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?
Ultimately—to end in the high-school way—I was happy to read the thoughtful apologies from “Mouthpiece Theater” participants. And happy, then, to forgive them their smoking jackets. But, really, we forget them at our peril—because the “Mouthpiece Theater” debacle offers, to use another phrase that is fashionable now, a “teachable moment.” It’s a warning of what can happen when a respected news organization allows its push for innovation to become permissive to the point of promiscuity—when, in the frenzy for eyeballs and embeds, an outlet sells out its core mission, and its audience in the process. “Experimentation is great and necessary in journalism, always and especially now; mistakes are a natural price of that; and everyone in every field needs to make his or her work as entertaining and attractive as it can be,” James Fallows put it. “But trying to compete for attention on sheer yuks is a step toward the brink.”