Posted on | March 8, 2013 | 11 Comments
Jimmie Bise Jr. called to my attention an article that Jon Ward of the Huffington Post had Tweeted out, in which Mark Judge complains about the lamentable dearth of writerly journalism by conservatives, under this provocative headline:
Judge’s complaint is valid, so far as it goes. Conservative journalism was born fighting, and as the movement it spawned has increasingly become a day-to-day fight to control The Narrative — to win each day’s political battles — it has largely lost the high tone of intellectualism that marked the works of Richard Weaver, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr. back in the day. This problem is aggravated by the remorseless quest for Internet traffic as journalism (of all kinds) adapts to the inexorable economic exigencies of the New Media age. One might also point to an incentive structure that encourages conservatives to write Stuff That Moves the Needle, whereas regular journalists get to relax, have fun, and just cover whatever assignments they get.
Stipulating all that — and resisting the temptation to write another tedious essay about it, having recently held forth on the meaning of MalaysiaGate – I detect in Judge’s complaint a distinct whiff of a recrudescent problem I call Dreherism.
In case you’ve forgotten who Rod Dreher is, back during the Bush years, he wrote a cover article for National Review that got turned into a book called Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).
Notice that I don’t link to the Amazon page of the book, because I don’t want to risk anyone accidentally being influenced by Dreher’s awful ideas, even if it would make me a profit. Jonah Goldberg famously ripped the wretched thing to tatters and flung the bits back in Dreher’s face, leaving me little to do except clean-up work in my Reason magazine review of that Very Bad Book. And in that controversy, I recognized a conflict that wasn’t really about politics, but about career ambition.
Dreher was (and is) what the magazine trade calls a “back of the book” writer — book reviews and so forth — rather than a guy who specialized in actual reporting, and his Moment of Glory on the cover of the National Review was the life’s dream of a thousand literary types who are forced to slum it in journalism.
This is not a problem unique to conservative journalism or political journalism. Hunter S. Thompson dreamed of being Fitzgerald or Hemingway. Instead, he went to South America as freelancer for the (now defunct) National Observer and, through a fluke of fate, was the guy The Nation assigned to do an article about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. From there, the trip to Gonzo legend began.
In much of the world of journalism, the feature writer with an eye for color and an aptitude for elegant prose is a king among men. This is not true in Washington, D.C., where the top of Page A1 is always Urgent Updates of the Latest Crisis: Hard news with a short shelf life, extremely important today, but sure to be obsolete within 24 hours.
Get us the Big Facts now, damn it!
You’re never going to get a Drudge link on a book review, and of the six or seven stories that qualify for the front page of a newspaper, exactly one — and never more than that — is likely to be something you might call a “feature” that won’t be out of date tomorrow.
This was why, when it was my job to supervise interns at The Washington Times, I would sometimes caution the young women writers against any tendency toward writing “soft” stuff (as is all too common). No, you want to seek out a hard-news beat, and avoid getting stereotyped as a features writer, or else you’ll spend your career covering silly stuff like arts-and-crafts festivals.
The minute a newspaper editor finds out you can write a feature lead, you’re on the fast train to the Society section, ladies, and you can’t blame it on “sexism,” because it damned near happened to me, too. When our bosses at The Washington Times decided to re-assign Julia Duin from the Culture page to be strictly our religion reporter, I fought like hell against being assigned to that Culture page gig, although I did manage to make the most of it until it damned near drove me crazy. But I digress . . .
Crunchy Cons was Dreher’s attempted escape from “back of the book” status, but it was a cul-de-sac as far as real politics was concerned — a gooey mess of stuff that did not amount to a fighting creed — and Goldberg saw that as clearly as did I. And so now we encounter the complaint of Mark Judge that conservative journalism does not give enough work to literary types:
Conservative journalism, which in many ways is stronger and better than it has ever been, is nonetheless missing something crucial. It is missing a literary voice.
Hey, fuck you, Mark Judge. You think you’re the only guy on the Right who knows how to write stylish prose? That you’re the only guy who might like a nice trip to some exotic locale to write colorful feature coverage that isn’t all about Moving the Needle?
It happens that I agree with Judge’s basic point, but nobody listens to a guy who’s Not Good Enough for BlogCon, so what I do is just write what I write — a critique by counter-example, you might say — and hope somebody appreciates it.
Ultimately, Judge is doing a variation of “Dougherty’s Law,” the habitual lament of disgruntled Republicans first described by Michael Brendan Dougherty: “If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.”
Judge is saying to the rest of us, “Conservative journalism would succeed if it was like me. It’s failing because it’s like you.”
What part of “fuck you” do I need to explain, Mark?