"Since when does the Post assign 27-year-olds to write Page 1 presidential campaign pieces?" Boston University journalism professor Christopher B. Daly snitted yesterday in a blog item titled "The Worst Political Reporting of 2007."
Daly's target was Perry Bacon Jr., author of a Page OneWashington Post piece (Nov. 29) about the "Obama is a Muslim" rumors. Daly decries the rapid ascension that is Bacon's career as an example of "fast-tracking with a vengeance—a problem that I thought the Post had gotten past."
Is Daly right? Should we ban 27-year-olds from writing Page One pieces about presidential campaigns? What dues must be paid before a journalist is worthy of Page One campaign assignments? Should the gig be reserved for the graybeards, geezers, and fossils who carried David S. Broder's garment bags to the 1968 Republican National Convention?
Ripping Daly is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. But what's wrong with shooting fish in a barrel? If a professor is stupid enough to gurgle like this about young reporters while splashing around in the tight confines of a tub, he deserves double-barrel treatment.
Daly seems to think Bacon is a political greenhorn, but he isn't. At Time magazine, his previous gig, Bacon profiled Obama in 2006. He wrote about the John Edwards campaign, profiled Nancy Pelosi, wrote about the defeated John Kerry, and interviewed Deval Patrick, Charles Rangel, and Chuck Hagel for the magazine's "10 Questions For" series. At the Post, which he joined in March, Bacon has at least 16 Page One credits about the 2008 campaign to his name—nine solo and seven as joint bylines. On the inside pages, you can find about 30 more Bacon bylines on political stories.
But documenting Bacon's reportorial experience only plays into Daly's game. Despite what some political reporters and the odd professor might tell you, a journalist needn't carry a Mensa card and belong to the Gridiron Club in order to write intelligently about presidential campaigns for Page One. The national political beat, while glamorous, is no more difficult to cover than finance, city hall, or war. The only people who think political reporters must be on a first-name basis with every past and present county party chairman in Wisconsin before writing about national politics are the nutmeats who study such encyclopedias in their leisure time.
The prejudice against young political reporters probably has more to do with the inexplicably high status accorded campaign reporters inside newspapers than it does with the actual skills the job demands. Too many journalists think of the campaign trail as the most prestigious beat, and they wig out when somebody who hasn't spent two decades as a journeyman lands a seat on the campaign bus.
While we're on the subject, Daly isn't the only one who considers Bacon's piece the "worst political reporting of 2007." In an earlier piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul McLeary comes to a similar conclusion. The Washington Post's own ombudsman criticizes Bacon's approach to the "Obama is a Muslim" rumors.
I don't think the Bacon story is perfect, but I give him and the Post credit for grappling with the rumor—one that shows no sign of dying—that others covering the campaign have been too timid to touch.