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The Tyranny of the Takes

On the op-ed pages, the mediocrity is the message

During my long-ago tenure as a newspaper op-ed editor, my workplace was briefly convulsed by the dramatic disclosure that Joe Klein had indeed written the pseudonymous roman à clef about the first Bill Clinton campaign, Primary Colors. Klein, then a political scribe for Newsweek, had for many months hotly denied his rumored authorship of the book—a wan yet overheated account of a wonky Southern governor’s ascent to the presidency despite a clutch of sordid sex scandals. But Klein was found out after the book had become a nationwide bestseller and netted a movie deal. My then-boss at Newsday lamented that, so far as he was concerned, Klein’s punditizing career was over: “All we have to give the public is our word,” he said. “Once we violate that, we’ve got nothing.”

Sure, my boss’s pronouncement might have seemed a bit self-serious, but he knew whereof he spoke: Jim Klurfeld’s father had famously worked as a ghostwriter for the unscrupulous red-baiting columnist-kingmaker Walter Winchell, and it was fair to say that Klurfeld fils had a good sense of what a violated public trust looked like. (Though, alas, his bearish view of Klein’s future publishing prospects was 180 degrees wrong.)

In a fragmented market for political commentary, driven largely by social-media renown, writers are brands, and their passing stabs at argument and analysis are glorified ad slogans.

In any event, that was then. Today’s newspaper op-ed world, very much by contrast, is a place where a writer’s word, and the allied virtues implied by it—political judgment, a muckraking sensibility, a disdain for official lying and interested cant—possesses little more than transactional value. In a fragmented market for political commentary, driven largely by social-media renown, writers are brands, and their passing stabs at argument and analysis are glorified ad slogans. In place of the fusty but honorable notion of a writer’s word, we have the all-consuming tyranny of the take: a burst of attitudinizing to be deployed for the sake of clicks or TV hits, and then just as rapidly discarded and forgotten.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anything like Klurfeld’s rueful maxim escaping the lips of our most prestigious op-ed princelings, Washington Post opinion-page editor Fred Hiatt and his New York Times counterpart James Bennet. These worthy arbiters of public debate have, in little more than a week’s time, distinguished themselves as trolling take-mongers of the first magnitude. Hiatt has padded his forbidding roster of myopic right-wing columnists with a pair of practiced deliverers of just-in-time reactionary takes: bloodthirsty former Wall Street Journal neocon Max Boot for openers, and then Megan McArdle, an astonishingly arrogant and clueless libertarian scribe for Bloomberg View. Bennet, meanwhile, saw his midtown take-factory engulfed with a solid week’s worth of online controversy. First, Bennet’s own favorite in-house neocon concern troll Bari Weiss let loose on Twitter with a burst of misguided racialized Olympics commentary—followed by operatically self-dramatizing rightist culture-war posturing, replete with fabricated death threats. Then in short order, Quinn Norton—a tech writer Bennet excitedly brought on to burnish the Gray Lady’s flagging appeal to the young and the web-savvy—was exposed as a confrere of a well-known neo-Nazi coder, while showcasing a penchant for using ugly racial and anti-gay epithets in her own Twitter feed. (In her later defense, Norton contended that those Twitter outbursts were a sophisticated brand of code switching, not intended to be read at face value—and that she engaged with her neo-Nazi pal for the sake of arguing him out of his hateful beliefs.)

This fistful of embarrassments for the nation’s opinion-making elite offers some useful cautions for the doomed, deranging business of circulating punditry in the digital age. First off, all these episodes, in various registers, showcase the stunningly classbound thinking of bigfoot editors like Bennet and Hiatt. McArdle, nonsensically hailed in her hiring memo as a source of “the liveliest” and “least predictable” economic-themed opinionating, has but one real shtick, dating back to her days in the early aughts blogging under the Randian nom de plume Jane Galt: she derides any and all putative statist incursions on free-market sovereignty, while demonizing leftists and poor people with vicious uninformed caricatures of their real-world motivations. That’s not original, genuinely provocative, or otherwise illuminating. The only things remotely distinctive about McArdle’s bottom-feeding career are the corporate-subsidized sinecures and intra-Beltway networking that launched it in the first place. If ever an enterprising satirist writes a What Makes Sammy Run? for the Kochist right, McArdle would be the obvious model for the main character—but that would represent the sum total of this mobbed-up hack’s contribution to a greater public understanding of anything.

