Part 4—Sweater boys and the failure to serve: At one time, the warnings flowed from the precincts of Journalist County.
When he was still a college student, Jacob Weisberg issued a prescient warning in the pages of The New Republic.
For all previous posts in this series, click here.
That warning appeared in 1986. Two years later, Richard M. Cohen issued a warning from just outside CBS County.
In 1996, James Fallows echoed Weisberg’s earlier warning about print journalists and their buffoonist behavior on TV shows. Like Weisberg and Cohen, Fallows followed the money.
According to Fallows and Weisberg before him, columnists were chasing the money which comes with the fame conferred by pundit shows. Way back in 1986, Weisberg had neatly described how that game is played. He discussed the syndicated program, The McLaughlin Group:
“McLaughlin’s program gives the best kind of exposure to journalists, since it not only shows their faces, but presents them as lively characters...the pace of [the program] and its air of personal enmity give viewers the sense that they are watching genuine insider banter.”
In those days, Weisberg was good! Columnists were going on TV and presenting themselves as “characters,” he sagaciously wrote. Viewers were given the (false) impression that they were watching something genuine.
Those warnings were issued in 1986, 1988 and 1996. Then, if we might borrow from Woolf, “Time Passe[d].”
(That’s Virginia Woolf, not Michael, who misspells his own name.)
In August 2000, in Los Angeles, at the Democratic Convention, we lunched one day with Weisberg, who we’d never previously met. Also present were two other major journalists and good decent people, Walter Shapiro and Jonathan Alter.
The event was conducted al fresco.
Years later, reading this profile, we came to see that we had been in the presence of greatness that day. In 1996, the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Galloway had profiled Weisberg and a crew of luminaries:
GALLOWAY (7/26/96): At age 31, Weisberg is one of the youngest members of a particularly influential group of talented magazine writers who are widely regarded as the heirs of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, David Halberstam and other vaunted practitioners of what was known in the 1960s and '70s as the New Journalism—and yet who are very different from them.Looking at that list of names, we’re forced to cringe in some cases. At any rate, as Galloway continued, he let Daniel Okrent report the negative spin:
Indeed, while expressing admiration for these icons of yesterday, most of whom are in their 60s and no longer contribute to magazines, today's younger cohorts are moving in a different direction.
"We are much more straightforward and less preoccupied with style," Weisberg says. "We write out of a skeptical liberalism and a political orientation, putting an emphasis on empiricism in our reporting. We are tough-minded, and even though our writing may be caustic at times, it's often softened by humor and always built on idealism. Our ultimate goal is to figure out how to make government work better."
The New Journalists were chiefly showcased in Esquire, Harper's and New York. Most of their putative progeny can be found at The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and the three main newsmagazines.
Today's most frequently cited magazine all-stars include David Remnick, Michael Kelly, Robert Wright, James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, Nicholas Lemann, Chicago's Jonathan Alter, Mickey Kaus, Walter Shapiro, Gregg Easterbrook, Susannah Lessard and Weisberg.
GALLOWAY: Many, if not most, Weisberg among them, have gone directly from their Ivy League universities to the aforementioned mags.Galloway’s piece appeared in 1996. Ten years had passed since Weisberg issued that sagacious, prescient warning. Fallows had reissued the warning in January of that year.
Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief and owner of The New Republic, recruits almost exclusively from Harvard, where he lectures, while Charles Peters, founder and editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly, will occasionally reach out to Yale, Weisberg's alma mater.
"The negative spin about these writers is they'll always be seen as the editors of the Harvard Crimson or the Yale Daily News, brilliant boys who come down to Washington because of Charlie Peters and Marty Peretz," says Okrent.
"They're given these platforms and become very influential when they are very, very young—but again, they're known more for their ideas and thinking than for reporting."
Four years later, we lunched al fresco with three members of that particularly influential group of talented magazine writers who were widely regarded as the heirs of vaunted practitioners of what was known in the 1960s and '70s as the New Journalism.
(Needless to say, Arianna was paying our hotel bill. We were in L.A. to appear at a comedy event in connection with her so-called Shadow Convention.)
It wasn’t their fault that Galloway had written about them that way. As a courtesy, we’ll assume Weisberg was misquoted when he was alleged to have said, “We are tough-minded and even though our writing may be caustic at times, it's often softened by humor and always built on idealism."
It was August 2000. Ten months earlier, Weisberg had played an unfortunate role in the War Against Gore, although it wasn’t entirely his fault. See Chapter 4 of our companion site.
One month later, Shapiro, who is a good decent person, would help create a disaster for his nation and several others, imagining that Candidate Gore had told his latest lie, this time about the union lullaby he had been sung as a child.
