MAN AND MANDARIN: Who should you trust!


Part 4—Concerning that profile of Ezra: Should we liberals place our trust in our new generation of liberal journalists?

According to Megan McArdle, the answer is pretty much no. In a recent profile, McArdle described a rising class of elite young journalists who “really are very bright and hardworking”—but who may also be “prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority.”

Does that describe our new liberal journalists? Consider that recent profile of Ezra Klein.

At age 28, Klein is one of the most successful of our new rising journalists. A few weeks ago, Julia Ioffe published this profile of Klein in the New Republic.

Plainly, Klein is very bright, in the sense of IQ and “verbal fluency.” Beyond that, he seems like a perfectly decent person; people have told us he is. That said, is there any chance that Klein’s background and princely position make him “prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority?”

Sensible liberals will spend some time worrying about such matters. They’ll recall how the last generation of journalists turned out, the gruesome generation that gave us Sam and Cokie. (To recall the moment of their ultimate descent, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/13).

Ezra Klein is very bright; he seems like a decent person. That said, is there any chance that his background and his position make him “prone to” to the deficits McArdle listed?

Consider two parts of Ioffe’s profile. Along the way, consider the role that is played by Wonkblog, the web site Klein has wrought.

People like Klein have a great deal at stake in their daily efforts. Are there topics and insights he’s inclined to avoid as a way of protecting his future earnings and fame?

At one point, Ioffe made a passing remark which caught our attention. In this passage, she is describing Klein, who is now 28, during the Bush years:
IOFFE (2/12/13): He became part of a crew of bloggers, all of them young men, most of them still in college, who were essentially the liberal guerrilla underground during the Bush years: They were disgusted by Bush’s policies and disconnected from the enfeebled Democratic establishment. The mainstream media, which they felt had abetted both Al Gore’s defeat and Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, were particularly villainous in their eyes—little more than stenographers and scandal hounds.

“What the blogosphere did with newspaper column analysis is make fun of how horrible it was,” says David Weigel, Klein’s friend and fellow member of what came to be known as the Juicebox Mafia. “There were columnists who, even with all their access, which you assumed they had, were just completely lazy and misinformed. And that was the opposite of the blogosphere. The only way to succeed in the blogosphere was actually to shoot at the groin of whoever was bigger than you.” Almost everyone came in for derision: George Will, David Brooks, David Broder. The latter became synonymous with high-minded appeals for bipartisanship, or “High Broderism.” Klein and co. were far less interested in finding compromise than in their side winning.
We highlight the brief aside in which Ioffe says that Klein and associates felt that the mainstream press “abetted both Al Gore’s defeat and Bush’s misadventure in Iraq.” Question: Since Klein began attaining real stature, have you ever seen him advance that first key point?

In our experience, the answer is yes! Klein described the press corps’ war against Candidate Gore on one major occasion. Back in 2006, he did so right at the start of a cover story for The American Prospect.

For reasons which have gone unexplained, he never did so again.

Incredibly, Klein was just 21 or 22 when he wrote this accurate description of the press corps’ role in Campaign 2000. As he starts, he refers to a speech Gore gave in October 2005:
KLEIN (4/06): [Gore’s] address was the keynote for the We Media conference, held at the Associated Press headquarters in New York last October and attended by an audience that included both old media luminaries and new media innovators. In attendance were Tom Curley, president of the AP, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all leading lights of a media establishment that, five years earlier, had deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, spinning each day’s events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore.
Say what? The “media establishment deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign?” These famous, influential news orgs were guilty of “spinning each day’s events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore?”

Is that what the press corps did?

Did the press corps do those things? Given the narrow way that election was decided, this would rather plainly mean that the mainstream press corps decided the outcome of Campaign 2000—and quite plainly, that is what they did. But even in his interviews about this 2006 report, Klein never returned to that startling claim—the kind of claim which can’t be made by Serious People within the mainstream press corps.

Why did Klein suddenly swallow the apple? Why did he drop this remarkable theme? At the time, we offered a speculation:

Someone had taken this (very) young man aside and explained the facts of life. You simply can’t say things like that if you plan to succeed in the press corps!

Is that why Ezra Klein dropped this theme—dropped it like a rock? Like you, we have no idea. But when he dropped this startling theme, he joined the rest of the career liberal world in keeping us liberals barefoot and clueless. We weren’t allowed to hear the truth about news orgs like the New York Times, CBS, the AP.

If you want to climb as the mandarins do, you simply can’t discuss such topics. Such observations cannot be made—and Klein no longer makes them.

Without any question, Klein has successfully climbed. Did he decide to throw your interests away so he could get to the top? To this day, his type will not discuss the role the press corps has played in building the dominant themes and concepts which control the current political discourse.

We’re sorry, but that isn’t what WonkBlog does! WonkBlog just gives us information and facts!

