Matt Bai on Juvenile Bloggers, Political Reporters Who Hate Politics, and Why Reporters Shouldn’t Go On Cable

Matt Bai

Matt Bai is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, for whom he covered the 2004 presidential campaign. After beginning his career at the Boston Globe, Bai spent five years as a national correspondent for Newsweek. Bai, a former Pulitzer Traveling Fellow and Harvard Institute of Politics Resident Fellow, is working on a forthcoming book about “this moment in democratic politics and a group of people who are trying to rebuild a democratic movement,” to be published in 2007.

Brian Montopoli: The press corps has faced a lot of criticism in recent years. Washington reporters, in particular, have taken a number of hits; they are thought by many to be lazy, disengaged, and biased. Do you think the negative characterization some people hold is accurate?

Matt Bai: No, I don’t think it’s accurate. I think it has aspects of accuracy. But I think it’s a caricature. I think it’s healthy for us to have a conversation about what we can do differently and what we’ve done wrong. There are aspects of political journalism in the last several years, since I’ve been doing it, that should give us pause. Particularly, I think the move toward punditry and the culture of competing for time on cable television is toxic to the business. And I think we as an industry should reexamine why we do it, and if we should do it at all. I think it has definitely eroded the public’s trust in us.

BM: Should reporters not be going on television and giving their opinions?

MB: By and large, I don’t think they should be, and I personally choose not to. That’s not to say that I never do television — there are shows that I will do. I did “Nightline” last year, and I would do that for the magazine, because there are still some substantive forums, but I think the cable TV venue is really vapid, and I think it’s corrosive. It thrives on conflict and glibness and it almost demands that people talk about things they know nothing about.

It takes me months to do a story. If I went on a cable TV show they’d ask me about four different topics in sixty seconds or ninety seconds — how could I possibly claim to know what I’m talking about? I wish we’d reexamine it. I’m also fairly skeptical that there’s any real promotional value in it. I doubt there is.

BM: Do you think it also contributes to that negative attitude I asked you about in the first question, as people sort of blur Fox News and the New York Times and whatever else, and all of these things just sort of become ‘the media’?

MB: Yeah. I actually think when people talk about the media pejoratively, most of the time they’re talking about some clip on TV. That is what passes for most people’s impression of the media. What people in blogging call the “MSM” is this legion of different media that have totally different missions and different outlooks. I think we all need to be more sophisticated when we talk and think about the media, because it’s not one monolithic entity. And I think people in politics, and people who comment on political journalism, sort of need to be more discerning between one brand of media and another. But we also have to be cognizant of the fact that the public draws its conclusions about the media from whatever exposure it has — and most often that exposure is probably not to the New York Times, but to a clip on some chat show while they’re making dinner.

BM: Is this coming from people drawing their own conclusions, or is it coming from bloggers, and places like the Media Research Center, and all these groups that have spring up, that are constantly beating the drum, saying “bias in the media, bias in the media, the media’s corrupt?”

MB: I think there are two different situations going on there. I don’t think that the bloggers — at least not yet — reach a mass audience. And I think the mass audience has its own dissatisfaction and feelings of unease about the media.

I think, in the case of the public, I’m not sure most people know exactly what it is about the media that they distrust, but I think they’re correctly getting a sense that the rules and the venues are changing, and that they have to exercise a good amount of skepticism. That’s been fueled by politicians, who find it easier to blame the media than to answer for themselves, and I think it’s been fueled by the shouting culture of television.

Where the bloggers are concerned, I think what the bloggers do has a real value. It’s both useful and important for journalists to be written about in a way that’s critical and sometimes unfair and sometimes inaccurate. Because, let’s face it, that’s what we do to everybody else, and it’s not a bad thing to know how it feels to be taken out of context or unfairly attacked. I think there’s a lot of really valuable criticism that gets done on the blogs. After I talk to you, I’m gonna go see Markos from Daily Kos and Jerome from My DD to talk to them about our respective book projects, and I think they have a lot to offer to the debate.

