Investigative Journalism Declares Its Independence
A few days ago I was contacted by Adam Chadwick, a former copyeditor for the New York Times who’s currently filming a feature-length documentary on “the decline of the traditional newspaper business” and what this development portends for journalists and news consumers alike. Chadwick was particularly interested in the question of whether investigative journalism in particular can continue to thrive in an era of weakened newspapers. I suggested he get in touch with Allison Kilkenny.
It was good timing. A few days later, her husband, comedian Jamie Kilstein, announced on Twitter that the internet radio show which the two of them host and produce had already managed to pick up 82 paying members only a week after having gone the independent route (until recently, the program was associated with the online station Breakthru Radio). “Want 100 by Friday,” Kilstein added in the economical parlance of the medium; they passed the 100 mark on Wednesday.
The continuing success of Kilkenny and Kilstein’s Citizen Radio program, a consistently informative and amusing outlet featuring such regular guests as Noam Chomsky, is fortuitous for those of us who routinely argue that news can indeed survive the newspaper, and might even be better off for escaping its various conventions. As to the question of whether the necessary work of investigative journalism will survive without editors to sign off on the particulars and publishers to ensure that the results are sold, I would again point to Allison Kilkenny, who e-mailed me early this morning with a brief account of her most recent adventures at a privately-run refugee camp in Australia where a guard had attempted to confiscate her notes.
A while back, I wrote up a profile of Kilkenny and Kilstein that had been assigned by The Onion for its non-satirical and localized New York print edition – which promptly folded after a failure to turn a profit, appropriately enough. A few days before it was supposed to go to press I withdrew it and told the editor I couldn’t work for him anymore due to the changes he had suddenly proposed. This wasn’t a principled stance on my part, but rather an irritated one; he had the audacity to call me at home after I’d ignored his e-mails all morning and I am a firm believer that editors should know their place – and not simply know it, but really spend some quality time with it while they still have the chance, as they will miss it when it’s gone.
Here, then, is my unedited profile piece of Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny.
Meet the Anti-Power Couple
History is filled with couples who have been kind enough to illustrate some or another place or time or culture that happens to need illustrating. Something important is expressed by such pairings as that of Antony and Cleopatra, Sid and Nancy, and William F. Buckley and his wife, with each breeding pair giving us some clue about the respective environments in which they thrived or at least set each other on fire.
Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein are not quite akin to most power couples of the past. They are not all that powerful, for instance, and at any rate they do not seem comfortable even with the idea of power. We ought not expect anything interesting from the two of them in the way of personal exploits – no civil wars, heroin addictions, or journals of increasingly mediocre conservative commentary are likely to emerge from this marriage. They are vegans, for instance.
The background to their relationship, meanwhile, is insufferably romantic insomuch as that the two of them met when each was poor and unknown and then together became slightly less poor and moderately well-known. “She was starting as a writer and I was failing as a comic and we were both working at a book store,” Kilstein recalls. “So we quit, left our closet in NYC, and hit the road.” Their self-imposed exile worked out better than self-imposed exiles tend to do. A stand-up comedian, Kilstein now spends quite a bit of time touring internationally, while Kilkenny is among the handful of youngish political journalists to have gained a solid readership by the direct and unorthodox means of the blogosphere. Together, they host Citizen Radio, a weekly public affairs program that regularly features as guests such leftist luminaries as Noam Chomsky (who himself has made three appearances so far).
What does the accelerating success of this progressive young couple tell us about the here and now and perhaps even the little bit later? Kilstein, whose act draws heavily on politics and religion, has won particular acclaim in Europe, the denizens of which are hungry for reassurance that Americans still understand irony. “Obama’s escaped some criticism largely because our last president was so bad,” he’s keen to note in front of foreign audiences. “It’s kinda like we just got out of an abusive relationship, where our last man was so batshit crazy anything the new guy does is amazing by comparison. ‘How’s the new boyfriend?’ ‘Well, he doesn’t waterboard me.’ ‘Put a ring on that finger, girlfriend!’”
That Kilstein is far better known internationally than he is in the U.S. may probably be explained by this desire for an America that can once again evoke laughter of the intentional sort. Meanwhile, Kilkenny’s increasing prominence as a journalist and commentator is perhaps more telling, and at any rate ought to be reassuring to those worried about the degeneracy of America’s opinion-making class. In a manner that would have been impossible fifteen years ago, the 26-year-old writer managed to build her own audience by virtue of ability, a commitment to actually getting the story right, and other such novelties of modern media; she’s now a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and True/Slant along with more traditional outlets like The Nation.
That real journalists with talent are now replacing fake ones with credentials is particularly heartening if one considers how many mediocrities have risen to the top over the past decade or two. On the right, for instance, Kilkenny turns to Peggy Noonan when in need of something to ridicule (“Every column is a hysterical cry for a man to stick a penis in her and make the world right again”). On the left, she looks to Maureen Dowd when in need of a reminder regarding how vapid the commentariat has become (“All she writes is bad puns when she isn’t plagiarizing or repeating gossip”). Like her husband, Kilkenny is too nice to make such criticisms on her own and must be prompted to do so by vindictive feature writers. She’s quicker to praise those journalists who actually break important stories and provide accurate analysis – people like Amy Goodman of Democracy Now (“fearless and wonderful”) and Glenn Greenwald of Salon (“the most morally consistent journalist I’ve ever read”).
Even if she represents a restorative dynamic in American journalism, Kilkenny remains pessimistic about the uphill battle against such terrible-yet-respected commentators as Thomas Friedman and no-talent reporters like everyone. “The news,” she notes, “exists to turn a profit.” It used to, anyway.
Kilstein and Kilkenny’s Citizen Radio program is quickly gaining popularity and will soon begin recording at The PIT in front of a live audience. If the couple does indeed represent a trend, it’s a positive one, which is certainly a nice change of pace.
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