The statement by Gore was an obvious joke, a joke he had told in the past, but Walter heard and reported it straight. Two days later, the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson created another disturbing lie by Gore, the lie about the doggy arthritis pills. (No, we’re not making this up.)
The brilliant boys of the national press built their latest firestorm from these latest lies. Gore’s large lead in the national polls disappeared.
What had happened to Gore and his ten-point lead? On MSNBC, Howard Fineman explained the facts of life to Brian Williams, who deserves credit for asking:
FINEMAN (9/21/00): Bush has really had probably the best week he's had since his convention speech. And Gore has had his worst.Fineman wasn't exactly telling the truth. This was part of a familiar pattern where pundits cop to inexcusable conduct as a way to hide their actual motives, which are even more heinous. But so it went as one of Galloway’s brilliant writers dreamed the notion that Candidate Gore had lied again, this time about that troubling lullaby.
WILLIAMS: Howard, I don't know of any kind of conspiratorial Trilateral Commission-like council meetings in the news media. But you bring up an interesting point. And boy, it does seem true over the years that the news media almost reserve the right to build up and tear down and change their minds and like an underdog. What's that about?
FINEMAN: Well, what it's about is the relentless search for news and the relentless search for friction in the story. I don't think the media was going to allow just by its nature the next seven weeks and the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign to be all about Al Gore's relentless triumphant march to the presidency.
We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it's that we like to see a contest, and we like to see it down the end if we can. And I think that's partly the psychology at play here.
Did we mention the fact that Walter Shapiro is a good decent person? In our view, we’re speaking here about a culture—a culture Weisberg warned us about when he was still at Yale.
It seems to us that this horrible culture ate those “brilliant boys” alive. Consider some of the brilliance Weisberg produced during the next campaign.
By now, Weisberg was editor of Slate. He took the reins from Michael Kinsley in 2002, when Slate still belonged to Microsoft.
In 2003, Weisberg had even co-written Robert Rubin’s memoir, just to give you a tiny hint of where our story is going.
(Yesterday, we mistyped. Although Bill Gates and Microsoft founded Slate, Microsoft sold the mag to The Washington Post Group in 2005. Here's Kinsley’s brief history of the project.)
Now it was 2004. The Democrats were in New Hampshire, trying to pick a candidate who could unseat George Bush. Needless to say, Maureen Dowd was churning bullshit like that shown below, when she wasn’t trashing Howard Dean’s wife for her frumpy clothing and hair. Hard-copy headline included:
DOWD (1/11/04): The Argyle GeneralYou can click that link for yourself. We didn’t make that up.
Can we trust a man who muffs his mufti?
Trying to soften his military image and lure more female voters in New Hampshire, Gen. Wesley Clark switched from navy suits to argyle sweaters. It's an odd strategy. The best way to beat a doctor is not to look like a pharmacist.
General Clark's new pal Madonna, who knows something about pointy fashion statements, should have told him that those are not the kind of diamonds that make girls swoon.
Is there anything more annoying than argyle? Maybe Lamar Alexander's red plaid shirt. Maybe celebrities sporting red Kabbalah strings.
After General Clark's ill-fitting suits in his first few debates—his collars seemed to be standing away from his body in a different part of the room—a sudden infusion of dandified sweaters and duck boots just intensifies the impression that he's having a hard time adjusting to civilian life.
It's also a little alarming that he thinks the way to ensorcell women is to swaddle himself in woolly geometric shapes that conjure up images of Bing Crosby on the links or Fred MacMurray at the kitchen table.
Meanwhile, please understand:
In the previous White House campaign, Dowd and her ilk had spent months trashing Candidate Gore for every possible aspect of his deeply disturbing wardrobe—for his boots, his suits, his polo shirts, the number of buttons on his suits. For the height at which he hemmed his pants. For the color of that one suit, which was olive or possibly brown.
For the idea that Naomi Wolf had told him to wear the brown suit, which she would describe as earth tones. For the idea that he had “hired a woman to teach him how to be a man.” For the notion that he was wearing three-button suits as a sexual signal to women, echoing the way sailors have buttons instead of a fly.
On the basis of these journalistic obscenities, Candidate Bush was now in the White House. In a related piece of news, the United States was at war in Iraq.
Despite their “tough-minded” instincts, the brilliant boys of Galloway’s dream had never said boo about any of this. Nor was Dowd the only person who had returned to the subhuman practice of campaign coverage by clothes.
Jacob Weisberg was doing it too! As editor of Slate, he was “skiing New Hampshire” that year, doing a daily report which combined news of his day on the cross-country trails with news of the Democratic campaign.
