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?
I wasn’t very involved before other than writing the blog and doing four stories a year. My title of Washington editor may have suggested an editorial role, but I was basically the Washington reporter for the magazine. I won’t be doing the blog anymore and I probably won’t be writing four stories for them anymore. But I still love the magazine. It’s a place where if you’ve got a great story they’ll give you 10,000 words to write it. Or more.
And what will you be working on with the Open Society Institute and Global Witness?
What I find exciting, and what gives me hope, is that I will be well funded to do the kind of reporting I like to do best. It’s up to me to come up with projects, but if I have the project there’s funding to do it. It’s become increasingly difficult in journalism to find outlets or publications that are willing to finance any long-form reporting, let alone long-form international reporting.
Do you think such fellowships and grants are going to play a big part in the future of the industry?
I look around and I see places like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch, places that are not journalism outlets per se, doing really first rate investigative reporting. They will devote the resources to a project that a newspaper or magazine rarely will. For me, being able to fund this sort of work is harder and harder to do. Twenty years ago, if I had taken an OSI fellowship it would have been hard for me to go to some outlets and say I want to do a story—they would say they can’t accept the piece because I was working for an activist organization.
The media landscape is shifting in such a way that newspapers and magazines are going to have to take reporting from unconventional places like nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups.