Spencer Ackerman, who reports on national security issues for The Washington Independent and blogs about the same—and does both at a consistently high level of quality, which is not a simple task—last year posted an item on his blog, Attackerman, explaining how to deconstruct a typical piece by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. He said Hersh was ill-served by the conventional journalistic habit of shaping reporting into stories that needed to signify their importance. Lots of Hersh’s reporting, Ackerman argued, would be better understood as pure reporting and read simply because it was what Hersh had learned, whatever it portended. Shaping it into traditional journalism structures warped it.
One day, journalistic convention will decide that placing reporters like Hersh within the box of a lede (the intentional misspelling of “lead” is yet another journalistic convention that makes little sense) for a piece that needs no lede is a silly idea. Then, my friends, we will finally have the free play of notebook material. But until then, we have to read Hersh with a bit of a knowing eye. You can hate all you like, but god’s son is across the belly and he’ll prove you lost already. [Parenthesis mine, italics and capitalization his.]
I have no idea what that last sentence about God’s son and the belly means, but it’s a blog post so I don’t have to understand it and Ackerman doesn’t have to care that I don’t. This is part of the nature of blogging. The writer can assume I know exactly what he means, or not care that I don’t. Somebody else will get it. This kind of writing is directed at a very particular, almost personal, audience. It’s like writing in dialect and as far from a mass medium as you can get. While it happens to be available via the Internet to millions of people, it is certainly not aimed at them.
What Ackerman is advocating is that Hersh be liberated from the formal conventions of journalism, and the constraints that accompany them. Then he can simply say, “Here, look what I found.” Ackerman is asking, implicitly, that Hersh be regarded as a blogger. I think he’s right. I think blogging would suit Hersh. I also think blogging is saving journalism.
I worked at newspapers for thirty years and loved every day of it. Wait. It’s more complicated than that. Much more. In fact, to say I loved newspapering wholeheartedly is a bald-faced lie. I hated at least half of those three decades worth of days and swore at the end of many that it would be the last. I carried out these vows to quit several times, never for very promising prospects. I left to write speeches, to write fiction, to pound nails—none of which was I as good at as pounding a beat. So what was I fighting for or against? Sometimes, those who knew me would suggest that it was nothing more than myself. Sometimes, though, I actually had a point.
I hated the conventions that bound daily journalism, the stilted, odd language in which it was written as well as the contrived structures into which that odd language was shaped. The common newspaper style is so heavily codified you need a Berlitz course to interpret it. More than formal, the style is abstract and artificial. I once (on the very first day at a new job) got into a frighteningly intense argument with a city editor who had objected to my use of the word “slumbered” to describe the behavior of two political candidates during a debate. They didn’t really sleep through it, did they? he asked. Of course not, I said. I meant it figuratively, not literally. We don’t use figurative language here, he told me. Then he changed the word to “lumbered.”
That was one benighted guy, but the problem was nearly universal. Until recently, you couldn’t escape it. Now you can. The advent of the Web and the proliferation of smart, aggressive bloggers around the globe have torn journalism loose from its hinges. The hounds have been unleashed.
While disliking it intensely, it is easy to forget there was a reason for the soporific style of newspaper writing. Newspapers were actually trying to do something good. They recognized that they held powerful, uncontested positions as conveyors of news to their communities. After much coaxing, they took it upon themselves to shed their partisan pasts and don a cloak of social responsibility—a practice that they called objectivity. They did it in part to sell papers—they thought if they made fewer people angry they would have more readers—but mainly they did it because they thought it was the right thing to do.