July 2, 2009
Today’s “History of Howard Stern, Part II” spent some time on the show’s use of ambush interviews, when the show sends out an intern or employee to pose as a reporter and pester celebrities with rude and inappropriate questions.
At first Stern used his producer, Gary Dell’abate, to carry out the task, and Dell’Abbate hated it. Dell’abate called the practice, which has since been emulated or copied or ripped off by many others, a perfect name: “asshole journalism.”
It’s one part of the show that always makes me squirm. I find myself lowering the volume or even switching the station—it can be compelling, it just makes me cringe. I suppose it’s because I’m trained to do the non-asshole journalism, and I always feel the relationship between myself and those I interview is mutual—we might not agree on much, but we agree to be civil, because at the end of the day there’s a mutual understanding that we both have a worthwhile job to do.
Then again, I rarely interview celebrities.
“Celebrity journalism” has become an oxymoron in our culture, and Stern was onto that long ago. Long before the Daily Show or Sacha Barron Cohen, Stern was sending his low-paid or unpaid minions out to ask the most uncomfortable questions of the most famous people.
“Do you pee in the shower,” I remember they once asked Dustin Hoffman.
Dustin f-ing Hoffman.
Stern saw that so much of what passed for serious interviews was PR-contrived nonsense, pre-approved by a publicist, vetted by a lawyer, and then cut to a three second soundbite. The Stern show decided to become a part of a media pack, join in a frenzied junket—but instead of using the opportunity to elevate some star’s reputation, Stern used it to entertain his audience and elevate his own reputation. If no one expects “celebrity journalism” to be real or serious, why not make it completely unreal and completely un-serious—and in so doing expose it for the sham it is.
In other words, stack the show’s ambush questions—about bodily functions and career flops and race relations (“Have you ever used the n-word?” was one I remember)—against the fawning tripe put out by the Today Show or any other PR-approved outlet, and you’ll see where the real “asshole journalism” gets done.
So I get it—it’s a subversive and dead-on commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture. But it still makes me cringe.