We were struck by a second part of Ioffe’s profile. In the passage which follows, Klein acknowledges that, perfectly sensibly, he was nervous about being profiled.

We were struck by the reasons he listed:
IOFFE: I noted that the process of being profiled seemed to make him nervous. “Of course, it makes me nervous!” Klein exclaimed. “You know what we do, right?” (By “we,” he meant journalists.) “We take people and we take their stories away from them and refashion them into the format that will make the best article.” The New Republic, he noted, was especially guilty of making their profile subjects look bad, which he was worried would happen to him. “You seem great, but there’s no reason not to be careful,” he said, his frustration herniating through the professorial polish, his voice going tense. “I think journalists are completely irresponsible about how they use people and how they use quotes. All the time.”

“You’re a journalist, right?” I asked him.

“I am,” he agreed. “And I try to be responsible about it.” But by taking the things people told us and spinning them out of context, Klein said, we journalists undermined our own arguments for why people should go on the record with us.

“Do your colleagues here do this?” I asked him, gesturing to the newsroom around him.

“I think everybody that does campaign reporting does this,” he said curtly. “All the time.”
Fascinating! As in his report about Gore in 2006, Klein is perfectly right in these comments. His colleagues at the Washington Post are engaged in a constant process of taking the things people (i.e., candidates) say and spinning them out of context. To state the obvious, that's precisely the way his colleagues took down Gore.

The process hasn’t gigantically changed, although the uniformity of the press corps’ anti-Clinton loathing has reverted to an earlier paradigm. In the current model, various journalists and various news orgs can be found misquoting various candidates in various ways.

During the twenty months of Campaign 2000, the loathing and the misquoting were unanimous. All such conduct was aimed at Gore. Today, the press corps’ misconduct continues, but the targets are more diffuse.

Klein was right in what he said about the press corps’ misconduct. That said, you will rarely see him saying such things in the Washington Post or on TV. Like his benefactor, Rachel Maddow, Klein can almost never be found discussing the actual process by which misinformation is spread.

He doesn’t name the names of colleagues who spread all this bullshit around. Politely, he creates blizzards of information at WonkBlog, ignoring the fact that information plays almost no role in the ongoing discourse, ignoring the fact that it will never do so until the discourse is freed from the bogus narratives, scripts and novels which control all our discussions.

All information is destined to die until we blow up those novels and scripts. But doing so requires the naming of famous names, and our young climbers will rarely do that. Consider this additional chunk of Ioffe’s profile:
IOFFE: His disavowal of party is particularly conspicuous. Klein, who came up through the progressive media and is, according to public records, a registered Democrat, insists on portraying himself as someone driven purely by powerful, un-ideological currents of data. “I’m not afraid to tell people where I come down,” he told me that October night in the town car. “But it’s entirely possible for me to imagine a Republican president who is not irresponsible on policy. It could even be Mitt Romney, who governed more in the realm of a George H. W. Bush. And all of a sudden, a lot of people who think they agree with me on everything would find that they don’t.”

The columnist who he feels achieves this platonic evenhandedness best is The New York Times’s David Brooks. “In the course of a pretty short column, he is able to convey the other side’s positions back to them in a way they would recognize,” Klein says. The fact that Klein feels he has largely achieved this state is a major point of pride, and he says it makes his criticism of policy more weighty. What he didn’t mention was that, four years earlier, he wrote a blog post titled “The Pitfalls of Making David Brooks Your Guy.”
We don’t hate Brooks as some others do. In truth, we can’t say we hate him at all, nor do we plan to or want to. But should liberals be concerned by the fact that Klein has moved on from that earlier post?

In our view, yes—we should be concerned, although liberals should also check the fairness of Ioffe's work on this point. Similarly, we should be concerned by the fact that Klein will never, ever tell you how George W. Bush reached the White House. It’s abundantly clear that he knows the answer—but telling that truth isn’t done.

Are we noting some actual traits in Klein which ought to make liberals nervous? We can’t exactly tell you. But in her profile of the new mandarin class, McArdle told an ancient story, in which the Julien Sorels of the world (or the imperial Chinese mandarins) seek out the best ways to rise. In modern pseudo-journalism, the rewards are immense for the young men and women who manage to find their way to the top. Perhaps as a result, we have seen a steady stream of young super-achievers melt down as part of the chase. (The transcendently bogus Jonah Lehrer was only the latest to fall.)

Is Ezra Klein such a person? We don’t have the slightest idea. But people who care about the world should be suspicious of all our young rapid risers. When we read one part of Ioffe’s profile, we couldn’t help recalling a similar profile of the late Tim Russert, a colleague of Cokie and Sam:
IOFFE (2/12/13) “Ezra is an incredible operator,” says one prominent Washington editor. “He is always looking upward at things. You only have to watch him work a party. He moves right to the most important people there.” One friend saw Klein and his wife, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, at an event for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and noted that they spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic adviser.
That was Ioffe, profiling Klein. Thirteen years earlier, this was USA Today’s Peter Johnson, profiling Russert:
JOHNSON (11/1/00): “I've never seen anyone work this town the way they did,” Washingtonian writer Chuck Conconi says of Russert and his wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, who live in Washington's tony Cleveland Park in a house that has a media pedigree: Previous owners include PBS' Charlie Rose, NBC's Tom Brokaw and New York Times columnist James Reston.

