Critic's NotesBritish Invasion Reshuffles U.S. Media
By David Carr, The New York Times
' 'Media Equation' Blog - Jan. 24, 2013
On Thursday night, the host of “The Daily Show” riffed on Paula Deen’s liberal use of both butter and racial slurs, chatted about journalism with Tom Brokaw and parodied the gangster code of honor that has been in the news in the Whitey Bulger trial. Along the way, he did a honey-dripped Southern accent and dropped into a Cagney-esque wiseguy voice.
None of that is totally surprising for a talented entertainer raised in Birmingham, except the town that John Oliver grew up in is in England, not Alabama, and he is a big fan of Liverpool Football Club, not the Crimson Tide.
Mr. Oliver is filling in for Jon Stewart, who is directing a film this summer. We could dwell on the oddity of a British comedian replacing the host of a deeply American show, except that everywhere you look in the United States media landscape, you find people from that small island.
Piers Morgan came from Britain to take over for Larry King, The Wall Street Journal is edited by Gerard Baker, a British newspaper veteran, and the chief executive of The New York Times is Mark Thompson, who spent his career at the BBC. Anna Wintour has edited Vogue for more than two decades and, more recently, Joanna Coles took over Cosmopolitan, which defines a certain version of American womanhood.
NBC News recently looked to the mother country for leadership and found Deborah Turness, the former editor of Britain’s ITV News. ABC’s entertainment group is headed by Paul Lee, also formerly of the BBC, and Colin Myler, a Fleet Street alum, edits The New York Daily News.
The list goes on, but the point is made: when it comes to choosing someone to steer prominent American media properties, the answer is often delivered in a proper British accent.
The observation about the thicket of British talent has been made elsewhere and is hardly a brand new phenomenon — it’s Tina Brown’s and Nick Denton’s world, we just surf it. But something is at work here, beyond the joke about a British accent adding 10 I.Q. points.
The easy answer is the triumph of British charm and politeness set against American brashness and confrontation. I actually think it is exactly the opposite. As Geoff Dyer wrote in The Times in 2009, Americans strive, underneath the loutishness, to be liked, while the British care more about being right.
If that’s so, then the renewed British invasion on our shores makes sense because media are becoming more competitive and less mannered with each passing day. Apart from the fact that Mr. Oliver is a very funny man, “The Daily Show” continues to storm along partly because, like Mr. Stewart, Mr. Oliver suspects everyone and everything and says so aloud.
It’s a very British way of thinking. The one question all young reporters on Fleet Street are taught to keep foremost in their mind when interviewing public figures can be best paraphrased as, “Why is this jerk lying to me?”
The news that flows from that mind-set is often far more interesting than American media, which frequently bow to power even as they seek to hold it accountable. (Mr. Stewart, so rapacious when annotating video clips, often goes soft when confronted by an actual interview.)
Other dynamics are at play as well. The dividing line between the business and editorial side in British journalism has always been thin, and those who rise to the top have a good grasp of numbers. That’s a characteristic that is increasingly prized in corporate America. And an endless supply of talent is seeking to leave the crab pot of British news media because they want to work on a larger scale.
Ms. Coles is a former reporter at The Times of London who came to work in the United States for The Guardian before going to New York Magazine. She went on to More magazine, Marie Claire and now runs Cosmopolitan.
I crossed paths with her when we both worked at New York Magazine, where she stuck out for reasons other than her accent. To wit: while the rest of us would nod assent when senior editors spoke, she frequently argued points to the point of impertinence.
“I was taken aside and asked why I was doing that and I said, ‘Doing what?’ ” she recalled when I spoke to her last week. From her perspective, she was doing what all good journalists do, which is pushing back.
With more than a dozen newspapers that compete for national attention and a publishing model that is based on appealing to readers far more than advertisers, the British news media market is a brutal and competitive crucible; it breeds frankness, excellence and a fair amount of excess. In that context, American journalism’s historical values of objectivity and fairness seem quaint.
“We are used to adversarial relationships,” Ms. Coles said. “The value of ideas — articulating them and advocating for them — is what sets people apart.”
And with point-of-view increasingly included in more contemporary forms of media, the British are ahead of the game.
Ms. Coles also pointed out that in the United States, there are discrete spheres of influence. Los Angeles, New York and Washington all have their domains, while in Britain, there is only London, a place where entertainment, politics and news media all live in the same petri dish.
More so than in America, journalists end up on television and politicians are often drawn from the ranks of news media. As the hacking scandal revealed, it’s a very small tree house in which the various elites not only know one another but socialize as well. Newspapers and radio still play a central role in the civic life of Britain, and Parliament is a kind of gladiator pit that can make Congress seem like a Montessori school.
Greg Gutfeld, host of “Red Eye” and co-host of “The Five” on Fox News, is the rare American who reversed the polarity, having been drafted to edit Maxim in Britain from 2004 to 2006. His newsstand numbers, the only ones that matter there, weren’t great, but he learned a few things.
“I benefited from the novelty of being from somewhere else to begin with, but that wears off,” he said by phone. “We are mirrors of each other, and while Americans are smarter at a lot of things, in publishing and media, the Brits take what we do and just do it better. They have to or they won’t be around for long.”
In a cluttered informational economy, communicating in pithy, seductive ways is a matter of survival. So the demand for British editorial imports will stay high. As anyone who has ever attended a wedding at which Brits and Yanks are trading toasts can tell you, the English know what audiences want and how to deliver it. Cheers, mate.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/business/media/britain-as-a-breeding-ground-for-media-leaders.html?ref=media