When I realized I could be more honest and funnier about a wider array of topics than any other job had allowed—let alone demanded—I felt I owed it to the readers to become something more than the scornful persona that was Gawker’s trademark. When the timeless dilemmas of dating and dieting and “having it all” invariably cropped up, I felt both liberated and obligated to “overshare,” as they say, copping to all manner of offenses I would have elided in earlier jobs: unprotected sex, a history of eating disorders, a newfound dependence on attention-deficit-disorder drugs, belief in God, etc. This enabled me to more honestly confront feminist pieties and hypocrisies, write more vividly and confidently, and perhaps even challenge the stereotypes about “women who write about shit that happened to them.”
From a commercial perspective, “branding” has consistently bestowed its greatest rewards on those capable of projecting a kind of elusive authority that turns consumers’ fears, insecurities, aspirations, unarticulated dreams, etc. into healthy profit margins. But a sense of humanity is also a kind of authority. And maybe the best policy for our beaten-down population of journalists just naturally involves letting down the old guard of objectivity and letting go of illusions of unimpeachability. Rather than train journalists to dismiss their own experiences, what if we trained them to use those experiences to help them explain the news to their audience? Allow their humanity to shape their journalism? This isn’t some radically profound notion—it only seems that way in the context of the ridiculous zero-sum debate over the relative merits of “straight” news versus the self-absorbed nature of blogs. Maybe there is a way to combine the best of both.
If journalism’s more vital traditions of investigating corruption and synthesizing complex topics are going to be restored, it will never be at the expense of the personal, the sexual, the venal, or the sensational, but rather through mastering the kind of storytelling that understands that none of those things exists in a vacuum. For instance, perhaps the latest political sex scandal is not simply another installment of the unrelenting narcissism and sense of invincibility of people in power. Most of the journalists writing about it have—as we all do—some understanding of the internal conflicts that lead to personal failure. By humanizing journalism, we maybe can begin to develop a mutual trust between reader and writer that would benefit both.
What I’m talking about is, of course, a lot easier to do with the creative liberties afforded a blog—one’s humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andrew Sullivan, one of journalism’s preeminent blogging brands, is one of very few journalists to have endured his own sordid sex scandal. Or that Josh Marshall, the studiously wonky founder of Talking Points Memo, reacted to the adultery-provoked downfall of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Marshall’s ideological foe, by entreating Sanford, whom Marshall described as seeming “deeply in love” with his mistress, to “Just Go Be With Her!”
Last year, Michael Massing, the guy who originally gave me the tip about John Timoney more than a decade ago (and who is a contributing editor to this magazine), sent an e-mail to Talking Points Memo, where I was doing a stint covering the financial crisis. He wanted to drop by the office for a New York Review of Books think piece on “the future of journalism.” I wrote back and suggested we first meet for a drink. Over Bloody Marys I told him that I’d work for Goldman Sachs in a second if they’d have me. “Don’t say that!” he replied, as if he would have censored the very thought if he could. So I had to explain just how depressing it was to look ahead while my own future remained so inextricable from the future of journalism.