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Wednesday, April 09, 2003
reasons why anger doesn't always work #2,204
In Monday's and Tuesday's Daily Howler, the guy there (I refuse to call him "Socrates" for reasons you can perhaps guess) helpfully exposes the limits of the approach he's taken, which can broadly be called the limits of anger as a political tool. I won't deny that the Howler is sporadically brilliant--in a one-month span, for instance, they ran a great recounting of the Gore "earth tones" "scandal" and a powerful attack on the press' conduct at the President's pre-war news conference with a nice little dis at the bottom of the Boston Globe's attempt to smear John Kerry (although God help us if he gets nominated)--but he uses the wrong tool here and ends up doing more harm than good.

Michael Kelly was the former editor of The New Republic, editor-at-large of The Atlantic Monthly and a columnist for the Washington Post, and he was recently killed in Iraq. He had gone there out of a sense of duty, he said, to use the opportunity for access which had not been provided in GWI--a war in which he had made a name for himself, according to the initial obits. The death was widely covered because he was the first American journo to die in the war, and was also a fairly well-known writer. The usual press remembrances followed, and they were understandably positive in tone. Now, there were certainly some problems with Mr. Kelly--he was a tireless, unfair and self-serving critic of Al Gore, and his mentorship of Stephen Glass, the writer later shown to have wholly concocted his stories (most notable on the cyberweb was one hilariously stereotypical article about "hackers"), is certainly questionable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he just died and those surviving him are probably still a little bit raw. The Howler's tone is as over-the-top as always, more appropriate for someone who had personally run up and punched them in the face than a recent casualty of war ("As we noted yesterday, we think Rosin’s comment, if true, is stunning. Our jaws hung open all day long as we pondered what Rosin had said."). It all culminates in this bit:

Don’t ignore the role of that "sprawling house by the sea with the wraparound porch" which popped up in Rosin’s column. We don’t have the slightest idea why individual scribes think or act as they do. But as a group, young scribes know that extremely rich material rewards now await those who do well in their profession. And young scribes know another thing too: They know that those wraparound porches go to those who don’t challenge the conduct of the insider press corps. Almost surely, that explains why many young scribes have so little to say about their own cohort’s frequent misconduct. As we have noted many times in the past, many bright young scribes do excellent work on policy matters—but are strangely silent when it comes to the work of the press. They said nothing about the borking of Gore—and they said nothing about Michael Kelly’s excesses. (Did you ever see them challenge Chris Matthews?) Now they tell us that Kelly was a hero. Guess what? Some day, such scribes will have wraparound porches of their own, on the side of their own sprawling houses.

Look, guy: I won't argue that the press corps doesn't have a tendency towards herd mentality, and that may even be because, as you intimate in this piece, that it's so they can end up with Kelly's nice house, rather than, say, because of deadlines or editors or something else less sinister. But I don't think that sort of groupthink is what's in action here. I'm sure some of the people who wrote these pieces actually hate Kelly as a writer, and sure, that means they're lying through their teeth. But that's what we do when people die: we lie. We say we loved them and they were flawless human beings and that we never wished them ill a day in their life, because we do not want to hurt people who are still alive. Colleagues do not criticize other colleagues upon occasion of their death not because they have a Machiavellian need to get ahead, but simply because it's not nice (troubling as the concept of "nice" to some people) to be the guy in the corner yelling "He wasn't so great! He disagreed with my political views!"

I'm not saying that we should never speak ill of the dead--certainly Nixon deserved a far harsher treatment than he got--but try and read between the lines here a little. A writer's memorials are not his legacy, his writing is, and Kelly's will be there for everyone to hate and love long after he's been buried. If you're trying to actually change the press' behavior, yelling at them about saying nice things about a dead colleague is not going to help the situation, and is going to be a convenient excuse for them to tune you out. People don't seem to understand that speaking "the truth" won't do any good unless people listen, and "the truth" (sorry to keep putting it in quotes, but often "the truth" seems to mean "my particular political ideology" which is frequently libertarianism) doesn't have some mystical power to command people's attention. If people are not doing what you want them to do, they almost always have reasons to do it beyond imperfect information, and so instead of getting mad and yelling at them (a technique that only really works for children under 8) you have to give them a reason to do what you want. To put it another way: politics always matters.

Whoof, but look at me getting all angry. Better calm down, eh?