Part 2—When pundits began chasing mammon: In the street-fighting class of 1969, we kids had a lot of on our plates.
There were the usual academic pursuits. Beyond that, we were busy stopping a war—and it was youngsters like Jacob Weisberg we were trying to help.
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Seventeen years later, Weisberg was a senior at Yale. By that time, the young people didn’t have to spend their time devising plans to avoid the draft. They were able to focus on the things that truly matter!
In Weisberg’s case, this led him to pen a highly prescient warning. And his warning came from Journalist County. It appeared in The New Republic in January 1986.
“Wait a minute,” a reader might cry. How could a mere college kid have published his warning in the pages of TNR?
Such readers ask a good question. In 1996, when Weisberg was 31, the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Galloway profiled the local kid who had by then made good.
By 1996, Weisberg was moving in “the arcane [world] of big-time journalism as conducted in the only arenas of the magazine game that really count—New York City and Washington,” Galloway wrote. Weisberg was “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.”
Galloway poured it on pretty good, heaping praise on several young writers who have crashed and burned since that time in especially horrible ways. In this passage, Galloway described the early years, the years young Weisberg spent at The Washington Monthly and TNR:
GALLOWAY (7/26/96): Weisberg honed his skills and established his reputation in both shops, although briefly at the Monthly, garnering an internship the summer before his freshman year at Yale, thanks to the recommendation of his former North Side neighbor, Jon Alter, then a staffer at the magazine.Weisberg had come from a prominent Chicago family. Jonathan Alter had seen his promise while he was still in high school—nor is it clear that Alter had seen this matter wrong.
His national writing debut was an article titled "The Road to Ruin," which exposed the pervasiveness of Washington's potholes and the absence of a sound plan to repair them.
After his junior year, an article he'd written for the Yale Daily News caught the attention of Kinsley, then editor of The New Republic, who offered him a one-year sabbatical at the magazine.
At 20, Weisberg immediately caused a stir with "The State of the Art: A Washington Sleazeball," a scathing profile of Roger Stone, a heavyweight lobbyist during the Reagan administration, and "The Buckrakers," an attack on celebrity journalism.
After a stint as a Rhodes Scholar, Weisberg returned to The New Republic in 1989 as a graybeard of 24, remaining until New York magazine beckoned.
Forget the piece about the potholes! In The Buckrakers, Weisberg delivered a prescient warning about the way some of the nation’s biggest journalists had embarked on a chase after mammon.
The piece appeared in 1986. Weisberg was still just a senior at Yale—but we’d have to say he got it right!
Two years later, Richard M. Cohen would deliver a warning about the way corporate greed was turning TV journalism into “pablum,” a game of “pretend.” In his earlier warning, Weisberg described similar values taking hold among the nation’s most famous print journalists.
In his cri de coeur (his “cry from the core”), Weisberg noted the fact that broadcast journalists had always been massively paid. He focused on a developing chase for cash among the nation’s columnists and “commentators.”
The kind of money he discussed will seem a bit quaint today. That said, the abandonment of journalistic values had to start somewhere!
Live and direct from a messy dorm room, Weisberg’s highly prescient warning started off like this:
WEISBERG (1/27/86): Any history of Washington journalism would surely mark June 1972 as the beginning of a new chapter. That was when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein started investigating a peculiar burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate. Thus began the era of the Washington muckraker...As he continued, Weisberg described a very familiar culture. Columnists were fighting to get on TV to broaden their public exposure. They would dumb themselves down on the available shows, hoping to make themselves quotable and famous.
The same history might mark February 1985 as the start of the next era. That was when Patrick J. Buchanan went to work at the White House and his financial disclosure statement revealed, to widespread astonishment and envy, that he had made $400,000 as a journalist in 1984. This included $60,000 for his syndicated column, $25,000 for his weekly appearance on “The McLaughlin Group,” $94,000 for Cable News Network’s “Crossfire,” $81,000 for a radio show, and more than $135,000 for 37 speeches. Welcome to the era of the buckraker.
Buchanan was by no means at the top of his profession. Television anchors and correspondents have always been lavishly paid. But several “print journalists” now earn more than half a million dollars, and many others are earning sums newspaper and magazine employees wouldn’t have dreamed of 15 years ago. The bad news is that Washington’s new class of buckrakers isn’t making all that money by writing. Today’s journalistic entrepreneurs are learning to sell themselves-—or, more precisely, their “inside” knowledge and celebrity status.
Goodness knows, there’s nothing wrong with paying journalists well. The most successful buckrakers represent a tiny fraction of their profession, vet they make no more than any number of run-of-the-mill partners in Washington law firms, who are no smarter or harder working. The problem isn’t that buckrakers are overpaid. It’s the effect that buckraking may be having on the craft of journalism.
Why were these people behaving this way? Why were they eager to dumb themselves down? According to Weisberg, they wanted to score the major cash which came from corporate speaking gigs.
In this passage, Weisberg described the rise of a highly recognizable culture:
WEISBERG: “The exposure is enormous,” Martin Agronsky says, “If your face is known, people have a feeling about you from ‘IV, and they are more likely to propose that you come and speak to them.” Television can bring fame to print journalists, but it doesn’t often directly bring wealth. The $25,000 a year that “McLaughlin” regulars earn for a few hours of extra work per week hardly seems a paltry sum, but it’s a pittance compared to what the same performers stand to make on the lecture circuit.Those speaking fees seem quaint today. Back then, people were willing to dumb themselves down to achieve a relatively modest degree of material success.
