Friday, June 19, 2009

Reporting is good for the soul

Thursday, I had a splendid time on Capitol Hill, working to hook up with sources for the PJM article about the Grassley IG-Gate investigation. Nothing like expending a bit of shoe leather in quest of a story to restore the spirits.

So as I was having beers with interviewing my old buddies key GOP strategists Thursday evening, I got a call from Dan Riehl, who informed me that the Conor Friedersdorf front had once again erupted. Sigh.

Dan did this and also did this. Then Jimmie Bise did this and Donald Douglas did this. And Cranky Con did this and Jonathan Schwenkler did this.

All of this happened while I was trying to get someone to pick up my bar tab the big scoop at the Capitol Hill Club on IG-Gate.

Pandemic Douthatism
What's going on here? I blame Ross Douthat. This was what was so evil about the New York Times giving an op-ed column to a 29-year-old. Suddenly, every other 29-year-old journalist on the planet is made to feel insignificant.

(By the time you're 49, being insignificant is slightly less humiliating, but if you're a young, single intellectual wannabe in Washington, a think-tank sinecure or a book contract is what a souped-up Mustang is to the non-intellectual young male. Without it, you just don't rate.)

Saving the world and/or defining a "bold new conservative agenda" just seems so freaking glamorous that it sometimes seems like every former College Republican who can compose a paragraph is trying to become the next William F. Buckley. And the temptation to grandiose punditry and intellectualism seems to be irresistible to some people whenever the GOP loses an election or two.

This was why I wrote my Nov. 5 column, "You Did Not Lose," and my Nov. 12 column, "Don't Overthink It." Seeking a complex, abstract, ideological explanation for a lost election is always a bad idea, especially when what you're basically trying to explain is why a loser lost. You nominate a short, bald, grumpy septuagenarian for president and the other guys nominate the King of Cool, and complex abstractions are irrelevant.

Concept, Theory, Reality
Intellectuals, however, feel the need to give their cerebral lobes a workout. Next thing you know, the intellectuals are quoting Plato at you, as if John McCain's shortcomings as a presidential candidate could have been overcome if only he'd spent more time contemplating The Republic.

This is why regular old-fashioned reporting is such a tonic for the soul, and why these young pundits are so morose. It is beneath the dignity of an aspiring intellectual to go out and do mere reporting. Absent any real action like that, the political intelligentsia slide off into the ethereal world of ideology, where everything is either a concept or a theory or -- God help us -- a trend.

There are no clear-cut victories or defeats in the War Of Ideas. And there are damned few flesh-and-blood human beings there.

Reporting news is far more a social enterprise than the solitary cogitations of the intellectuals. So, rather than get into the "substantive issues" childishness, I'm just going to relax in the afterglow of getting a good news story. Not a great story, perhaps -- the Pulitzer Committee has been stubbornly ignoring me for years -- but certainly a good one.

Conor Friedersdorf will have to save the world without me.


  1. Mr. Other McCain, thank you. I'm a few years younger than you and I understand exactly what you are saying. I also understand why the Conors of the conservative world can't even grasp what you, Mark Levin, Dan Riehl et al are saying. This is not meant to be mean - they just lack the maturity.

    Andrew Sullivan is different than Conor (for now). Andrew suffers from serious (and permanent) arrested development. Conor may grow out of his affliction but only time shall tell. Perhaps being batted back and forth like tennis ball by you and others will aide his maturation process....

    As for Brooks and Frum, they are in a class of their own. Not because they are Canadian, but because they are total prigs.

    Mrs. P(eperium)

  2. RSM makes some good points in this post. As usual, he is unfair to Ross, who wrote a book about the future of the Republican Party that offered far more specific policy proposals than it did theory.

    But he is correct that what the right needs, far more than pundits, is good reporters. 10 Tim Carneys would be worth their weight in gold. As I'm pretty sure he knows, I've called for that very thing:

    I've also worked as a newspaper reporter for four years. And I'd love to be paid to report in depth stories. I applied for -- and did not receive -- two grants for the reporting project I proposed at The American Scene. I've got several reported freelance stories in the works. If RSM would like to pay me to report a story once my Atlantic gig is over, I'll take the money and turn in something exceptional.

    But as someone else once said, I write for money. Culture11 paid me a hell of a lot more than any reporting gig I know to be an editor. I'd love nothing more than to write reported pieces for The Atlantic -- and I plan to do just that one day. But they've got Jim Fallows and Mark Bowden filling up their well. I aspire to be as good as those guys. I'm not there yet.

    What's strange is that RSM casts blame on young right of center writers for working as pundits -- as though there is this wealth of reporting jobs out there for the taking, as opposed to a dearth of very low paying reporting jobs... and a right-wing funding infrastructure (and a public, for that matter) that values and subsidizes punditry more than reporting.

    RSM is welcome to take shots at Ross and I. But we're rather strange targets for what's wrong with right of center journalism. I think that deep down RSM knows that.

    I've stopped expecting RSM to actually engage the substance of anything I write, as opposed to effusively sighing about it, and throwing up his hands, and rolling his eyes -- but when you think about it, the other weird thing is that his talk radio heroes are all folks who spend all day philosophizing and pontificating, and no time at all reporting.

    But you never see RSM criticize them.

  3. "RSM is welcome to take shots at Ross and I"
    Ross and me.

    Dropping an anchor tag for the article mentioned in your comment will help score some hits.
    Just to react to that article a bit:
    "The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occassionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?"
    I dunno. Could you consider the Constitution, for starters? I submit that a simple grasp of organizational behavior will help you " advance" the vast bulk of the train wrecks currently in play.
    Think of modern liberalism as Wellington, and the RINOs as a foolish Napoleon choosing the ground very poorly. Then you will understand why I cringe at someone using the word "narrative" half a dozen times in an article like that. You're fighting the battle on their turf, buddy. The outcome promises to be the same kind of non-triumphant crap that has been sinking the US since Wilson.

