Part 5—Journalists and movie stars:
In 1986, Jacob Weisberg, then 20 years old, issued a prescient warning about the emerging fatuous conduct of our pundit class.

Eighteen years later, Weisberg was editor of Slate. Direct from New Hampshire, he offered these absurd remarks about three Democratic contenders:
WEISBERG (1/20/04): [Wes] 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.

Edwards' appeal to swingers is his appealing personality and his Southern accent. He's a bright and likable fellow...

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!”
Credit where due. No one got called The Breck Girl!

For links to all posts in this series, click here.

If we might adapt the old New England joke, How do you get there from there? How could someone as sharp as young Weisberg end up insulting the public, and the public interest, in such a ridiculous manner?

How could such a descent have occurred? Perhaps we should recall another prophetic warning.

This warning appeared in The Washington Monthly in 1992. Katherine Boo devoted 3800 words to the journalistic trend she described as “Creeping Dowdism.”

We know of no link to this prescient warning. That said, Boo’s prescience was so strong that she issued her warning before Maureen Dowd became a New York Times columnist!

Dowd was still faking it a reporter. Boo could see where this led.

Boo praised Dowd for her writing skill. She challenged her nihilism and her high ennui:
BOO (11/1/92): [A] generation of bright young writers is now imitating her—the flaws as well as the flourishes. Substantive political and policy pieces desperately need talented writers to make them come alive for the reader. Unfortunately, the more talented writers are desperately chasing after character and style. In piece after piece, this substance gap begins to look like more than an innocent sin of omission. One begins to sense a political nihilism undergirding the carefully chosen words.

While not every literary fillip from the Dowd Crowd is revealing, many of them are reducing. Von Drehle compares Ross Perot's appearance to Elmer Fudd's, and Bush's to that of an "oddly unfashionable" commercial airline pilot; Clinton and Gore are, as Dowd and Frank Rich have it, the "Double Bubba ticket" and "political Doublemint Twins." Reducing politicians—who calls them public servants with a straight face anymore?—to cartoons is as much a marker of Dowdstyle as the literary reference, only it's more troubling. It's fine to leave the fulsome profile to People, but there's often a conspicuous lack of empathy and generosity in the new writers' character deconstruction—and sometimes an unmistakable lack of interest in providing meaningful insight...

Yet among Dowd and disciples, the character painting continually shoulders out meaningful questions about what the pretenders to the Oval Office have in mind. Once Dowd allows us to know that Kerrey has "large blue eyes and a light-bulb shaped head that give him the look of a bemused extraterrestrial," can we really take seriously the mechanics of his health-care proposal? Of course, in her preprimary profile of Kerrey, the health-care issue—his campaign centerpiece—never comes up. And why would it? In Dowd's character-centered conception, issues don't merit too much concern. They're largely props in "meticulous Kabuki dramas in which the candidates enact the themes they want to sell to voters in November."

Coursing through stories of this sort is a fundamental doubt about the beneficial possibilities of the democratic process. It's so phony, says the subtext, that I'm not going to try to wring out any meaning. Instead, I'm going to amuse you.
Boo had noticed that Dowd didn’t care about health care. To Dowd, political writing was about cartooning, about providing amusement.

By 1992, Boo could already see this. Eight years later, Dowd was writing brain-damaged columns about Candidate Gore’s bald spot.

Twelve years later, Dowd was writing just like Weisberg, who was—dumbfoundingly, inexcusably—writing just like Dowd:
DOWD (1/11/04): 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.


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.
That same month, Dowd would devote two columns to “the startling picture of [Howard Dean’s] wife” which had appeared in the New York Times. “In worn jeans and old sneakers, the shy and retiring Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean looked like a crunchy Vermont hippie, blithely uncoiffed, unadorned, unstyled and unconcerned about not being at her husband's side,” Dowd was able to warn us.

By now, the prescience of Katherine Boo’s warning is unmistakably clear. Long before 2004, Dowd was irretrievably broken.

But there was Weisberg, tangled in the vines of that Creeping Dowdism. Eighteen years after his own prescient warning, how had that sagacious student ended up like this?

In Weisberg’s case, the pathway seems to lead through the realms of wealth and power. He had tied his wagon first to Bill Gates, then to Robert Rubin.

Beyond that, he was living inside a fatuous, destructive world—a fatuous world which is widely found in The Houses of Journalist County.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk about that world without seeming to criticize Weisberg’s wife, the person who has given us a window into his decline. This is unfortunate because, as far we know, Deborah Needleman, Weisberg’s wife, is a thoroughly good, decent person.

But then, as far as we know, Weisberg is a perfectly decent person too. It’s just that someone who wants to write about sweaters and eyelashes shouldn’t be allowed within a hundred miles of campaign journalism.

We’ll assume that Weisberg’s a good, decent person; in our view, most people are. Our question is this: How do decent people who once seemed talented end up producing the drivel which has taken the place of journalism in our failing culture?

To answer that question, we we’ll suggest that you visit a few of The Houses of Journalist County.

Needleman is a style/fashion journalist. She has risen quite high in that world, which she has every right to do.