George Will charges somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000 and gives, by some estimates, 40 speeches a year. Robert Novak costs about $6,000, and now gives fewer than 30, although he used to give many more. William Safire reportedly gives relatively few, but charges as much as $18,000. Current or former anchorman like Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, and Eric Sevareid demand as much as $25,000. “There’s no excuse for the busiest man in the world not to make an extra hundred thousand or two,” says Dan T. Moore of the International Platform Association, the trade association of the lecture business. “Especially journalists.”
Weisberg described the pitfalls of this emerging culture. Instead of doing needed research, columnists were wasting their time flying all over the country. They were influenced by the “business executives and spokesmen for various industries” with whom they were spending their time—the corporate leaders from whom they were gaining their income.
“The real danger is that you begin to absorb the conventional wisdom of the burghers you are being paid to fraternize with,” the brash young college kid said. Then, he described what these journalists were willing to do to gain this type of success.
Jonathan Alter had gotten it right! This portrait was quite astute:
WEISBERG: The epicenter of the buckraking storm is “The McLaughlin Group,” a weekly political talk show hosted by former Jesuit priest John McLaughlin, who served in the Nixon White House and is now Washington editor of the National Review. 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 “McLaughlin” regulars even tour, performing ensemble, for fees ranging up to $l5,000 before groups like Footwear Industries of America and the National Association of Manufacturers. At a NAM meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, McLaughlin even used a NAM official as one of his debaters. There is always at least one spot to fill, since according to Joe Cosby, who has booked the group for some of these performances, Novak refuses to join the show on the road because he can earn more speaking by himself.Betraying his youthful idealism, Weisberg went on to offer this lament: “The more popular programs like ‘McLaughlin’ become, the more they supersede careful writing as the preferred way for journalists to inform and persuade.”
A source at the National Association of Chain Drugstores, which recently booked “The McLaughlin Group,” says: “They’re the new kids on the block—a hot number.” He adds that they used to book “Agronsky & Company” to perform as a group, but that “the personalities on that team are just ridiculous and they’re too difficult to deal with.” Although the substance of both shows is quite similar, the pace of “McLaughlin” and its air of personal enmity give viewers the sense that they are watching genuine insider banter. It recently surpassed “Agronsky” in the ratings war.
John McLaughlin is a television genius. His show is wonderful entertainment. But with its gimmickry and phony drama, its relentless emphasis on who’s up and who’s down, its pointless predictions and rankings of everything from one to five, “The McLaughlin Group” has contributed materially to the trivialization of Washington journalism. And being on programs like “McLaughlin” has become the measure of success for political journalists. “Appearing in print with good stories and being paid a good salary is no longer enough,” says Walter Shapiro of Newsweek. Everything is seen as being hopelessly tawdry and middle class if it’s not an entry to being on TV.” Although journalists get to speak only 30 words instead of crafting l,000 into an essay, most of the ones I spoke to mentioned that what they say on “McLaughlin” is quoted back to them more often than what they write.
Today, we can see that the loss of “careful writing” was the smallest part of the problem. Today, the larger problem is the on-air clowning which Weisberg described so well.
In Weisberg’s description, TV shows like The McLaughlin Group were stage-managed entertainment programs. Journalists were “presented as lively characters.” In the process, viewers were “given the sense”—inferentially, the inaccurate sense—that they were “watching genuine insider banter.”
The show was good entertainment, Weisberg acknowledged, but it was entertainment nonetheless. Built on gimmicks and “phony drama,” it had “contributed materially to the trivialization of Washington journalism.”
Two years later, Richard M. Cohen painted a similar picture of the work being done by CBS News. In a lengthy profile, Howard Kurtz quoted Cohen as he offered the same critique:
“Cohen says that such executives as Stringer, Joyce and former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter ‘believe you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum, make it glitzy, and it will sell...The currency of the realm ceases to be journalism.’”
Yesterday, that same Richard M. Cohen sat on the set of a new TV show and engaged in one of the phoniest gong-shows we’ve ever seen. For a sense of what we’re talking about, we recommend this three-minute clip, in which you will see Cohen’s wife trying and failing to pretend that she was dissolving in tears.
At the two-minute mark, you’ll see Cohen’s daughter tell a story about her mother which no sane person could really believe. In fairness, the mother is being paid $5 million to stage this ridiculous fraud.
As we watched this show yesterday, it looked to us like Cohen had possibly purchased The Values of Journalist County, the values he once warned the nation about. Two years earlier, Weisberg had issued a similar warning.
Today, Weisberg lives in The Houses of Journalist County. We’re document this allegation at a later point this week.
Weisberg lives in The Houses of Journalist County. We’re forced to say it shows.
Full disclosure! We lunched with Weisberg in Los Angeles in the summer of 2000; even that doesn’t seem to have helped. (Our luncheon was al fresco.) Completing the picture of total surrender, his wife will co-host the “New York Times International Luxury Conference” (actual name!), a three-day luxury event to be held in Miami at the end of the year.
More on all these matters to come! In the winter of 86, Weisberg delivered a prescient warning. And a decade later, James Fallows took up the same battle cry.
The warnings kept coming from Journalist County. Keeping that fact in mind, have you watched Maddow this week?
Tomorrow: And Fallows made three