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.
Which is how I came to write this. One day I was casually telling Massing how an old friend of mine from the Journal, a sweet, respectable thirty-year-old with a husband and no personality disorders or history of substance abuse, had recently quit full-time journalism and started freelancing so she could also write poetry—“I can’t imagine what the twenty-two-year-old J-school me would think,” she told me, “but I just couldn’t see how I could get any better without branching out from journalism”—and a month (and several more conversations) later Massing e-mailed a suggestion that I should write about “the life of a young urban writer now.”
So I wrote what I know, or rather what I’ve learned, which could be summed up this way: when the Internet forced journalism to compete economically after years of monopoly, journalism panicked and adopted some of the worst examples of the nothing-based economy, in which success depends on the continued infantilization of both supply and demand. At the same time, journalism clung to its myths of objectivity and detachment, using them to dismiss the emerging blogger threat as something unserious and fundamentally parasitic, even as it produced a steady stream of obsessive but sneering trend stories on the blogosphere.
Consider the breathless (and stylishly photographed) April 1 piece in The New York Times that spotlighted the “notable scoops” broken by the latest microgeneration of up-and-coming gossip bloggers—two had involved sub-sub-subplots of the lives of reality-show starlets, one was about NBC’s Black History Month cafeteria menu, another was referred to as “an ‘investigation’ into the White House budget director Peter Orszag’s hair,” and the rest were arguably less meaty than those.
Yet one of the featured “next big thing” bloggers was twenty-six-year-old Bess Levin of the Wall Street blog Dealbreaker. The Times had listed as Levin’s “notable scoop” her procurement of an embarrassing party invitation sent out by the “prominent but discreet” hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen. Tellingly, the Times failed to mention several much more notable “scoops” Levin had published about Cohen’s hedge fund, such as the one about the portfolio manager who was sued by one of his (male) former traders in what was perhaps the most disturbing sexual harassment complaint in Wall Street history. (And I have read at least fifty of them.)