Journalist-publisher James Atlas describes getting sacked at age 50 in a New York magazine excerpt of his forthcoming book, My Life in the Middle Ages. The piece boils over with specificity about Atlas' life—he writes of sobbing in front of his children at a showing of the treacly Mr. Holland's Opus; he notes that he once worked at the New York Times; he names his son, Will; he names the scotch he drinks at a New York Rangers game (Dewar's); he names the soda his editor drinks as he dumps him (Diet Coke); he names Saul Bellow's sad-sack best friend (Isaac Rosenfeld).
But he never names the magazine editor who sacked him or the magazine itself, an odd oversight seeing as the episode takes up 1,200 words of his 3,900-word piece.
That's not to say the episode is blind: We learn that the editor, 10 years younger than Atlas, is handsome, "tall, vigorous, with tousled black hair." The editor's predecessor burned money on parties, consultants, and writers' contracts like it was kindling. Noises from 42nd Street bubble up to the office where Atlas is getting fired. This description contains so many dots that they connect themselves: The editor is David Remnick of The New Yorker.
So why not come out and name names? I put the question to Atlas, who responded in a brief e-mail: "Because it's irrelevant. The piece is about a universal subject, and I didn't want to distract the reader with gossip."
Oh, tommyrot! Far from universalizing the story, blotting out Remnick's name and that of The New Yorker only increase the gossip factor. Talk about distracting the reader! You can easily imagine folks who read the story approaching those who know a little more about the magazine business and asking, "Who's the handsome dude firing Atlas?"
Why is Atlas being so coy about it? Because he didn't respond to my second set of questions, I feel justified in putting him on the couch. The scene is about Atlas, Atlas' ego, Atlas' pretty little world coming all undone, Atlas' star turn as Willy Loman ("It was time to get up and leave, but I wasn't ready. I thought of Willy Loman refusing to leave his boss's office the day he's fired.") Selectively spraying the scene with an anonymizer prevents Remnick from upstaging him, and blinding his boss and magazine telegraphs his latent hostility for both.
How's that for dime-store psychiatry?
How liberal is the press? Recentlyloosedfrom the objectivity collar that newspaper reporters and editors are issued by their bosses, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson comes out of the closet today in his column about Wal-Mart. The former assistant managing editor of the "Style" section and Post foreign correspondent writes, "Liberals like me are perpetually queasy about globalization. …"
Now he tells us.
My friend Bill Powers dismisses our current infatuation with bloggers as a fad in his new National Journal column, "Why Blogs Are Like Tulips." Powers doesn't disparage these lowly but mighty scriveners, writing that their greatest attributes are bird-dogging factual errors in the press, speaking in a vernacular, and having fun. But he says they "don't have resources or, in most cases, the skills to do the heavy journalistic lifting that the big American outlets still do better than anyone, and will continue to do for a very long time."
"We're having a Dutch tulip moment with the bloggers. This, too, shall pass," he concludes.
But the unusually suave and erudite Powers boots it this time.
Newspaper reporters who barricade themselves behind doors manned by security guards and screen calls with Caller ID tend to lose contact with their readers—and more important, what their readers know. Blogs reconnect journalists with readers by reminding them how closely they're read outside the newsroom. I agree with Powers that most independent bloggers don't have the resources or skills for "heavy journalistic lifting," as he puts it. But what he misses, I think, is the fact that 1) the skills can be quickly learned by bright, well-read people; and 2) the Internet has leveled the resources playing field. Thanks to the Web and affordable databases, today's blogger has more information at his fingertips than the best investigative reporter at the Washington Post could acquire after a week's work at the Library of Congress.
Entrepreneur-loudmouth Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, put it well in Blog Maverick this week. Reflecting on the Eason Jordan and Dan Rather sagas, he writes:
The bloggers are here, and they are ready to knock down the gates and get their pound of flesh. The traditional media has no idea what is about to hit them.
In every major conference, at every major speech, sitting at tables in restaurants, there is going to be a blogger or podcaster with microphone, PDA, Videophone, laptop or paper and pencil in hand. Listening. Taking notes. That information is going to be transmitted to and from a blog entry and placed in the hands of "the readers."
Unlike celebrities who hear or see the flash of the camera, the gatekeepers don't know they are there. Blogging in plain site. Questioning everything.
Cuban encourages the press to recognize and respect bloggers, which I think many journalists already do. I'd go one step further and encourage the press to use bloggers as stringers, as virtual assignment editors—and even as reporters, if they're willing to apply to their work the sort of rigor we expect in good journalism.
The "citizen journalist" authors of blogs, much lauded in some corners, aren't going to automatically produce great news stories any more than the "citizen builders" who buy their tools and materials at Home Depot are going to design and build the next Fallingwater. But bloggers and other unpaid Web contributors are throwing down a matrix of valuable information—notes, historical connections, documentary material, opinion, scoops—that only the hidebound can afford to ignore.
Next time he's in Washington, I'm going to invite Powers over for dinner. The first course will be a tulip salad drenched in lemon castor oil.
( Addendum, 2-23-05: Irony Alert! Not everybody reading this next item got my joke. I'm defending Kinsley here. The women named were either hired by Kinsley, promoted by him, or otherwise benefited from their professional relationship with him. My point: Kinsley isn't perfect, but he has a better record of hiring and promoting women than any journalist I can name off the top of my head. All apologies to those who didn't get the joke.) And before I go, I'd like to second Susan Estrich, who has attacked Michael Kinsley on the charges of sexual discrimination, which he feebly attempts to repel. In his long, miserable chauvinist career, Kinsley has done more to block women, their views, and their professional aspirations than any journalist I know. Just ask Dorothy Wickenden, Ann Hulbert, Jamie Baylis, Emily Yoffe, Helen Rogan, Suzannah Lessard, Jodie Allen, Judith Shulevitz, Jodi Kantor, Margaret Carlson, Dahlia Lithwick, Kathleen Kincaid, Lakshmi Gopalkrishnan, June Thomas, and others (Addenum, 2-22-05: Bonnie Goldstein). They'll fill you in. Send e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)