Today, she's editor of T, the New York Times style magazine. This requires no time spent in prison.

That said, the values which drive the style/fashion world can at times seem a bit suspect. Later this year, for example, Needleman will be co-hosting a three-day event which bears this astounding name:

The New York Times International Luxury Conference.

According to the full-page ads, “artists” and “thinkers” will be at the conference—perhaps the sorts of “artists” and “thinkers” who co-exist with the “journalism” of Dowd. We get a small window into this world from past profiles of Needleman and Weisberg.

Alas! When a political journalist marries a fashion writer, his life-style may get splashed around a bit. That’s what has happened with the life-style of Weisberg, who once was extremely bright and now seems to belong to the cultural slice Hemingway called “The Rich.”

The profiles and the photo spreads can be googled by those who are curious. They’ll take you into the world which Jessica Pressler satirized in a wickedly funny post for New York magazine in 2008.

The profiles and the photo spreads may suggest the way a bright young person can fall to ruin. In this instance, we’ll suggest the path led through Bill Gates, then through Robert Rubin and on to that “Luxury Conference.”

We’ll post excerpts from one profile as we ponder the post-journalistic culture which emanates from The Houses of Journalist County. We’ll use a profile in the (New York) Observer in 2008.

In the occasion under discussion, Weisberg was attending a party his wife was hosting. At the time, Needleman was founding editor of Domino, a style magazine published by Conde Nast.

There’s nothing “wrong” with being the editor of a style magazine! That said, Weisberg was attending a party his wife was hosting for Domino’s fashion issue. The party was held at the West Village townhouse of “socialite and contributing editor” Alison Sarofim.

There’s nothing “wrong” with that! But in her profile for the Observer, Meredith Bryan began recording the chatter:
BRYAN (9/11/08): Ms. Needleman called Ms. Sarofim’s house "the prettiest house I know. I can’t figure out how to top it." Her own Tribeca loft, which she shares with hubby Jacob Weisberg of Slate, has been featured in New York magazine. "But I don’t have any Rothkos!" she said.
Whatever! It was all in good fun!

Below, Bryan continues recording the chatter. The question we’re going to ask you is this: Could actual journalism ever emerge from a piffle-rich culture like this?
BRYAN (continuing directly): Mr. Weisberg, who was chatting with actress Elizabeth Banks in the living room near where Mary Louise Parker was holed up on a couch, recently spoke to Fashion Week Daily about his wife. "We’ve been made merciless fun of," sighed Ms. Needleman. "Gawker or somebody thought it was serious, they’re like, ‘Oh, how pretentious, she reads Chekhov in the morning and metaphysical poets at night!’ That’s a joke, you moron!

"But he got it right, I sleep a lot," she continued. "He nailed that."

Ms. Banks left Mr. Weisberg chatting with her husband, Max Handelman, and wandered over in a strapless black dress. "My husband is, I'm sure, going to talk his ear off about politics," she said. "I am the biggest fan of Deborah Needleman and Jacob Weisberg that exists on the planet! I love these two. I love them as a couple. I love her as a human being. I love her as an editor. I think she's fabulous." They had been seated together at a Highline event and had become fast friends.

Ms. Banks’ laugh reminded us of her seminal orgasmic bathtub scene in The 40-Year Old Virgin. "I do hear that from many people, like four other people tonight," she admitted.
When he was 20, he wrote a prescient warning about the way our most famous journalists had started chasing the money. Twenty-two years later, he was sitting with movie stars and socialites. At least four people had been reminded of “the seminal bathtub orgasm scene.”

You live in a country which has no actual journalism. Our campaigns turn into discussions of sweaters and Irish setters. To the extent that any serious topics ever get discussed, the discussions have often been commissioned by people like Gates.

When it comes to our public schools, those Gates-funded discussions are founded on gross repeated misstatements. People like Weisberg know they mustn’t discuss this.

Long ago, he issued a warning. Later, he went to work for Gates, co-wrote Rubin’s memoir.

In December, his wife will be co-hosting the “New York Times International Luxury Conference.”

Light cannot escape a black hole. We feel fairly sure of this:

No journalism will ever escape the culture found in The Houses of Journalist County. Next week, we’ll examine a part of this game which may seem a bit more pernicious.

Next week: The Houses of Nantucket, Mass.


  1. News and public affairs reporting used to be subsidized by other parts of the paper -- lifestyle and fashion, sports and society pages. If people preferred to read them, they had to buy the whole paper and those who cared about more substantive reporting could read the news pages. Now, the papers do not see any responsibility to subsidize quality reporting of hard news. These must be supported by readership so they have been made entertaining to attract readers.

    At the college level, students increasingly read less and do less homework. They especially avoid hard majors, unless their parents or their own foresight has suggested these are necessary to achieve a higher income as an engineer, doctor, or lawyer. It is very difficult for professors to motivate students to read their textbooks and do the work required to achieve mastery, and it gets harder all the time with pressures on professors to be entertaining and to make subjects easy for students.

