Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?: Julia Ioffe of the New Republic Takes 5000 Words and Turns Ezra Klein into a Mere Personality Weblogging
The truly interesting questions about Ezra Klein and his Wonkblog are four:
Just what is Ezra Klein doing that gets him 100,000 page views a day (it is a very good day on which I get more than 50,000) and makes out-of-town newspaper bureau chiefs and senior senatorial staffers say that they learn "more from Ezra Klein on any given day than from the entire national news staff of the New York Times"?
Why doesn't Wonkblog face more competition, or at least see more attempted imitators?
Why is Ezra Klein doing this at the Washington Post--an organization that brought opinions-of-shape-of-earth-differ journamalism to its peak, with the ethos of its reporters in the 1990s and 2000s being: "Of course you can't learn anything about what's going on now from our stories, our job is to tell you what a centrist Democrat or lobbyist says and what a right-wing Republican says, so if you want to learn anything wait for the book we are going to
rightwrite in three years or so"?
Can Wonkblog survive at the Washington Post, or will its DNA destroy Wonkblog as we know it?
The New Republic gives Julia Ioffe 5000 words to write about Ezra Klein and call the now 28-year-old "The Wise Boy".
How well does she do at shedding light on these four questions?
When I am asked who is like Ezra Klein but older, my standard answer is Gene Sperling--they both have the same desire to change the world, the same desire to understand what policies work, and the same drive to explain what policies work to a broader audience than just those of us who know what is what. Thus I was not surprised to be told that "Klein and his wife… Annie Lowrey, at… last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner… spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling." Who else there would Ezra and Annie have stuff to talk with about, after all?
But Julia Ioffe thinks this shows how Ezra is a devious operator:
“Ezra is an incredible operator,” says one prominent Washington editor. “He is always looking upward at things. You only have to watch him work a party. He moves right to the most important people there.” One friend saw Klein and his wife, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, at an event for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and noted that they spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic adviser. All of this has allowed Klein to slip easily into the Washington establishment, leaving the rest of his old blogging crew merely doing well, though they are still close…
Ezra warned her at the start of his interviews with her:
"we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly under-rate seeing Washington as a system…" Klein began as we wheeled through the city. He placed particular blame on the media for latching onto trivial matters and overlooking the sticky, more complicated [structural] issues
Did she listen to him, and devote any portion of her 5000 words to Washington as a system?
Julia Ioffe: The first time I interviewed Ezra Klein, the 28-year-old prince of D.C. media, he brought me a sandwich: prosciutto on a poppy-seed baguette. (Also, chips and a beverage.) We were in the back of a chauffeured black town car…. The point was, we were not going to eat for a while, and Klein took care to bring us dinner. (He also took care to stipulate that, should my barometer of professional ethics require it, I could pay him back for said sandwich, which I did.) “Did you read that New York Times Magazine article on decision fatigue?” he asked me, unwrapping his sandwich: "They ran this experiment where the judges would get hungry, and if you came up to the judge right before lunch, you never got parole; if you came up right after, you always got parole. The numbers were unbelievable! So now I’ve become more respectful of the way my stomach runs my brain." He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed in silence, rushing and elongating his neck as if he would run out of air before he swallowed…. "One of my big beliefs about Washington is that we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly under-rate seeing Washington as a system, in general, but, in particular, we highly underrate the power of Congress," Klein began as we wheeled through the city. He placed particular blame on the media for latching onto trivial matters and overlooking the sticky, more complicated issues of how the government actually works:
I think the focus on gaffes is a deep embarrassment, like, a deep embarrassment, and a systemic failure on the media’s part. And the danger of that is that, when you don’t tell people how a machine works, when it’s broke, they don’t know how to fix it. And I think that’s begun to happen.
The audience for having someone explain Washington’s often esoteric policy debates has proved to be far larger than anyone could have anticipated a decade ago…. WONKBLOG… has arguably become the Post’s most successful project…. “It’s ‘f#@& you traffic,’” one of Klein’s Post colleagues told me… "enough… to end any argument with the senior editors.”… By all accounts, he is doing the underlying job—understanding complex policy and translating it for the interested layman—well…. “I’ll put it this way,” says Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “when I’m trying to get a quick handle on some currently hot policy, on the facts and the numbers, I very often find that I’m going to Ezra’s blog.”
That Klein has achieved this kind of success by age 28… puts him in the pantheon of hungry young men who have moved to Washington and shape-shifted, whether consciously or not, into something that’s more palatable to the city’s establishment….
Klein went on for an hour… [about] the way the U.S. government is set up, leave the president with no recourse; he talked about the filibuster, about elections and the history of the devolution of the U.S. Congress, and he scolded the media for lying to this very audience, day in, day out. “I couldn’t believe he was twenty-eight!” an older woman named Deb said when the Q&A was over and the audience began to trickle out. “I said to Judy, I said, ‘He must be brilliant! He must read all the time!’” “I think he’s great! I read him in the Post,” added her friend Fran. “I’ve never read his blog, but I will!” Then they swapped pictures of their grandchildren and lamented the fact that Klein was already married: A friend wanted her daughter to marry him….
Growing up in Irvine… “a chunky nerd”… a lousy student… read a lot, mostly bad science fiction. He devoured, for example, the entire Dragonriders of Pern… two dozen books about how the residents of the planet Pern commune telepathically with intelligent dragons to fight showers of a corrosive spore called “Thread.”… Klein applied to the student newspaper, and was rejected. Sophomore year, he applied to an internship at The American Prospect, and was rejected. He applied to be a reporter-researcher at The New Republic, and didn’t get that either. He tried to help out Gary Hart, who pondered a presidential bid in 2004, and the day after he drove him around traffic-clogged San Francisco, Hart decided not to run. Klein has spun these youthful misfires into a compelling mythology of humility and good fortune, a reason not to begrudge him his success….
