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'Brainless twits' revisited two years on

Everyone who writes for a living knows how great it feels to 'get off a good one' - to turn a witty phrase that is sure to have readers rolling in the aisles. It seems rather unfair, then, that the targets of such drollery often fail to get the joke, and that an appetite for 'good ones' is perhaps the most dangerous trait a newspaper reporter can have.


Tom Nicholson

Everyone who writes for a living knows how great it feels to 'get off a good one' - to turn a witty phrase that is sure to have readers rolling in the aisles. It seems rather unfair, then, that the targets of such drollery often fail to get the joke, and that an appetite for 'good ones' is perhaps the most dangerous trait a newspaper reporter can have.

I've always had a pretty big mouth, but in the past my smart-aleck remarks have resulted, at most, in a few humiliating retractions (pleading piteously for calm with my shirt-front in the grip of some low-browed thug). It wasn't until I joined The Slovak Spectator, however, that I really got my come-uppance.

By May 1998 I'd been a reporter for almost a year and was getting a little smug, which I suppose was what led my boss at the time, Daniel Stoll, to give me a curious assignment - to write a 200 word review of a performance by a musical troupe named Up With People, giving my fool tongue free rein.

Up With People is an organisation that takes young people from countries around the world and sends them abroad to do good deeds. When their stay in a host country ends, they celebrate by holding a concert at which Up With People members dance and sing. I had been to see the Bratislava performance, and as a true Canadian ought, had been turned off by the US themes it celebrated - as if the odds and ends of American culture had become synonymous with 'global culture'. If there was to be a review, I thought, I'm the man for the job.

"Almost 150 shiny, happy people," I wrote, "invaded Bratislava's Old Town Square to stage one of the most inane, banal exhibitions of American cultural onanism ever seen in Slovakia." A trifle strong? Too one-sided? Naaaah. I titled the piece "Up With People, down with Brainless Twits."

Stoll ran the review I wrote intact. As I was due to take over as editor of the paper in July, he had wanted to teach me the need to encourage balanced, measured writing - qualities I was not naturally blessed with. In the weeks that followed that review, I was actually stopped and railled at in the street by people - readers, Up With People producers - who had been appalled by what I'd written. My response quickly became that of James Wood in the movie Salvador - "alright, alright, I'm an asshole!"

Almost two years later, the public spanking I took for my liberties with Up With People keeps my pen in check. I believe The Slovak Spectator still enjoys a reputation for objectivity, but I confess this is a legacy inherited from its founders, defended by its current editorial staff, and only belatedly promoted by its chastened editor.

Tom Nicholson joined The Slovak Spectator as a Staff Writer in 1997, and has been Editor-in-Chief since July 1998.

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