Yet, as the kids say, here we are—or rather there she is, as a leading political voice in a paper published under the earnest motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Her column-mate Boot, meanwhile, is notorious for cheering on any and all uses of American imperial might abroad—and for using said power to advance the spread of an uber-American business civilization by any means necessary, in a blood-and-soil version of McArdleism. As the grand master strategist himself has infamously put it, the United States must busy itself with “imposing the rule of law, property rights and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be.”

The main trait that McArdle and Boot otherwise share in common is their pseudo-outlaw status as “Never Trumpers”—i.e., right-wingers who find themselves affronted by the raw xenophobic rage of the Trumpist right. This impulse does them some limited credit—in pretty much the same sense of a stopped clock being right twice a day. What’s telling here, of course, is that the same purblind worship of faux-GOP contrarianism was what prompted Bennet to bring on climate-change ignoramus, PC chicken little, and Woody Allen apologist Bret Stephens to an op-ed shop already boasting David Brooks as a Never Trump conservative and Tom Friedman as a Never Trump neoliberal. To judge by the hiring impulses of our opinion-making elite, you’d think that Never Trumpers were a strong and decisive swath of right-wing politics and policy-making—which would then leave you with the unenviable chore of explaining how power is configured in the actually existing Republican Party.

The standard-issue brand of triangulated neoliberal big thinking favored among most notionally liberal columnists has absolutely no bearing on the lived experience of most Americans.

But never mind: thought-leading editors of the Hiatt and Bennet ilk can’t be detained by coarse considerations of political realism. No, the real reason that Never Trumpers have the inside track to all available pundit posts in our putatively anti-Trump papers of record is that the prospect of a robust, self-organized left-led Trump resistance is horrifying to them. Thinkers and writers on the left can’t be counted on to honor the rules of Beltway and Manhattan-bound policy politesse; they scorn bipartisan “grand bargains” on the federal budget that slice into Social Security and Medicare, they’d like to see more genuine economic populism take hold among the electorate, and they generally tend to recognize centrist neoliberalism as the main political force that has beggared their life prospects.

Yes, both papers still retain liberal (which is to say, in today’s malformed official political spectrum, slightly less center-right) columnists. But these slots have in many cases devolved into sinecures for writers who last parted company with an original thought eons ago (Richard Cohen at the Post; Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni at the Times) or are carelessly handed off to dutiful choristers of the MSNBC party line. And one profound shift in public debate that hasn’t penetrated the rarefied sanctums of elite daily opinion making is that the standard-issue brand of triangulated neoliberal big thinking favored among most notionally liberal columnists has absolutely no bearing on the lived experience of most Americans. You’d think that the great debacle known as the 2016 election would have firmly driven that point home to our gatekeepers of respectable opinion—but you would, of course, be wrong.

Should it one day dawn on an elite op-ed maestro to hire eminently qualified Trump-resistant writers of an uncompromising leftish persuasion, that happy soul would stumble into a buyer’s market. A partial list of such talented would-be columnists: Sarah Smarsh, Briahna Joy Gray, Linda Tirado, Amber A’Lee Frost, Osita Nwanevu, Ryan Cooper, Sarah Jones, Matthew Desmond, Siddhartha Deb, Naomi Klein, Peter Edelman, Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Pankaj Mishra, Kevin Kruse, and on and on.

But the discursive world of left-leaning commentary simply doesn’t exist for the very serious men demarcating the boundaries of respectable American opinion in our metropolitan dailies. No, to oppose Trump in their approved fashion, pundits must tack ever centerward—which means, by simple math, they can only come from the right. To admit that Trumpism has been abetted in large part by the media’s own concerted and ongoing suppression of populist left politics is, for Messrs. Hiatt and Bennet, to give the entire game away. It would entail, just for starters, acknowledging the intersecting big lies of deficit-allergic austerity economics and neoliberal globalization. And that in turn would put, let’s see, Tom Friedman, David Brooks, Robert Samuelson, George Will, Charles Lane, and Ruth Marcus into permanent and unyielding intellectual bankruptcy. (Yes, something even deeper than their own idiosyncratically self-inflicted states of addled incomprehension of the world, I mean.)