At the same time, I wish that all the people who were online would exercise basic civility. I wish they would be thoughtful and sophisticated in their critiques instead of just venting in a very juvenile way. Some of the stuff that was said about my colleague Adam Nagourney on the blogs during the last campaign was disgusting and destructive. Oftentimes, the tenor of the stuff on the blogs sounds like the stuff I was writing when I was on my high school newspaper, when I was young and angry and unrestrained and not particularly thoughtful, and I think it’s time for that medium to grow up, because it has so much potential and it’s so widespread. Just the other day, I saw some blog posting — I wrote an essay, and somebody said, “why won’t Matt Bai just go out in the country and actually interview people for a story?” I mean, it’s just ludicrous beyond words. This is a person accusing me of being lazy who wasn’t industrious or interested enough to read any of the tens of thousands of words I’ve filed from the road in the last two or three years. This is a powerful medium that deserves more intellectual firepower than that.

BM: I agree, but just like you talked about the media not being monolithic, I think it’s important to point out that blogging isn’t monolithic either. There’s a difference between Markos and some random guy who just writes something ridiculous and stupid about you.

MB: You’re right — it’s not monolithic. Sometimes the difference between a blogger and what some guy posting on a blog will write is huge. That’s why I say I think there’s a lot of good being done online, but I also think people need to take responsibility for what they write and the quality of their thought online.

BM: The president will go and criticize the New York Times. Bill O’Reilly will criticize the media. And then you’ve got Brent Bozell and all those people. It isn’t just coming from bloggers. Does that impact the work reporters do? Are they intimidated by these charges? Nervous that they might be accused of these charges and thus write different stories than they might otherwise?

MB: You know, the best answer is I don’t really know. I’m not trying to be evasive, but I don’t really know what most reporters do. From my perspective, I think it’s useful in a way, from both the right and the left. Because I’m aware of the criticisms, and I’m aware of the bullying, from both sides. And there is bullying from both sides. Oftentimes I catch myself as I’m writing and I can anticipate the argument, and I think, “Is there going to be validity to that argument?” And a lot of times, I’ll keep whatever it is unchanged, and say, “Well good, let them say that, because it’s not true.” And then other times I’ll say, “You know, someone’s going to say the language I’m using is inherently skewed, and they might have a point. So I should change it.”

I think if you’re a good reporter, the bullying from both sides forces you to be very intellectually rigorous without being spineless, and without caving in. I accept it. No matter what I write, generally there are going to be people from both sides who are unhappy. More often than not, when I write a story, I can go only if I want to — and I’ll admit that I’m vain enough to do that at times — and I can find blogs from the right, blogs from the left, both claiming this incredible bias in the other direction. It’s all in the perspective of the beholder, and I feel like I’ve succeeded if people can see in a story whatever they want to see.

BM: I think you’re right. But the thing that seems like a downside is when you’ve got reporters afraid to just come out and say what they think. Or what they perceive to be true, or what everyone perceives to be true. If someone lies — reporters seem so reticent to say, President Bush, or Harry Reid, came out today and said this, and it wasn’t true. Instead, on TV, you get both sides discussing it, and then the anchor says it’s an interesting debate. Or in an AP story. And that doesn’t seem like such a good development.

MB: I’m conflicted about that. In the pieces I write, there’s a lot of analysis and opinion, I don’t think they’d accuse me of being too reticent in that regard. Generally, if they accuse me of anything, it’s being too analytical. I understand the frustration behind what you’re saying, but it’s a very slippery slope. Because truth is not an objective thing. Ideology has a lot to do with true. What’s patently false to you is obviously true to someone else. And I know there are objective cases where somebody might say something, and it’s just a fact, and it’s objectively a wrong fact. And you’ll see it on some of the media monitoring sites, or Jon Stewart will do an item on it. I can’t understand why the media isn’t more vigilant about catching that stuff.