  4. Culture11 paid me a hell of a lot more than any reporting gig I know to be an editor.

    So how did that turn out?

  5. Smitty1E,

    The Constitution establishes the framework of our government -- it doesn't provide Cliffs Notes for understanding the unintended consequences of liberal legislation. I am sorry if I am misunderstanding your argument, but I don't see how it applies.

    And you may cringe at the word narrative, but humans have been telling stories to one another for thousands of years. The Bible is (largely) a narrative -- is it fighting on liberal terrain? Look, humans understand the world through stories. That ain't liberal or conservative.

  6. @Conor,
    I reiterate: "You're fighting the battle on their turf, buddy."
    If you follow their framing of the debate, and allow them to manage the definitions, much strangeness follows.
    Consider the unintelligibility of "liberal", "fair", "freedom", and "progress" in the contemporary debate.
    You're either calling their bluff, or aiding and abetting.
    You say: "The Constitution establishes the framework of our government -- it doesn't provide Cliffs Notes for understanding the unintended consequences of liberal legislation."
    I'm left to wonder if you can differentiate between the static, underlying principles of the Constitution, or if you're one of these "living document" (read: let's just feel something about it) people. The human genome has a constant 23 chromosomes. The only variable in play is technology. If you're not smoldering with rage at the modern tendency away from an egalitarian, equality-of-opportunity society, towards a politically dynastic society where just a few families (all of which attended the same Ivy League towers of intellectual foppery for their indoctrination) rule the roost, then you'll receive scant support from me.
    Litmus test: what Tea Party are you attending on 04 July?

  7. Per:

    "And you may cringe at the word narrative, but humans have been telling stories to one another for thousands of years. The Bible is (largely) a narrative -- is it fighting on liberal terrain?"

    Forget the whole red herring -narrative blah, blah- let's go straight to the question is the bible fighting on liberal terrain?

    No. It's not. Why, because (social) liberals have either disregarded, discredited or simply edited out what they don't like about the Bible - see the Jesus Seminar, the majority of Andrew Sullivan's writings as well as his open contempt for those who believe the Bible to be the Truth, David Brook's case for gay marriage or visit your local Episcopal parish.

    "Look, humans understand the world through stories. That ain't liberal or conservative."

    Yes, humans can understand the world through stories but they fall for lies more often. Best case example - Conor, Brooks & Co fell for Obama's 'story' or narrative if you will. That narrative is proving to be a tissue of whoppers.

    Mrs. P(eperium)

  8. Smitty,

    Again I am having trouble following you. I reject the notion that ours is a living constitution. How is that inconsistent with saying that the Constitution establishes the framework for our government? I'm saying that the Constitution, for example, creates three branches of government meant to check and balance one another -- and that it vests certain powers in each, and leaves the rest to the states and the people.

    What the Constitution doesn't do is explain to Americans -- to use an example from my article -- why rent control is a bad idea. That's a task that reporters who happen to be conservative can excel at if they know how to gather information and tell a good narrative.

    Doing so isn't "operating on liberal ground." That's my point.

  9. Conor,
    I'll point out that reporters don't "tell a good narrative". They report and leave it to others to tell the narrative. That reporters now see it as their responsibility to frame what they've gathered into a "narrative" is one big reason why newspapers are dying today.

    However, the Constitiution does explain a great deal, though not explicitly, through its organizational structure. This is smitty's point. When you read that the Constitution has structured out government to derive its power from the people and not to grant power to the people, you could be led toward wondering who granted the government control over private property (to use your example).

    Of course, such reading would require not so much "reporters" with a "narrative" but citizens educating each other.

    By the way, your claim that no one has responded to your so-called substantive takedown of Mark Levin hasn't been trye for a couple days. I wrote such a response and welcome your reply.

  10. Jimmie,

    I'm sorry I missed your response -- I hope you'll direct me to it. If you do I promise to read with an open mind.

    I think you are right that the Constitution implies a certain mindset about the relationship between the government and the governed.

    But it remains true that there are all sorts of things that pass constitutional muster... but are nevertheless terrible polices.

    Finally, contra your assertion, I think that lots of good reporters do tell a good -- and by good I mean accurate, compelling, and enjoyable to read -- narrative. Take Hunter S. Thompson writing on the Hell's Angels. That is a scrupulously reported book, and a damn good story.

  11. Conor, Hunter S. Thompson never claimed his work on the Hell's Angels was good reporting. To my recollection, he never even really intended to go there as a journalist. It was a ruse to get cash for mescaline, booze, and a bus ticket.

    And yes, the Constitution allows much and restrict little. But that wasn't quite your contention. A good understanding of the Constitution can go a long way toward sniffing out unintended consequences. Better yet, it can strangle the possibility of those consequences ever happening by killing such legislation in the crib.

    You are right, though. There's a difference between the ideal and the politically possible (or wise) at any given time. That doesn't mean that ideals have to go out the window. Folks like Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, though despised by some in your "camp", do us a very valuable service. They remind us, vigorously, of our ideals. They keep us from falling into the comfortable trough of political appeasement. We need them to remind us of what our principles really are, even if attaining all of them in full isn't possible.

    They also remind us that reaching past what we think is possible often grants us victories we would never have attained otherwise.

    The idealists and the pragmatists have to work together. I don't see idealists ready to throw the pragmatists overboard, though, except as a reaction to the fashionable tut-tutting of idealists as hopelessly unsophisticated.