Needless to say, this same obdurate vision of an ideological spectrum running the gamut from the center-right to the just plain right is also what allowed James Bennet to give the knee-jerk concern troll Bari Weiss an influential perch as a digital culture-war commandant—and to view the wearisome Silicon Valley antipolitics of Quinn Norton as somehow edgy and fresh. (Amid all the past week’s rudderless trolling, it’s actually sort of impressive that Bennet’s shop also found the bandwidth to publish an op-ed arguing against background checks for gun owners by the discredited scholar-hack John Lott—just in time for the Valentine’s Day massacre at Parkland Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.)

Figures such as Weiss and Norton are, to borrow Michael Kinsley’s throwaway line about Al Gore, an old person’s idea of a young person. And while Bennet may suffer some silent late-night bouts of self-reproach over these spectacularly ill-advised hires, you can be sure that plenty more like them will be coming down the pike.

In his bracing Baffler chronicle of Bennet’s career, Jason Linkins reviewed the whole dispiriting sweep of Bennet’s worldview—from the many thought-leaderish detournements he published as editor at The Atlantic to his hiring at the Times of Weiss and Stephens on through to deeply dishonest op-eds penned by the likes of neocon character assassin James Kirchick and former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince. And in view of last week’s parade of Bennet-authored fiascos, Linkins’s hard-won conclusion stands more than ever:

Indeed, the only ostensible thought in any of this is that the internet’s constantly churning charnel house of pointless provocation and anger-baiting needed more cheap fuel. But here we also see the utterly pointless undermining of the Times’ own productive journalistic output—and not in the service of providing a forum for alternative ideas, as some would claim.

This latter dispiriting truth has started to get under the skin of the Times newsroom. HuffPost published leaked Slack exchanges about Bari Weiss’s cloddish recent tour on Twitter. (It’s worth noting that the reason such discussions occur in task-management chatrooms is that the company has imposed draconian restrictions on Twitter usage for editorial workers who aren’t in the charmed circle of James Bennet’s opinion shop.) In partial response to mounting newsroom discontent over the Weiss and Norton foul-ups, Bennet issued a memo trying to lay out his understanding of the paper’s op-ed mission. It reads, unsurprisingly, like unedited boilerplate text from an Aspen Ideas conference program:

We’re taking some chances, recruiting voices that are new to the Times and publishing pieces that press against our traditional boundaries . . . A rich and searching and at times challenging breadth of arguments and ideas is also what society needs from us now, however imperfectly we might realize this vision, day to day, as we strive toward it. . . . We are picking our contributors with care, looking for people who share Times standards for fairness and intellectual honesty and originality, who believe in empiricism and the essential equality of all human beings.

By Bennet’s own professed standards, he’s failed miserably. Bret Stephens or John Lott couldn’t find fairness, intellectual honesty, or empirical rigor if you gave them numbered GPS directions and an estimated time of arrival. As for the equality of all human beings, consider James Kirchick’s own recent dalliances with white nationalist media, as well as his dismal approach to Islamophobia as a competitive sport. The work of Bari Weiss represents neither breadth of argument (if anything, it is argument winnowed relentlessly down to a shareable, Tweetable vanishing point), nor a searching intellectual challenge—unless, that is, you count the challenge of patiently ploughing through her copy and asking yourself “What the fuck was her editor thinking?”

No, as my erstwhile guide to the op-ed game might well put it, James Bennet’s word is sullied—and Fred Hiatt’s has been in free-fall for the better part of two decades. No fusillade of corporate memos or tortured paeans to the wonders of Never Trump contrarianism can paper over the consequences of the reflexive trolling impulse that has disfigured each of their operations. It is a failing of character and social class alike, and no genuinely effective resistance in the Trump age stands to benefit from it.