SAN FRANCISCO, August 11, 2012 — You really have to wonder, after listening to countless man-in-the-street interviews, if the man in the street is worth listening to anymore. The more he is relied upon as a journalistic staple, the Voice of the People, the dopier he seems to get.
The average man may be seriously overrated, or possibly just a little too average. An average grade, C, was never something anyone coveted in school, and nobody boasts of having average intelligence, so why is the average man so highly prized by journalists?
This is less the man-in-the-street’s fault than it is the media’s, for airing random interviews with Americans who somehow always turn out to be either clueless or crazy.
The ancient premise behind the man/woman in the street interview is that he/she somehow reflects what the country is thinking at a given moment, usually after some calamity has struck, when in fact it usually reflects what the reporter or newscast’s producer thinks will make the best, i.e., hostile or manic or daffy, sound bite.
The man in the coffee shop, barroom or barber shop almost always sounds as if he hasn’t any idea what the reporter is talking about but nonetheless feels compelled to come up with an opinion so as to (a) sound reasonably informed and (b) not disappoint the reporter.
A week ago, the co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Steve Inskeep, talked to a guy who felt that people need to arm themselves in church to prevent further mass shootings. The guy was clearly bonkers, but Inskeep, albeit appalled, gave him the credence, respectability and forum of representing the average American’s frame of mind on NPR.
The real purpose of the segment, it appeared, was to air the most lunatic person on the street available at the time, just to stir things up a little. In the broadcast business, I think they call this “good radio.” I guess if anyone had anything really smart to say it would likely be labeled bad, or boring, radio and wind up on the sound-bite cutting room floor.
Radio and TV (also newspaper) reporters keep popping into barrooms to talk to the presumed man in the street, but I’m not sure if the average American is hanging out in a saloon at 2 in the afternoon.
That fact fails to daunt our intrepid reporters, who somehow feel that some hung-over bozo in a bar in mid-day has his finger on the pulse of America. This is democracy — or at least broadcast journalism — run amuck.
I strongly suspect that, after the latest shooting rampage, the canny National Rifle Association sends people out to track down radio and TV reporters. Or maybe they even dispatch NRA members to local saloons, barbershops and fast food joints – where local reporters urgently seek out the collective intelligence of the American people.
Steve Allen first made a mockery of this shaggy journalistic cliché in his famous “Man in the Street” segments — four idiots who were totally out of it, one of whom was unable to recall his name.
Allen would stick a microphone in their face, whence forth came the inspired inanity of a quartet of doofuses and nut cases, hilariously played by nervous Don Knotts, preening Louis Nye, English language-impaired Bill Dana and dazed Tom Poston.
Playing off of Allen’s classic premise, on the “Tonight” show’s “Jaywalking” segments, Jay Leno interviews real-life airheads who rarely have any idea what he’s asking them, let alone are able to manage an intelligible answer.
The segment purposely airs the dumbest replies Leno can find, for bigger laughs, so possibly it’s unfair to judge the electorate based on the ninnies that Leno encounters — but they never seem far from reality either. That’s the scary part.
The media’s equally squeamish bad habit is framing questions for interviewees that suggest the answer, which in court would be slapped down by a judge as “leading the witness.”
I’m not sure when and how this all started, but for decades now talk-show hosts and even supposedly hard-news reporters, have been lobbing squishy questions at celebrities like, “How difficult was it for you to achieve this goal?,” “Can you describe the thrill you felt when this happened?,” “Are you as great as you would like to be?” and, “What is the hardest part of being so famous?”
Gerald Nachman is the author of several humor and entertainment books, most recently Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America; Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s; and Raised on Radio, about the golden age of radio. For 20 years Nachman was a critic and syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and for the New York Daily News. For more on Mr. Nachman go to: geraldnachman.com
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