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Hitler Was Kind to Puppies, You Know

April 29th, 2010 · 15 Comments

At Balloon Juice, we find a common complaint about The Village expressed:

I don’t mean to pick on Sullivan, who probably just meant this as nothing more than to compliment to a decent lady. But there are plenty of members of the journalistic elite who justify their shitty journalism by saying that some monster is actually decent “in person”.

One of the things I really appreciate about Glenn Greenwald is that he’s one of the few top-flite bloggers who doesn’t care if someone’s “decent” or “nice” in person. I mean that as high praise, and would like to see more of it. If we replaced the DC press corps with a bunch of misanthropes who want to spit every time the President’s name is mentioned, we’d be a hell of a lot better off than we are with the current bunch of fawning, preening wanna-be elitists.

I think there’s a real problem of source capture in D.C. journalism, even bracketing the shady quid-pro-quos involved with high-level access. But I doubt a press corps composed largely of snarling misanthropes would be much better. If you want to really understand a particular beat, and be good at covering it, you ultimately have to spend a lot of time socializing with the people you cover. A good reporter isn’t going to become best buddies with the folks he’s writing about, but some minimum level of amiability is going to be required if you expect to get wind of scuttlebutt or know what people in a particular industry or agency are thinking.  There are plenty of stories that only get broken because two people happened to get a casual beer at the right time. It’s also, frankly, hard to write effectively about people you can’t empathize with at least somewhat, even when you come to criticize. So for all that I share the disdain for D.C. schmooziness—and for all that I probably fell a lot more into the misanthrope category myself as a reporter—it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a tradeoff involved.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // Apr 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    As far as I know, you’re right, but it’s still nearly always fun to read Mencken or Bierce writing about events that haven’t been current in a century or so. In fact, you can read Mencken writing about Tennessee and the Scopes Trial, pretend he’s writing about the Tea Party movement, and neither confuse yourself nor lose a speck of context.

    It’s rarely fun to read professional journalists covering events of the moment. A horde of misanthropes might not improve journalism, but it might improve news-reading.

  • 2 Freddie // Apr 29, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    The particular problem is when political issues are moral issues. You can see this in the tendency among a great many DC wonks and politicos to debate health care reform entirely from the perspective of cost and efficiency. It’s one thing to go out to beer with a fellow blogger from the other side if you had been writing that they are wrong about the economics of health care co-ops; it’s another if you’re arguing about the essential morality of people dying of preventable disease in the country with the most powerful economy on earth.

    But abdicating the moral argument out of a concern for the DC fraternity undercuts the health care reform effort, because it is fundamentally a moral issue. And it’s been my experience that Americans are more moved by the stark moral issue than by the appeals to the byzantine inefficiency of our system.

  • 3 sidereal // Apr 29, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    It’s not that the personal relationship between journalist and public figure should be bad or good, it’s that it should be irrelevant. It may well be that journalists need to be friendly or even obsequious to maintain sources. But that’s just sausage making. It’s not news.

    The fact that Laura Bush may be a decent, charming individual is of relevance only to the people who will ever meet Laura Bush in person, which is (if my math is right) about 0.001% of the US population. But the policies of the Bush Administration, in which she played some small part, are of relevance to 100% of the US population. And yet the ratio of biographical puff pieces to relevant reporting is not 1:100000.

  • 4 TD // Apr 29, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    You are a good person, Freddie. I think highly of you now. You have demonstrated that you Really Do Care. We now know that Freddie is a loving person who cares about other human beings, especially when they could actually die.

    This is very important stuff — your righteousness — and moreover it’s important that you know that *I* know you’re a good person. That’s what counts.

    For millennia, mankind has grappled with the core moral question of whether human beings should die when they happen to be situated in powerful economies. It is nuts-and-bolts stuff; indeed, one might call it stark.

