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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Richard Rushfield: A Serious Man

Hillel Aron |
October 2, 2009 | 1:36 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Former L.A. Times entertainment editor Richard Rushfield has made the move to one of the web's most popular online only news, media, gossip and entertainment sites. Neon Tommy's Hillel Aron spoke to Rushfield about online news, defaming John Hughes to his children's faces, bumper stickers, and why "American Idol" is really the last gasp of an old culture.

Neon Tommy: You recently left your job as entertainment editor for LA Times.com to become the new West Coast Editor of Gawker. Why?

Richard Rushfield: When you look at things that impact our national conversation...it used to be that you'd write an article for a newspaper and everyone would be talking about it. It would make a huge splash if you had an article in a magazine, Esquire or something. I've seen over the years that print is not what's driving the conversation anymore. It is the Internet, and Gawker is at the center of it. When Gawker takes on a subject, people take notice and people have to respond to it. If you're not just writing for yourself, if you're writing to somehow penetrate the minds of others, then that's something you have to take note of.

A few other people have left the LA Times online recently. Do you know why?

It's kind of a tragic situation at the LA Times. I mean, everybody left for their own reasons. That said, there was a feeling that the LA Times had sort of ignored its website. It was universally known as the worst website in "old media." Five years ago, people began a real attempt to turn things around. We were able to shake up a lot on the site, and change a lot in the newsroom. But at some point a year and a half ago or so, I think we hit the wall of how much change the L.A. Times was willing to absorb, and the retrenchment began.

What were some of the things they weren't willing to do?

Regard themselves as an online 24-hour news operation first, and to really take seriously the implications of all that entails. If you're really gonna be an internet news organization, the biggest difference is that you have to think of yourself as part of a conversation. If some U.S. Senator resigns, at a newspaper, you pretend that this is the only article about it. You haven't seen anything else, you didn't see this on TV, you didn't hear it on the radio, so we gotta tell you the story from the beginning. And this is a stand-alone thing. On the web, you always gotta be looking, where are the other people, how do we advance from where the others are, how do we get ahead of them, how do we get in a conversation with them, how do we let them have feedback, and influence what we're doing. And that's just antithetical to how newspaper people think of what they do. I think the people at the LA Times, if you said all that, they'd say "Oh yes yes, that's exactly what we want to do," but it's just in every single case there'd be a reason why this isn't the time to do that. And thus, a lot of people started leaving.

Your second post was on John Hughes, and it caused a bit of a stir.

I came in on the day of his death, and decided to share the story of the time I inadvertently told his children, to their faces, what a terrible hack director their father was, which did not seem to be appreciated by anyone. And the point of why I was telling the story, which was very small I'll admit, was lost on the audience. Apparently they have a few sacred cows.

So you have this new book coming out in two months, "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost." It's a memoir of your days at Hampshire College in the late '80s. I love the title, where does it come from?

In the seventies, it was a bumper sticker. It was in the golden age of comedy bumper stickers. It seemed right for a book that's about a generation that was committed to doing nothing.

Is there something relevant about the late '80's now or are you just nostalgic for your college days?

I had gone back to the school, it suddenly occurred to me how far we were from the late eighties. When I went to school, there was no such thing as dating. The word "dates," was like "sock hops," you would've only said "dates" in like air quotes. There was no such thing as relationships, no such thing as exercise, goals, motivation. When you graduated college, you were going to either San Francisco, Seattle, or New York. To do what was never... you were just going, and you figured you'd hang out. And you know, I went back five years ago, and there were people studying for the GRE's. And preparing their transcripts, clips and credits. They were exercising, and in relationships.

Were you at college with Elliot Smith?

I was. I remember him very, very slightly. I remember some band that he was in, vaguely, I remember not liking it very much. I remember his friends seemed like jocks, as much as there were jocks at Hampshire.

His music is pretty earnest.

Yeah, he was kind of on a different wavelength than Hampshire, than my cohorts. He wasn't in one of the more important Hampshire bands of the day.

Sometime after college you got into politics, right?

(laughing) Yeah.

Was that an attempt at earnestness?

I suppose it was. It's a shameful period. I'd always secretly followed politics, so when I got out, and I was looking for what to do, working on a political campaign seemed like a good thing to do. So I ended up, very inadvertently, getting involved in Bill Clinton's campaign for president very early on. I just stumbled into it. I definitely discovered... being a cheerleader and supporter of anything is not my natural disposition.

Did you become disillusioned?

Yeah, I would say so. I don't know what my illusions were in the first place to lose. [When] you get to see a lot of the nuts and bolts of politics, you see that politics is compromised in a thousand different ways, and corrupted.

You're a leading authority on American Idol... can I call you that?

I prefer the leading authority.

Can you explain the attraction?

I mean, you talk about why did I leave politics, cause I wanted to be involved in something important, and something that mattered in people's lives. And what makes more of a difference than who we select as our next pop icon? This is our great national epic.

What does the popularity about American Idol say about today's society?

Well, a lot of people say, "This is the death of American Culture." First of all, there's nothing particularly American about American Idol. It's a British show, jointly owned by British, French and German conglomerates, overseen by a network that's owned by an Australian. But I think... one of the first shows on TV, I forget what it was called, was this singing competition. It's what we once called broad family entertainment. It's the only show left on the airwaves that entire families can watch in primetime that is of interest to both children and their parents. It's not the harbinger of the death of our culture, it's the last gasp of the old culture, before it dies. How do you like that?

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