Opinion: Cathy Seipp, RIP
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Since Cathy Seipp was the freelancers’ patron saint of recycling useful personal anecdotes, I’ll rehash the following, about how I first met one of L.A.’s most important and entertaining journalists, who finally died at age 49 this afternoon after beating the odds on lung cancer for more than five years.
In the spring of 2001, a few friends and I launched an acidic little media/politics/sports blog called L.A. Examiner. Think an early-aughts version of L.A. Observed, except much less diligent, and much more openly gleeful in calling people idiots. Anyway, as a sort of journalism experiment, we refused to tell anybody about the site, even while adding permanent links to absolutely every journalism institution and practitioner in town. The idea was to see how long it took local media reporters to notice a possibly interesting phenomenon in their own backyard, and/or see who was quickest on the ego-surf draw. Needless to say, Cathy Seipp beat them all on both counts, e-mailing us a ‘who are you?’ note within hours.
That’s how she worked -- converting her own personal quirks (and admitted flaws) into useful fact-gathering, fodder for her shrewd observations and razor wit. In our case, her introduction to the world of political weblogs led directly to her writing a terrific American Journalism Review piece on the phenomenon a year later, in which she declared -- correctly -- that ‘Los Angeles seems to be the capital of blogging.’
That conclusion points to one grand subtext of her body of work: Insisting that Southern California was a font of both interesting stories and worthy storytellers, and turning that into a self-fulfilling prophecy using two distinct methods -- busting her fellow L.A. journalists for being boring, mediocre or undeservedly self-impressed; and (much less appreciated by the targets of her criticism, yet much more appreciated by her wide circle of friends) consciously building a community of disparate and politically diverse writers.
It’s the former that initially made her reputation, specifically her wicked criticism of the L.A. Times for Buzz magazine in the 1990s. There are people who work in my office whose first reaction (until recently) upon even hearing the word Seipp was to seize up, like an electrocuted cat. As a productive freelancer and scrapping single mother she had nothing but scorn for the whinings of well-fed lifers at the dominant journalistic institution in town.
And this wasn’t the hissing of a spurned lover -- as this exhaustive Luke Ford profile/interview documents, she did some of her first work for the Times way back when. More recently she was a welcome presence on the paper’s Op-Ed page, though certainly she had no intention of flattering the host.
Like the few media critics who are ever worth reading (A.J. Liebling, Jack Shafer nowadays), Cathy was always rooting for newspapers and magazines and websites to be good, and expressed tangible delight when they rose to the occasion. She even enjoyed it when the journalistic divas she so loved to needle, such as former Times firebrand Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (famous for her all-guns-firing exit memo from the paper), staged a comeback. Here’s a section on AVR that captures Cathy’s criticism style:
‘But, rattle-headed as this gassy manifesto was, at no point was it boring. Valdes-Rodriguez may be a world-class overreactor, but she always had talent, and Dirty Girls is a fine example of page-turning women’s popular fiction. [...] I am sorry to say that I have heard from a few journalists expressing bitterness at Valdes-Rodriguez’s improbable rise after her fantastic fall. [...] [W]hat is it with journalists, of all people, who can’t appreciate a great story when they hear it?’
For the best illustration of what kind of community this stay-at-home mom built around herself, both in L.A. and across the globe, just click this link. The people you’ll find there, like her friends, didn’t necessarily agree with her politics, don’t necessarily appreciate her Silver Lake milieu, and probably thought she went too far when criticizing people (Cathy had an enormous talent for tiptoeing up to the line of polite-society mores, then vaulting across it with a cackle). But they enjoyed her careful and funny prose, straight-talking pluck, and the way she comported herself under the most trying circumstances.
To recycle a sentiment one last time, Cathy was uncommonly generous with help (for instance, always getting on her fellow freelancers about not having health insurance), enthusiastic about getting out and meeting people, and not the least bit cynical, a rarity in journalism. And by demanding that her peers -- including her close friends -- do better, she improved what you read, whether you knew it or not.
L.A.’s a big place, filled with great talent, but it will never replace Cathy Seipp. RIP.