    So it’s reassuring to know that you are on the side of right. The world needs to know that Freddie cares. We must shout it to the stars! Freddie grasps the simple, fundamental truth: Human beings who happen to exist within certain arbitrarily quantified economies should not die of preventable diseases!

    Morality has not yet accounted, of course, for those living near those economies, or far away from them, but hey, we’ll cross that bridge when we need a new Universal Truth.

  • 5 Freddie // Apr 29, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Now, you don’t care, right– but the fact is, TD, that you believe, as all people do, that some matters of political controversy are moral issues. Take abortion, or preventative war, etc. Now, divorce your weird infatuation with my opinion and actually consider what I was saying– that, regardless of how you feel about my position, moral issues give this debate about inter-pundit relationships more urgency– and I think you’ll find that you don’t disagree.

    Until then, though, you should probably go sit at the kids table; adults are talking.

  • 6 Barry // Apr 30, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Julian, the trick is that there is a balance – if the journalists prize being In more than telling us what’s going on, then they need to move. And I think that it’s been clear for a while that the elite media is in this situation.

    Also, the trick of ‘nice’ is that it’s not really nice; it’s more of polite and tidy – tortures and mass executions are to be held somewhere else than on the front lawn. And journalists carefully refrain from asking about the strange-smelling smoke coming from that secret camp way over there that all of the insiders are perfectly aware of (to use an analogy).

  • 7 SomeCallMeTim // Apr 30, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    There are plenty of stories that only get broken because two people happened to get a casual beer at the right time.

    Name two that anyone cares about.

  • 8 Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » In It But Not of It // May 1, 2010 at 8:46 am

    […] Julian Sanchez replies to my ill-tempered rant about journalists: […]

  • 9 Anderson // May 1, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Has anyone paused to ask what kind of dumbass thinks Laura Bush is a “monster”?

    Do words *mean* anything here?

  • 10 Anderson // May 1, 2010 at 9:58 am

    (Leaving aside which, Sullivan’s remark that Laura Bush was “the most decent person” in Bush’s White House … faint praise, no?)

  • 11 jayackroyd // May 1, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    If JS can define what this “beat” is, then I might be able to understand the argument. Because I really do not know what Dancin’ Dave’s “beat” is, or at least how it differs from courtier.

    Courtiers need to suck up to retain access. Journalists get access because otherwise the story will run without their point of view.

    This access justification always reminds me of Risen and Lichtblau, who had the biggest story of the bush admin spiked at the bush admin’s request. So, please explain how this beat thing works.

  • 12 jayackroyd // May 1, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Actually digby makes the point more clearly, concretely and compellingly


  • 13 Nick // May 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I think its pretty basic: reporters listen and write what they hear. Maybe they get to interpret and analyze. Jay is wrong on one thing — the story has to be one, before the writer’s point of view becomes at all useful. And once the writer’s point of view is driving the story, then it’s not really about the story, is it?

    I also think there’s a dichotomy that parents know, but others may have forgotten, or never run into. The difference between “bad job” and “bad child.” Not sure how it all fits, but too many stories in the blogosphere and the 24-hour on-line world seem more interested in promoting a point of view and condemnation of the people in the story, than simply telling the story, and delving into its ramification.

    It is patently absurd to make any definitive judgments about what is going on off the coast of Louisiana, insofar as responsibility and cause are concerned. Maybe it is the closed-mindedness of the instant response media — which has to be certain it knows, or it can’t pen the story in time — that is one of the structural causes of poor journalism on line today.

  • 14 Lee // May 3, 2010 at 9:12 am

    My main problem with Mr. Greenwald and similar thinkers is that I think that they tend to be too cynical. Cynicism has its uses but when taken to excess, you get people who would rather look at the world and snarl in righteous indignation rather than solve problems.

  • 15 The Role Of DC Journalists – The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan « Firesaw // May 13, 2010 at 5:33 am

    […] by saying that some monster is actually decent ‘in person’.” Julian Sanchez searches for a middle ground: I think there’s a real problem of source capture in D.C. journalism, even […]