    There would be no problem with any of this except that the difficult problems of our society, of business and science, all require diligent application of mental effort -- the work or learning and studying and research. Without this effort, progress does not happen and we get incompetence, like that seen in Feguson's community relations and policing, like that seen with FEMA after Katrina, like that seen with the launch of the Obamacare website, and so on. Where will the competent people come from if we, as a society, permit a slide into lazy entertainment in the guise of entertainment, work, news, and every other aspect of our lives?

    Voters should do research before voting. Newspapers should help them do that. They should not be voting for people who seem likeable, but for those who seem to know what they are doing, to have good ideas, to have plausible solutions and interesting proposals. How will anyone know about this, have the information needed to cast their votes, without reporting of this substance?

    I am glad Somerby is raising these issues. They are important.

    1. Sorry for the typo: "entertainment in the guise of entertainment, work" should read "entertainment in the guise of education, work..."

    2. Using the wrong word is not a typo. Striking the wrong key or failing to strike the right key is a typo.

      There would be no problem with any of this except that the difficult problems of our society, of business and science, and blog pronouncements on civic responsibilities of voters and media institutions all require diligent application of mental effort -- the work or learning and studying and research. Without this effort, progress does not happen and we get incompetence,

    3. But you and Bob make the same mistake. You seem to think that "entertaining" readers in order to get them to buy you rnewspaper is such a brand-new concept, not like the old days where newspapers were serious when they ran Blondie, Dick Tracy, crossword puzzles, horoscopes, advice columns, gossip columns, pop culture reviews, etc.

    4. No one is saying that sensationalism and entertainment wasn't used in the past to sell newspapers. In the here and now do you really believe a group of multimillionaire socialites eager to suck up to power is capable of providing you an accurate world view?

  2. "We know of no link to this prescient warning" Somerby

    "You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line"! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha... " Vizzini

  3. So what is to be done? Give up on democracy? Railing without remedies is deeply unsatisfying.

    The money is not going to stop rolling in for press people who command a large audience, and it's hard to imagine a way to do that. We cannot expect them all to not enjoy themselves with people of similar wealth they inevitably meet. So, it seems, it's up to we the people. We have to make going native by wealthy journalists -- losing the ability to see the world the way the great majority of Americans do -- a serious, career-threatening breach of journalistic ethics.

    Wouldn't that have to start with teaching the principle of an iron-bound professional obligation to refuse to adopt the perspectives of the very wealthy with whom they someday may hobnob in the J-schools -- all backed by a growing keyboarding battalion demanding it in practice? (It helps to have a simple concept to use on attack. I like the phrase "going native" as a recognized way to ridicule and enforce behavior.)

    1. We could also start recognizing and shouting that Dowdism, no matter how "liberal" on social matters the writer might seem, is fundamentally at the extreme right wing. The nihilism that is their hallmark is exactly what right-wing billionaires want. They know they will never convert a majority to a Republican ideology repugnant to most Americans, but they also know that people who become disgusted with politics won't vote. The lower the turnout, the more influence their money has, not only directly in the election results, but also in being able to influence the winning candidate on policy. What chance does the AFL-CIO have to lobby a Senator when turnout is 37%? Have we learned nothing from 2010?

      The nihilist journalist, apart from changing history in 2000 and other specific outrages, bear their share of responsibility for low turnout.

    2. Nihilist journalists cannot change history. They can alter the course of events, but the events are the history. Once they happen they can only be distorted.

  4. I also find it amusing that Bob the Stand Up Comic thinks that getting paid good dough for entertaining people makes one a sell out.

    1. Bob's understanding of that, based on his stand up career, would be entirely theoretical.

  5. "How could such a descent occur"? Simple really. It's all about the money. Making the bucks. Feeling successful. Feeling superior. Leaving your air conditioned home, in your air conditioned car, to your air conditioned office. Feeling you are better than the others, above the law. One morphs slowly over ten or so years. Got to please my boss, keep the bucks rolling in. Got to maintain my upscale image. Vacation in the Caribbean. Get Christmas cards from the right people. Money trumps everything. Later in life, the lucky one's who have lost all their real friends, look back and understand, I lost my way, lost my humanity, lost my real friends. Others continue to fool themselves and just never get it. p.s. Love the "Houses of Nantucket". First time I sailed down there in the 1970s from Gloucester I was sure I sailed to a different planet.

    1. So every one with money is morally inferior to you?

    2. No. People who don't sail from Gloucester to Nantucket and think they are on a different planet are inferior.

    3. A1 - What a silly stretch. A2 - It was 30 year old 19 foot gunkholer that every few years got handed down to a younger brother or sister. I think you got carried away a little bit also although your comment is a bit obscure. Lots of families here in New England are sailing around in summer on a shoe string in some old well kept and well respected handed down family boat.

    4. Silly stretch? You mean this?

      "It's all about the money. Making the bucks. Feeling successful. Feeling superior. Leaving your air conditioned home, in your air conditioned car, to your air conditioned office. Feeling you are better than the others, above the law. One morphs slowly over ten or so years."

      Wow! I bet you are so glad you aren't like all those people with money who have "morph(ed) slowly over ten or so years" into the horrible, morally inferior people (compared to you) that they are.

    5. 8:55 what finally tipped you off that your were still on Earth?


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