For a long time I enjoyed being at the L.A. Times investigative team; it was great to be on the investigative unit of a major newspaper. I think it’s really juvenile when people talk about the big mainstream media and how horrible it is. The New York Times does amazing work. The Washington Post is a shell of its former self, but there’s some amazing work going on there. And at the networks and all over the place. I don’t have this issue with the big bad mainstream media.
How do you think bloggers have contributed to Washington coverage?
I’ve been blogging for while but I feel equally distant from much of the blogosphere. It’s predictable in the same sort of way. With so many of the blogs—even the best ones—all you have to do is read the headlines. Obama can get away with things that Bush would have been reamed for on liberal blogs. And anything that Obama does is ripped apart by conservative bloggers. It’s so predictable and boring.
I remember during the health care debate, I was driving somewhere and turned on the radio. They were talking to someone who I thought was an administration official making an argument in support of the health care plan. Then they had the station break and it turns out it was a blogger for a liberal outlet. I can’t tell the difference between what I read on the blogs and what I read from the DCCC and the White House half the time.
But Washington Babylon fit into that in a way, didn’t it?
I started off blogging by not really blogging, but doing short reported pieces. I used to spend all day reporting and writing reported pieces, trying to add insight and information rather than just my own opinion. But at a certain point there are only so many hours in a day and I didn’t have the pace or the energy to do that. So I resorted to a more conventional form of blogging for preservation. I didn’t find that very satisfying at the end.
I never really felt comfortable as part of the blogosphere. I have strong political beliefs, of course, but I never saw myself as an advocate for a political party. I’m not comfortable being an advocate and it seems to me that so much of blogging now is advocacy. I find it mostly uninteresting. But just as there is brilliant work being done in the mainstream media there are blogs that I love to read and there are blogs that are creative, politically diverse, and very appealing. I like to read Andrew Sullivan a lot. He does what a blogger is supposed to do, which is to round up interesting tidbits from all over the place and periodically offer keen insight. I like Glenn Greenwald a lot, too. I like his outrage and I like the fact that he’s just a relentless critic of insider reporting.
While we’re talking blogs, you had a dig at Howard Kurtz in your final post, writing: “When you can read an entire column by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and never once feel the urge to cut out your own heart with a dull knife, you know that you no longer have the sense of outrage that is essential to reporting from our nation’s capital.” Now that he’s leaving the paper, who do you think should replace him?
I think there are many interesting people out there who write about the media from diverse perspectives (there are a lot of people writing about the media who I think are complete hacks as well). But the problem is not the candidates; it’s the institution itself. The Post is such an unlikely platform for thoughtful and tough media criticism. I think there are top-notch reporters there, but the paper is so afraid of its own shadow, in terms of having an opinion, that to think it would allow an unconventional media critic is impossible. I’d be stunned. Kurtz was perfect—he’s a perfect product of that institution. My guess is that they’d hire somebody awfully safe. I’m not sure anybody could be quite as deadly as Howard Kurtz, but it’s hard to imagine that they would take on a controversial voice that might cause the newspaper grief.
In the great days of the automobile I guess it must have been very difficult to write about the auto industry for the Detroit newspapers. When steel was the most important product produced in Pittsburgh I guess the papers there couldn’t honestly cover the steel industry. In Washington, I don’t think it’s really possible to honestly cover politics or the media.
You’re staying on as a contributing editor at Harper’s. What will that involve?