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No, You’re Out of the Family Business. That’s Your Punishment.

June 25, 2010

Julian Sanchez on modern journalism:

Part of the problem lies in the shibboleths of modern journalism–and here I find myself in growing agreement with the position Jay Rosen staked out in our BloggingHeads conversation last week. It seemed to many of us that, in hiring folks like Dave and Ezra Klein, the Post had begun to recognize there was something sterile and counterproductive in a set of professional norms that conflated fairness and objectivity with the sort of personal paucity of opinions that could never be expected of any engaged observer with a functioning brainstem. We all understood that any thinking reporter had to eventually form some conclusions about the topics they covered consistently, and that pretending otherwise was just that–pretense. Dave fused reporting chops on par with the best of the legacy press with an ethos brought from new media, one that effectively said: What if I respect the reader’s intelligence and don’t pretend to be an empty shell? What if I’m up front about where I’m coming from, on the assumption that being honest about what you think ought to confer more credibility than pretending you don’t think at all? His new gig at the Post suggested that they got this–apparently not.

So the lesson for young writers from all this: Be Tracy Flick. Don’t say anything remotely interesting, certainly not over e-mail. If you lack the mental discipline to completely suppress critical thought about people and institutions you spend your life covering, get good at pretending. The lesson for activists: Our news cycles are so short that, with a little coordination, nothing is too tame or trivial to be transformed into a weapon of personal destruction–so that’s an excellent use of your resources. We’ll doubtless get–are getting–precisely the quality of public discourse we deserve.

I don’t think it’s really as simple as that — if you’re reading, say, The New York Times, you’re certainly less likely to know where the writer is coming from than you are if you’re getting certain news from Dave Weigel’s blog — but I do wish that news would find a way to abandon its “fair and balanced” pretense, particularly those incredible annoying parts of stories that say, “while liberals have criticized Senator X for doing such-and-such, he has drawn conservatives’ ire for doing so-and-so”.  Tell me what happened.  Only don’t tell me you’re innocent.  It insults my intelligence.  It makes me very angry.

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