Political Animal


May 01, 2013 12:58 PM Who’s a “Real Opinion Journalist?”

By Ed Kilgore

Jonathan Chait makes rather short work of a peculiar column by David Brooks (which Chait interprets as part of his intra-Times war with Paul Krugman) dividing the world of political opinion writers into “detached” folk like his own self, and “engaged” folk who are working for a “team.”

Chait does not, oddly enough, challenge Brooks’ contention that he’s not on a “team.” In my opinion, David’s entire M.O. is to sail above political conflicts like a “detached” eagle before landing, not always but almost always, on the tactical ground of the Republican Party. He’s an alumnus of the hyper-partisan Weekly Standard (which began life as the self-appointed Pravda of the Republican Revolution of 1994), and owes his employment to the New York Times’ need for a couple of right-of-center columnists. If it weren’t for his dishonesty about it, I wouldn’t have any problem with it: it’s very hard to be an opinion writer about politics if you don’t have an opinion about political parties.

Chait’s issue with Brooks isn’t his protestations of non-partisanship, but instead his claim it’s not only possible but essential for those aspiring to “intellectual honesty” to see “politics as a competition between partial truths:”

Well, yes, sometimes it is. On the other hand, sometimes politics is not a competition between partial truths. If you’re committed a priori to always seeing politics as a competition between partial truths, you will render yourself unable to accurately describe the times when it’s not and find yourself writing things that are provably untrue. Writing things that are provably untrue — rather than, say, being irritating — ought to be the central thing to avoid.

But having rejected Brooks’ definition of the kind of “objectivity” needed if one wants to be a “an opinion journalist” rather than a partisan hack, Chait offers his own, based on his famous 2007 essay for TNR about the rise of the netroots. His litmus tests are intellectual consistency (e.g., don’t deplore filibusters deployed by the other team while celebrating them when deployed by your own team); avoidance of straw man arguments no one is actually making; and openness to both “shades of gray” and “black-and-white” issues depending on the situation at hand.

By the Brooks’ standards, I’m clearly not a “journalist,” but nor is David, IMO. By Chait’s standards, I may just pass under the wire, and I certainly try to avoid the pathologies he’s talking about, arguably as much as he does. Part of the problem, of course, is that both Chait and I tend to think the power and radicalism of the conservative movement and the GOP are the central and pervasive problem in American politics right now—not necessarily forever, but certainly right now. So it’s kind of hard not to write about it all the time, which certainly militates against the appearance of objectivity or independence from a “team.” Indeed, encouraging false-equivalence “journalism” is a central part of one “team’s” strategy.

In the end, not being a graduate of a J-School, I don’t much care if I’m included in the Journalistic Guild. It’s not like the status comes with any benefits.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TomParmenter on May 01, 2013 1:23 PM:

    Hey! I'm a lapsed member of Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism fraternity! You know us, we . . .

    On the other hand, I'm a graduate of the City News Bureau of Chicago and overnight rewrite on Chicago's American circa 1967, and we don't have much respect for anyone who doesn't talk directly to cops.

  • jjm on May 01, 2013 1:27 PM:

    Why, exactly, does the NYT need a couple of 'center-right' opinion columnists?

    The world has moved past that 1990s schtick of having 'two' opposed pundits yelling at each other across and unbridgeable gulf.

    Perhaps the Times wants the appearance of someone 'neutral' (and who is in reality a pure partisan GOP hack) to try to persuade undecided readers to the GOP point of view.

    But Brooks really can't hack it. He doesn't even have the clarity of the ever-mistaken but witty William Safire. His prose is dull, plodding and most unpleasant of all: mean-spirited. He's ALWAYS on the side of the rich and powerful against the rest. Ugly little man.

  • c u n d gulag on May 01, 2013 1:32 PM:

    The one time I don't copy what I wrote, is the one time that CRAPTCHA eats my comment.

    About the only thing I hold in lower esteem than Bobo, and hack punTWITS like him, is CRAPTCHA!!!

    But, then, CRAPTCHA's down there with Stalin and that guy you can't mention according to Mr. Godwin.
    And Bobo aint stooped that low - yet.

  • exlibra on May 01, 2013 2:50 PM:

    You know how, when a regular pundit is on vacation, the NYTimes says "such-and-such is off today"? Brooks is so annoying with his pretense of impartiality and his constant mendacity, that I once actually wrote a Letter to the Editor saying "David Brooks is 'off' all the time, not just today". With MoDo, I only mumble it to myself, without ever taking action.

    Oh, oh, oh... Craptcha is in full prophetic mode, as in the days of yore: "bow nerdwit". Obviously, we're both talking about the same pundick :)

  • collin on May 01, 2013 3:17 PM:

    Why does anybody take David Brooks seriously? His writing has proven he has never come to terms on the failure of the Bush/naught years. Heading in to 2001 and a conservative in the WH, it should have been a golden age. However it ended with a large financial crisis.

  • sgetti on May 01, 2013 4:09 PM:

    Mr. Brooks is a very talented writer except when it comes to economics, politics, religion, history...

  • emjayay on May 01, 2013 4:09 PM:

    David has always struck me as a sort of fuzzy soft-core apologist for upper class establishment priviledge. A sort of suburban Republican, as opposed to the other right wingers the NYT feels a need to publish, who are twisted zealots attempting to wear intellectual clothing.

    And Yes I'm Pro-Choice.

  • Samuel Knight on May 01, 2013 4:13 PM:

    Unfortunately David Brooks is a darn good propagandist. like Robert Samuelson he comes up with elaborate concoctions which sound convincing, invariably support the interests of the monied GOP base (vs the religous nuts who they happily play as fools), but almost always are ludicrous once you think any of it through.

    So ignore the posing and ask:
    Do these guys make up stuff? yes
    Do they string together non sequitors? yes
    Do they have a track record of skewing data, statements, etc. yes,
    Do they consistently attack some convenient strawman? Yes.

    Well if the answers to all the above are YES - can they in anyway be described as a journalist?

    Well, NO