is advancing art and enlightenment. Rather than encrypt her sardonic message, as most daily journalists do, hoping their enterprising readers might somehow decode the embedded truths, de Moraes writes it straight from the spleen. The sort of spitballs she heaves at her subjects are allowed nowhere else in the Washington Post—not on the op-ed page, an alleged forum for opinions, nor in the playpen of "Sports," the least consequential but most popular section (only Post TV critic Tom Shales bleeds analogous vitriol for his subjects). You’d have to page through back issues of Spy magazine to find writing that is so consistently cruel, abrasive, and spot-on.

But in her Idol coverage, De Moraes sounded as though she were overwhelmed by the media juggernaut that is the Idol franchise. She wrote as a critic who had the duty to write about something she may consider not worth watching at all, but who felt powerless to stop the audience from watching.

That’s when it struck me: Perhaps snide is the language of the informed but powerless.

What can one do, after all, when faced every single day with American television culture in all its numbing, even tedious, massiveness?

I thought of another site I read regularly which can also be described as relentlessly snarky. Get Religion tries to set the world straight about the nuances of religion journalism; it’s an excellent read. But look at the following post, by Mollie Ziegler:

Like everyone else in the world, I bet I’m going to go see The Da Vinci Code. But not because I expect it to be great or even a fun, brainless action flick. It’s more that I’m in a perpetual state of trying to understand how a book as ridiculous as The Da Vinci Code could enable Dan Brown to sit comfortably on piles of cash for the rest of his life. I had a colleague in my newsroom a few years ago who pronounced it the best book she’d ever read. How sad is that? Do readers really want three-page chapters? And do they need their characters reintroduced on every page? Was the book written for people suffering from short-term memory loss? Why why why?

It’s funny, it’s to-the-point; it gets the reader hooked. But it could also be the language of a reporter who knows what an uphill climb the whole Get Religion enterprise is. There is a massive boulder that needs to be rolled uphill every single day; that would make snide a compensatory Sisyphean gesture.

Politics too can overwhelm us with its sheer massiveness. As Wonkette illustrates, sometimes the best way to approach politics in all its variety and absurdity is to speak of it ironically, as mere chatter for the cocktail circuit.

  • The week started off with a double shot of intelligence stories to get us all hot and bothered. Did we say hot? We meant super-hot.
  • Sometimes they pop and sometimes they sizzle.
  • When nothing’s really happening, it’s easy to get bored. Luckily, Katherine Harris makes such a lovely distraction.
  • If it gets really slow, then it’s time to make your own fun. First step: think long and hard about who would win a knock-down, drag-out scratch-battle between two crazy and energized congressional furies. It turns out, no one had to think that hard after all — it was a landslide.
  • Next in the ring, House firebrand and chatterbox Sheila Jackson-Lee squared off against “Sergeant Homemade Sweater” herself, Virginia Foxx. This one had a closer finish, but was still a straight beat down.
  • This is getting pretty exciting, and now it’s time for two of the pre-tournament ranking favorites: Cynthia “I Train In The Off-Season” McKinney and Nancy “Don’t Make Me Give You The Crazy-Eye” Pelosi. It was neck and neck for a while there, but Nancy reached back to her street roots, and clawed out a victory.

Again, this is the language of someone (actually, several persons, now that Ana Marie Cox has left the building) who knows an incredible amount but is essentially powerless to change the agenda.

So. Ridicule as the last refuge of the out-of-the-loop; I am not comfortable with this turn in the road I’ve been led to. But that’s where I am, for the moment.



Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion

3 responses to “Language of snide

  1. Excellent post. May I steal an above quote from you? 😉

  2. Yes, of course. But I must hasten to add: It’s your own lookout! : )

  3. I think snarkiness is channeling one’s anger and helplessness into something positive, i.e., something fun, by poking fun at something so low it deserves high ridicule. I think I’m explaining myself here in my use of this, uhm, novel rhetorical device. Snide/snark should be included in the list of rhetorical devices, don’t you think?

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