Now, sure, the series may well have been, as Alexander has it, an experiment gone awry. Which is also, by the way, the framing that Chris Cillizza—a mere day after he participated in the “Under Wraps” episode of “Mouthpiece,” which mocked the blogosphere’s reaction to the “Mad Bitch” comment—introduced in his own apology for the series:
But, for those who have counseled me to “stick to your day job”, I say this: my day job, like every reporter in the Post newsroom or in the journalism business more broadly, is changing rapidly, and I am committed to trying to change with it. I pledge to continue to try and innovate—hopefully in smarter, less controversial ways—via the Fix and the other platforms (Twitter, Facebook, You Tube etc.) on which I am lucky enough to have a chance to communicate with other political junkies on a daily basis.
And ‘experimentation’ was a theme that Milbank continued in his take: “We thought it was worth experimenting with a new format—a regular video feature on set days of the week having fun with the political news of the day,” the columnist wrote in an online chat on Friday. Driving home the (talking) point, he concluded: “I think it’s important in the newspaper business that we keep experimenting.”
So: the ‘experimentation defense’ has been invoked—not as an excuse, necessarily (all involved acknowledge that “Mouthpiece Theater” was, indeed, a failure), but rather as an explanation of intent. And also, however, as a kind of exculpation: the show’s failure, the ‘experimentation’ defense suggests, was one of execution rather than conception. It was, you know, flawed rather than wrong. It was a failed experiment—rather than the wrong experiment in the first place.
But here again we come to the definitional problem with ‘experimentation’—a term that, for all its ubiquity, is incredibly misleading. As its dichotomistic definition suggests, ‘experimentation’ is a concept whose meaning is prismatic to the point of near self-contradition. It encompasses, on the one hand, American Heritage’s broad, and broadly etymological, definition: ‘giving something a try.’ But it encompasses on the other the dictionary’s clinical definition: ‘conducting a test under controlled conditions.’ (Elsewhere: ‘a method of investigating causal relationships among variables.’)
The problem here is implicit: trying and testing are, in our vernacular, two very different things. The former suggests expansion—stretching the limits of what we think we can do—while the latter suggests contraction: a clarification, and codification, of those very limits. (“The whole of science,” Einstein said, “is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”) Testing, in other words, involves defining our knowledge; trying involves transcending it.
What journalism really needs—urgently so—is, essentially, a brand of experimentation that combines the two dictionary definitions into one workable sensibility. We need experimentation that tests our limits, certainly, but that does so in a controlled, systematic, and replicable way. And in a way that merges the anything goes mentality of the former definition with the wait, let’s be reasonable mentality of the latter.
In other words: we need smart experimentation—not for its own sake, but for the sake of getting us somewhere better than we were before. Experimentation that respects time-tested principles even as it seeks new ones.
In that sense, Mouthpiece Theater” wasn’t a failure of execution; it was a failure of conception. The show shouldn’t have required production in the first place, the ‘experiment’ itself, for the Post to realize that it was inconsistent with its mission. That inconsistency—and the fact that, as Alexander had it, the series was “fatally flawed”—was written in its blueprint. The series may have been an experiment in the general, spaghetti-flinging sense—throw stuff up on the wall, and see what sticks—but it was certainly not an experiment in the narrower sense of the measured test. What, after all, was it really testing—beyond, that is, our patience?