Weisberg’s five-day series was unbelievably foppish. When we discussed it in real time, we said we thought, at first glance, that it must be a parody of some sort. Glancing back through it today, it continues to read like a parody, although quite plainly it’s not.
Shortly after Dowd dropped her latest obscenity about those impossibly “dandified” Democrats, Weisberg—he had once issued a brilliant warning!—was typing his own disgraceful piddle, possibly from a hot tub which Microsoft had Sherpas bring in for the week.
At the time, David Plotz was a reporter for Slate. Later, he replaced Weisberg in the editor’s chair:
WEISBERG (1/20/04): The others still standing after Iowa—Clark, Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman—all make plausible claims that they can capture the crucial votes in the middle. Clark’s argument is his military background. Having seen the general up here a few times, David confirms my impression of yesterday that Clark’s performances have improved to an amazing degree. But David sees Naomi Wolf-type issues. He thinks Clark is too pretty and feminine-looking to win. Herringboning up a very tall and cold hill, I told David he was crazy to think Clark couldn’t beat Bush because his eyelashes are too long. But I must admit, it’s a novel complaint.Incredibly, that day’s report bore this headline on the “View All Entries” page: “Clark’s Eyelashes and Lieberman’s Neutering Sweater.”
Edwards' appeal to swingers is his appealing personality and his Southern accent. He's a bright and likable fellow, and like a few others at Slate, David appears to be rooting for him, if not quite openly…
Like Clark, Lieberman wears a green sweater. But where Wes’ evergreen model strikes a flinty New England note, Joe’s is a pastel cashmere number that shouts, “I have been neutered!”
The caption on one of the photos says this: “Joe Lieberman in red, white and key lime.”
How did one of our brilliant boys end up like this? We’ll offer one supposition tomorrow. But just for the record, Weisberg’s team of intrepid reporters displayed a similar sensibility in New Hampshire that year. Before Dowd pondered the meaning of Clark’s ill-fitting suits and collars, Chris Suellentrop beat her to the general’s duffel. In his own initial post, Weisberg linked to Suellentrop’s piece about Clark’s hunter green sweater.
How had Galloway’s brilliant boy managed to fall so far? Tomorrow, we’ll speculate! But let’s understand the state of play in 2014 concerning those brilliant young writers who got profiled in 1996.
A few of those writers have crashed and burned in truly spectacular ways. The worst of all is the late Michael Kelly, whose Clinton/Gore-hating was prodigious in the years before he managed to get himself killed.
As editor of the Atlantic, he helped drag Fallows into the mess in August 2000. Our series started here.
Aside from Kelly, riddle us this: Can you think of a single thing you know today because of those brilliant young writers who were so tough-minded?
You live in a society which basically has no journalism at all. Your society is incapable of conducting a discussion on any topic, no matter how serious, except perhaps for the ones whose parameters Bill Gates has defined. For that reason, anyone with a journalistic platform is in a position to provide invaluable service, whether writing about our public schools or about the astonishing cost of our health care.
Is there anything you know today because of Galloway’s writers? Given our broken journalistic culture, we can think of very few journalists from whom we’ve learned something important, sweater-wear to the side.
We’ve learned several important things because Paul Krugman became a journalist. From Kevin Drum, we’ve learned about the possible past effects of lead in the air.
Because Gene Lyons wrote Fools for Scandal, we know a lot of things about the coverage of Candidate and President Bill Clinton. (Sub-title: How the media invented Whitewater.)
Lyons’ book appeared in 1996. In effect, it turned out to be a warning about what the press corps was going to do in the two years of Campaign 2000.
During that campaign, we lunched al fresco with three major scribes, all of whom refused to challenge or confront that debacle. Check that! One month later, Walter Shapiro thought he heard Gore’s latest lie.
Four years later, Weisberg was helping reinvent the culture of coverage based on sweaters and long eyelashes. Does a larger, enveloping press corps culture help explain what he did?
Without any question, our journalists work within a deeply fatuous culture. In December, to cite one example, Weisberg’s wife will co-host The New York Times International Luxury Conference.
Actual name! Click here.
We have no doubt that Deborah Needleman is a good, decent person. But a fatuous culture surrounds “Needleberg,” as the pair have sometimes been called. It’s a culture which seems to emerge from The Houses of Journalist County.
Many “journalists” live in those houses. Weisberg, so bright when he was 20, is one in a very long line.
They say that light can’t escape a black hole. Can journalism itself escape The Houses of Journalist County?
Tomorrow: The houses and the movie stars of Journalist County