A Strange Argument About Political Journalism

In our recent Bloggingheads, I complained to Peter, as I am prone to do, about political writers and commentators who knowingly mislead their audiences. One of his responses was to say that it seemed as though what I want is more earnestness in political discourse.

That actually isn’t the case. Earnestness has its place in political discourse, especially when you’re trying to persuade people who are inclined to dismiss your arguments before even considering them. It also characterizes some of my blog posts (perhaps too many, as one can certainly be over-solicitous of folks who are going to focus on what they imagine or tactically assert to be your motivations). But I believe that sarcasm, polemic, satire, hyperbole, dark humor, and writers whose tone is seldom if ever earnest, whatever else it is, all have their place in journalism and conversations about politics more broadly. It is entirely possible to be fair, truthful, and logical without being earnest at all.

This brings me to Helen Rittelmeyer. Since she’s been honest about her dislike of my writing, I’ll disclose that her prose often drives me to distraction, probably more than it rationally ought to do — I spent half her piece on lady blogs mentally screaming at my laptop for her to acknowledge the existence of men’s magazines, and to grapple with them in her argument. It is precisely because Ms. Rittelmeyer is smart, and has a lot to offer as a writer, that it vexes me when she papers over flaws and incompletely fleshed out aspects of her arguments with nice turns of phrase, unkilled darlings, and too cute cleverness.

As best as I can tell, her argument in this post is that if you believe journalists shouldn’t lie, or write stuff they don’t believe for money, or allow partisan loyalties to color their writing in ways that mislead or misinform, you’re not qualified to write about politics. Of course, she doesn’t put her argument as starkly as I’ve just done it, but read the whole post yourself. Isn’t that what she’s basically saying, beneath the rhetorical flourishes that make the argument as she puts it seem less absurd?

Let me put it this way: I think pacifism is wrong, but I wouldn’t ever try to talk someone out of it; I’m glad that there are pacifists in the world, and I admire the commitment of the real pacifists I’ve met. But I wouldn’t send one to cover World War Two. I wouldn’t send a society matron to cover the NCAA playoffs. And I wouldn’t assign a punctiliously honest, “enlightened discourse” loving, goo-goo throwback like Conor to cover politics.

I’d like to hear more about why Ms. Rittlemeyer wouldn’t send a pacifist to cover World War II. Whatever her answer, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be analogous to sending a society matron to cover an NCAA playoff game, since the underlying relationship is different in kind. As far as I can tell, the wisdom of assigning me to cover politics isn’t usefully informed by either analogy — violence is intrinsic to war in a way that isn’t true about dishonest journalists and politics, and I’m sure I observe politics a lot more closely than the archetypal society matron watches college basketball. As far as I can tell, we have the assertion from Ms. Rittlemeyer that a desire for honest public discourse is disqualifying without any coherent account of why this is so.

Then there is this:

No one has railed against mercenary journalism as fervently as Condorf. He always insists that you should never write something you don’t believe simply because you can get paid to write it. But if sending Conor to cover politics is like sending Dorothy Day to cover the Battle of Normandy, then it’s strange to hear him admit that money is the only reason he writes about politics so much. Remember, it’s not just that Conor doesn’t like writing about politics, or that it doesn’t interest him. It’s that his deep and powerful aversions to things like money, naked ambition, and team loyalty make him constitutionally ill-suited to political journalism. No crime there, but it does make his career seem masochistic.

Again, beneath the writerly flash this is certainly wrong, and perhaps empty. Does Ms. Rittlemeyer think that journalists should write stuff they don’t believe for monetary rewards? It sounds like an absurd question, but she certainly treats my belief that they shouldn’t do so as a quaint, fundamentally unserious curiosity. The pacifist analogy remains problematic for all sorts of reasons — to pick just one, it’s perfectly clear how more Dorothy Days among the allies could’ve weakened the fight against literal Nazis, whereas reducing mercenary journalism would be bad how? Ms. Rittlemeyer also seems unable to grasp the distinction between criticizing journalists who write stuff they don’t believe for money, on the one hand, and being someone who writes what he believes about politics more than he otherwise would because there is a market for it.

Why she believes I have an aversion to money, ambition or loyalty is beyond me. And while it’s true that I’d gladly start spending 40 percent of my time on fiction and 40 percent on travel writing tomorrow given a winning lottery ticket, that hardly makes writing about politics a masochistic exercise, seeing as how I’ve chosen it myself instead of any number of other careers I am perfectly capable of doing. I’d gladly go another round about the necessary attributes of political journalists, if there is actually anything more than what we’ve seen so far to her argument. Meanwhile consider this a broadsword to its slight sternum.