You would think that being selected as a New York Times columnist would spur you to churn out some of the highest-quality prose you could muster. It was surprising, then, when Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard and scion of the right-wing punditocracy, blessed the Gray Lady’s Op-Ed pages with possibly the worst writing it’d ever seen. Kristol, no stranger to the argumentative essay or the persuasive piece, regularly gave his name to columns that were shoddily structured, shabbily researched and just plain boring; it seemed at times as if the veteran polemicist were doing little more than filtering propaganda into the backside of the front section.
Kristol left in January — by “mutual agreement” — little more than a year after he had joined The Times. For all the headaches and head-shaking he caused us, we do owe him one thing: he served as a perfect example of the depths to which political journalism has fallen, a quintessence of fluff who will guide future historians of journalism as they decipher our era. In his role as shameless adherent to the political narrative of the hour, Billy showed us just how not to comment on politics.
Perhaps the most emblematic piece of Kristol’s career at The Times came on Oct. 5, in the sweet spot of the presidential campaign. Our intrepid correspondent “reported” on a conversation he’d had with Sarah Palin, essentially giving her a soapbox in the world’s most respected paper with a few witty asides tossed in. Here’s a sample: “I pointed out that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers — and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?”
You get ’em, Bill!
We see here a trend all too prevalent in our media today. Pundits and reporters alike focus on accepted storylines and tweak their stories to fit preordained narratives, treating, for example, the stimulus plan as one more step in Obama’s hope campaign, or the turnaround in Iraq as a potential rallying point for Republicans. Given that consumers are constantly begging for content, news sources forgo critical investigations and instead provide easy-to-follow plots. There are no longer events worthy of consideration as significant in and of themselves; everything is subjected to the imperative of the “big story,” and critical investigation naturally falls by the wayside.
This lax reporting reached its apex, of course, during the Bush administration. Political journalists, eager to steal the latest scoop and anxious to fill the bottomless abysses of cable news and the Internet, sacrificed integrity for shock. The powers that be, needless to say, obliged. But it wasn’t the Bushites who instigated this vicious cycle of cynicism — they just happened upon a Washington press corps all too eager to substitute status for substance.
Glenn Greenwald, a blogger for Salon.com, recognized in a Feb. 11 post what it was, exactly, that drove journalists to forget their duties and focus instead on easily-digestible story-bites: “In the Beltway royal court, there is no mark of prestige greater than proximity to presidential power … In the warped world of the Washington media, those who are chosen to be the obedient parrots for administration officials — the scribes to the Crown — are actually considered ‘good journalists.’” Easy access, easy assignments. Why slave away at a penetrating analysis — the research, the risk, the antagonism — when you can dust off a fluff piece that’ll probably get more hits anyway?
The price the public pays for this lackadaisical approach is obvious. Remember the lead-up to the Iraq War? Shock and Awe? Geraldo Rivera drawing war plans in the sand? It was enough for the president to say “this is so” and for the press corps to report it. Then came Obama, of course, and the hope for change — but “change” became just another hackneyed media theme, with the horse race mentality still prevailing (will this help Our Dear Leader? Will this damage our foe?). Politics has replaced policy as the main concern in Washington, and the media has blindly followed suit.
The case of Bill Kristol and his shameless parroting in The Times might suggest that political journalists are largely driven by a desire to favor one side over the other (in the case of columnists, this is practically the point). But while bias is certainly a concern, the real root of the problem seems to be something more mundane: intellectual laziness. Kristol’s cut-and-paste Palin column demonstrates just how easy it is to write an article without any investigation. With candidates and think tanks so skilled at crafting press releases and engineering their public image, reporters need merely pick out the sound-bites and craft a catchy lede: think Spark Notes for the media.
So how to halt this self-perpetuating slide into schlock? Easy: ignore it. The newspaper will be dead in a few years anyhow, and with it will go most of our best political reporting. Before we know it, investigative journalism and long sentences will be a thing of the past. And won’t that be nicer for everyone?