Conconi recalls a tale about Russert and Orth being spotted at a cheap hamburger joint in Georgetown after an exclusive party at Pamela Harriman's house after President Clinton's first election. "They are masters of the Washington social scene. They know you don't go to parties to eat or drink. You go there to work." The anecdote may be apocryphal, Conconi says, "but I can't think of a story that rings more true."
In those days, Russert made TV viewers like him by talking about the Buffalo Bills. Today, Klein good-naturedly takes the Ezra Klein Challenge. Message: Please like this man!

Is Ezra Klein a decent guy? As far as we know, he is. That said, McArdle’s piece offered many sound warnings to folk who don’t want to be seduced and abandoned by a new generation of journalist hustlers. Might we offer a stray observation?

How odd! Last night, Rachel Maddow didn’t even mention Bob Woodward’s recent disgraceful nonsense! (See our next post.) Neither did the fiery Chris Hayes, guest-hosting for Lawrence. Neither did the fully repurposed Chris Matthews.

On Fox last night, Bob Woodward was king. On The One True Liberal Channel, our fiery leaders played dumb.

To some, the dive Maddow took last night may seem strange. Seeing the merit in McArdle’s premise, we pretty much said it would happen.


  1. Hey, Somerby. I missed Maddow, Matthews and Hayes last night.

    How about telling me what they DID talk about? Perhaps the sequester? Maybe the emotional testimony in Congress about guns?

    Just maybe something else besides the whole, silly Bob Woodward kerfuffle, which has been thoroughly discussed and debunked in hundreds of other places everywhere until Sunday?

    Or do you really think America is uninformed unless Matthews, Maddow and Hayes discuss it?

    Now as for your ongoing, seemingly endless "mandarin" series, it all boils down to Ezra Klein? Ezra Klein?

    My goodness, how will Western Civilization survive?

    1. "My goodness, how will Western Civilization survive?"

      I don't know. Ezra Klein, 28 year old UCLA grad talked to Gene Sperling at a fancy media dinner!

      Wait...Gene Sperling was the most important person there?

      Maybe Ezra Klein will turn into David Brooks; there's no indication he's another Ralph Nader...but that didn't turn out so great either.

    2. My guess is that Ezra Klein will be his generation's Richard Cohen, though he may be more of a Michael Kinsley.

      Sadly, this generation has no I.F. Stone.

  2. Really well done, and important since Ezra Klein is obviously determined to be David Brooks and more. Ambition is way, way before principle at least for the time.

  3. Wait, you´re quoting Megan McArdle for what reason?

  4. Would Bob Somerby take a job posting to if it meant he had to write that "Michelle Rhee has a point about teachers, as far as it goes, but Rhee does not offer a viable plan for American schools."

    Any speculation?

  5. "But people who care about the world should be suspicious of all our young rapid risers."

    And here we get in a nutshell Somerby's true problem.

    None of these whippersnappers are to be trusted, by cracky!

  6. Yes, there goes old Somerby again! What a card; how outdated is his rant! He sure is tiresome!
    Let's all get a good chuckle while the MSM continues to pervert our democratic system.

    Horace Feathers

  7. "Is Klein such a person? We haven't the slightest idea."
    Well said, albeit ironically.
    So much of this Megan McArdle - inspired claptrap is precious.
    In the last week or so Klein called out David Brooks (a guy whose half baked psychosocial commentaries apparently don't bother Somerby) as well as Woodward for their false narratives about the sequester. After being interviewed by Klein, Brooks was forced to publicly admit that he didn't know what he was talking about.
    Your innuendo about Ezra Klein and his motivations is no substitute for doing the requisite amount of - I know this is hard- reading of his work.
    Your narratives are fraught with completely unnecessary hand wringing and a compulsion to never let the opportunity pass without mentioning Al Gore, if possible.
    Might want to look up the term 'concern troll' here.

  8. "We don’t hate Brooks as some others do. In truth, we can’t say we hate him at all, nor do we plan to or want to. "

    What does "hate" mean? Do you "hate" Rachel Maddow? You bash her mercilessly. (I generally agree with your criticisms. To the extent that I watch her show, she is often frivolous or misleading or worse. Sometimes she's good. More often in my experience she isn't. ) So why wouldn't David Brooks deserve at least as much "hatred" or whatever you'd call your opinion of Maddow. Is is that Maddow is considered a hero for some on the left? But Brooks is considered the "good, reasonable" conservative by some liberals I know in real life, and he is more misleading on more subjects than Maddow.