Wednesday, April 30, 2008

James Wolcott, fraud

If James Wolcott is being paid by the word, his 3,700-word screed in the June issue of Vanity Fair is the Crime of the Century.

The article is presented as describing the "vicious Clinton-versus-Obama rupture at Daily Kos" and thus an analysis of "a party-wide split" among Democrats, but it's really nothing of the kind. In fact, it's nothing at all. There is no reporting and very little that could be called research. Just massive paragraph after paragraph of florid prose.

Wolcott expends most of his 368-word second paragraph rehashing the sins of the Bush administration. His next paragraph is 430 words chiefly about the Democratic primary field, and is crammed with colorful assertions like this:
Once Edwards dropped out of the race ... the buffer zone was removed, direct contact replaced triangulation, and the Obama and Hillary supporters faced off like the Jets and the Sharks. The rancor was disproportionate in intensity and extravagant in invective, a fervor worthy of ancestral foes. Months-old grievances seethed and erupted as if they had been bubbling for centuries in a lake of bad blood. On the most egoistic plane, it seemed like a clash of entitlements, the messianics versus the menopausals.
D'ya really think so, Jim? Maybe I was busy and missed this epic gladiatorial bloodletting that ensued after Edwards folded his tent.

After summarizing some anti-Hillary chatter on MSNBC, Wolcott then aims 144 words at Andrew Sullivan, including these two remarkable sentences:

Sullivan's Daily Dish blog is must-reading among the media elite, those sheep. His words extend wider ripples in the ocean of emotion that passes for opinion journalism than did those of his fellow cobblers.

Graydon Carter is getting ripped off. Does Wolcott offer any evidence -- source? attribution? statistics? -- that Sullivan's blog really has such sway among the "media elite"? And what's with that poetic bit about "wider ripples in the ocean of emotion"? A clever metaphor, but does it actually mean anything?

Wolcott then starts name-dropping his way through "the progressive netroots community" -- including TPM -- before adding more poetry:
The majority of Huffpo’s high-profile contributors were so over the rainbow about Obama that it was as if they had found rapture in the poppy fields and were rolling around on their backs like ladybugs.
I actually like that description, but by the time he gets to the end of that sentence, Wolcott's already written 1,300 words -- and hasn't really approached his putative subject, which I suppose I should remind you is "[t]he vicious Clinton-versus-Obama rupture at Daily Kos ... [that] reflects a party-wide split."

Thirteen hundred words into the piece, Wolcott finally starts describing Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Daily Kos -- and expends more than 700 words in the process. So you're at the 2,000-word mark before Wolcott drops this sentence on you:
The Clinton campaign was culturally disadvantaged at Daily Kos.
Got it? After 2,000 words of setup, now Wolcott at last is ready to approach his theme!
At Daily Kos, Clinton’s supporters felt not only outnumbered but patronized as objects of sexist condescension, pummeled like tackling dummies.
He then recounts some of the details, including an "open letter" by a disgruntled ex-Kossack who felt that DKos had become an Obamaphile echo chamber. Wolcott quotes "Alegre's" letter at length and one wonders if Wolcott got his usual rate for those 181 words he cut and pasted from the 'Net.

For that matter, in the ensuing paragraphs, Wolcott includes extensive cut-and-paste quotes from other sources, including Tom Watson (53 words), Al Giordano (79 words) and Kos himself (57 words). All these quotes are properly attributed, and surely those quoted must be flattered at their inclusion in Vanity Fair, but they're not getting paid as "contributing editors," as is Wolcott, who is presumably paid by the word for a 3,700-word article in which 1/10th of "his" words were gotten by the method of CTRL+C, CTRL+V.

This quote-cribbing might not bother me so much if the DKos feud were some fast-breaking story that Wolcott was rushing to report on deadline. But most of this stuff took place in February and March (Alegre's "open letter" was posted on March 14) and Vanity Fair is a monthly publication.

And in all of his 3,700-word opus, Wolcott never does any reporting. He never picks up the phone to call Markos or Arianna or Sully or anyone else in the story. There is no indication that Wolcott did any research into the online strategies of the Obama and Hillary campaigns. There is nothing, in short, that you'd call political journalism.

What VF has done is to assign a literary critic to a political story. The result is what might be expected. An avowed Hillary supporter, Wolcott ends up blaming the "fratricidal skirmishing" among liberal bloggers on frustration over "the failure of Democrats and activists to bring the Bush-Cheney administration to account," and ends with this:
Democrats have pulled their punches for so long that they know only how to hit themselves in the face, earning the reputation for masochism that gives Dick Cheney a good chuckle each night at bedtime as he's being packed in ice.
What does this mean? I challenge anyone to read through Wolcott's 3,700 words and tell me exactly how this conclusion is justified by the narrative he's crafted.

Who are these Democrats who've "pulled their punches"? Jack Murtha? Harry Reid? Ted Kennedy? Chuck Schumer? And while I'd be the first to admit to schadenfreude over the extended primary battle between Obama and Hillary, I don't see how it constitutes "masochism" on the part of Democrats. Were Republicans engaged in "masochism" when Ronald Reagan challenged Jerry Ford in '76? Or when Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush in '92?

Wolcott's 3,700 words (one might subtract the 370 words he cut-and-pasted from the blogs) cannot be described as political journalism. He doesn't write to impart knowledge, but to achieve a literary effect. He is too busy conjuring pithy metaphors to be concerned that he is failing to depict political reality.

Indifferent to truth, Wolcott is engaged in a species of fraud.

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