But at the same time, I will bet you that in a lot of the cases when someone, say, on the left will say, “How could you let Bush get away with saying that? It was an obvious lie,” it’s not an obvious lie. There are actually perspectives and worldviews at work. People are going to get very angry at us for not acknowledging what is to them the obvious truth of a situation, especially in this highly charged of a political atmosphere. Our job is to be strong and to safeguard our own integrity, even in the face of criticism from people we respect and care about. It’s not my job, contrary to what a lot of people think, to topple the Bush administration because it’s destroying the country. You may think it’s destroying the country, there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s destroying the country, and that is not a case of objective reality.

BM: Do you think the popular attitude toward the press is making it harder to attract good people to journalism?

MB: It’s definitely going to make it harder to attract good people to journalism. This is my single, overarching concern, and I’ve voiced it to a lot of people in politics over the last several months. We need to change some of what we do as a business, and we need to get really good, smart people to cover politics, and we’re not going to be able to do that if political journalism is portrayed as being on par in society with ambulance-chasing lawyers.

I have no pretensions about this. I think this is a public service, what I do. I could do a lot of other things. I didn’t stumble into covering politics because it was my next beat, and I didn’t stumble into journalism because I couldn’t get into law school. What I’ve chosen to do with my life, because I believe it’s important — I spent a semester at the Institute of Politics at Harvard, because it’s all about public service, because they, too, believe that journalism in the public sphere is a public service. The more we make it seem like a vice, as opposed to a public service, the harder it’s going to be to get good political journalists, and great political coverage. And I do worry about that. … There are societal consequences to mindlessly undermining the public’s trust in the media. That’s not to say the media doesn’t bear a lot of responsibility; it’s just to say that we need to all be careful about how callously and recklessly we treat that trust. Because it’s one of the things that keeps a democracy whole and viable, and when damaged, I think it’s very difficult to repair.

BM: In this day and age, what makes a good political reporter? Who are the kind of people you think it’s important are drawn to the profession, beyond just intelligence?

MB: I don’t know that there’s anything across the board that makes anybody good, except for the obvious skills of being intellectually curious and smart and energetic. But I do think we need people covering politics who love politics and love policy. This is one of the things about my business that always stuns me, that I can’t explain. If you hate movies, we’re never going to let you go review them for the New York Times. If you hate sports and don’t want to watch it, odds are no one’s ever going to assign you to go cover the Yankees.

But we have a lot of people in Washington journalism who don’t like politicians, and don’t like politics, and think that everybody’s corrupt, and think that everybody’s motives are base. Maybe that’s a consequence of doing it to long, and maybe that’s why, five years from now, I’ll go do something else entirely. But I think if you’re going to cover politics and policy and government, you ought to (a) believe that what you’re doing matters for the country, and is a worthy pursuit for your life, and (b) you ought to be open to the idea that these are mostly good people doing what they do for mostly good reasons. Because I think part of the public’s increasing cynicism with both politics and media is a reflection of our own cynicism. And I think it’s very unhealthy.

BM: One of my favorite pieces from the 2004 campaign was your first Ohio piece in the Times Magazine. Is it tough to do a piece like that with such a long lead time? The Times has a whole platoon of reporters, after all, covering similar ground on a daily basis.

MB: (Laughs.) I’m not going to go there.

BM: Come on, go there.

MB: You know, you’d be surprised how dissimilar the ground we cover can be. Because most people are just focused on the story of the day, or the story of the week. We have such a pack mentality in journalism. I’m fortunate to work for a magazine that wants to go away from the ball every so often.

I think the harder thing about the stories I do, like that Ohio piece, is that they’re not really straight profiles or issue pieces. We tend to do stories about ideas. And the challenge for me is to find people and narratives that bring those ideas to life. What I’ve tried to make an industry out of doing is to take complex political ideas that matter at the moment and make them human and interesting enough that people want to read 8,000 words about them. That’s the challenge, and that’s the thing that keeps me up at night. It is the most satisfying thing to be able to bring an idea to life through people, so that at the end of the day there’s a narrative that didn’t exist before you came to it. That’s really the heart of what we try to do.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.