Back then, he… was openly partisan… part of a crew of bloggers… the liberal guerrilla underground… disgusted by Bush’s policies and disconnected from the enfeebled Democratic establishment. The mainstream media, which they felt had abetted both Al Gore’s defeat and Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, were particularly villainous in their eyes—little more than stenographers and scandal hounds. “What the blogosphere did with newspaper column analysis is make fun of how horrible it was,” says David Weigel, Klein’s friend and fellow member of what came to be known as the Juicebox Mafia:
There were columnists who, even with all their access, which you assumed they had, were just completely lazy and misinformed. And that was the opposite of the blogosphere. The only way to succeed in the blogosphere was actually to shoot at the groin of whoever was bigger than you.
The rebellion was also largely about data, about relying on studies and numbers instead of “gut” (that favorite Bush word) to solve policy problems…. In 2009, the Post took notice… it didn’t take him long to figure out how to adapt to the customs of elite Washington: One must be nice and above it all. Klein now says that he will not write a negative book review. “Because if you’ve gone through the trouble to write a book? And I just don’t think it’s that good?” Klein told me, breaking into his occasional habit of lilting at the end of each clause. “I’m not going to shit on your work. I just won’t review it. This is a rule James Fallows has that I’ve adopted. Whom I really respect, by the way.”…
His disavowal of party is particularly conspicuous…. The columnist who he feels achieves this platonic evenhandedness best is The New York Times’s David Brooks. “In the course of a pretty short column, he is able to convey the other side’s positions back to them in a way they would recognize,” Klein says. The fact that Klein feels he has largely achieved this state is a major point of pride, and he says it makes his criticism of policy more weighty. What he didn’t mention was that, four years earlier, he wrote a blog post titled “The Pitfalls of Making David Brooks Your Guy.”…
“Ezra is an incredible operator,” says one prominent Washington editor. “He is always looking upward at things. You only have to watch him work a party. He moves right to the most important people there.” One friend saw Klein and his wife, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, at an event for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and noted that they spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic adviser. All of this has allowed Klein to slip easily into the Washington establishment, leaving the rest of his old blogging crew merely doing well, though they are still close….
What’s made him so successful so fast… is also the idea of Klein himself, the nice, rational, incongruously handsome nerd, the kid you want explaining your budget policy and marrying your daughter…. Washington has always fetishized wunderkinds…. But now that he is part of the establishment, Klein seems all too aware that the gaffe-driven media has set its sights on him…. I noted that the process of being profiled seemed to make him nervous. “Of course, it makes me nervous!” Klein exclaimed. “You know what we do, right?” (By “we,” he meant journalists.) “We take people and we take their stories away from them and refashion them into the format that will make the best article.” The New Republic, he noted, was especially guilty of making their profile subjects look bad…. “I think journalists are completely irresponsible about how they use people and how they use quotes. All the time.” “You’re a journalist, right?” I asked him. “I am,” he agreed. “And I try to be responsible about it.” But by taking the things people told us and spinning them out of context, Klein said, we journalists undermined our own arguments for why people should go on the record with us. “Do your colleagues here do this?” I asked him, gesturing to the newsroom around him. “I think everybody that does campaign reporting does this,” he said curtly. “All the time.”…
So what was his theory of his life? How did he see his success, and what did he plan to do with it? “When I was working at the Prospect, I never thought—I mean, literally, until they called me, it didn’t occur to me that I would work at The Washington Post,” he said. “I thought that, if my career went really well, maybe, maybe I could top out with a newspaper column. Things came faster. So I spend all my time—I worry that this will sound like humble-bragging, and I don’t want it to—I spend a lot of my time obsessively trying to figure out how I can work hard enough or figure out the right work to do to basically be worthy of all of it. Because if I’m not worthy of all of it, then it’s kind of a sin.”
And, while we are on a roll...
After the Closing of the Internet Frontier…
Alameida, October 2011:
Maybe Other People Should Burn Other S*&^ Down?: Matt Yglesias has an interesting post on the cooptation of some of the early successful bloggers by media:
When I started out, a "blogger" was by definition not a real journalist. He might have been a college student like me or a professor or an anonymous scribbler working a day job. Today, the New York Times publishes lots of blogs and most of us early bloggers who met with success have gotten hired by someone or other. By and large, that's a good thing and represents good sense on the part of established media institutions. Still, there is a cost and in my sentimental moments I miss the gold old days. I don't accept the view that the alternative to being an "insurgent or outsider force" is to be "an organ of the Democratic Party" but the political arena is shot through with tensions around the desire to be a player in the struggles between the powers that be and a desire to be a critic of the entire system.
I know many feel that Ezra Klein has gone too far down this route when he moved to the Washington Post. I just find myself... not reading him as much, except when someone links. I mean, I read it much less often than I used to read his previous blog. Honestly the format is a turn-off? Maybe I don't like what he has to say? It's nice to see him get wonky on healthcare issues but there is some merit to the complaint that he has become "an organ of the Democratic Party." I have met Ezra personally a number of times and he is a great guy, so I don't want to trash his work or something. But it's interesting that epitome-of-reasonableness Kevin Drum has somehow been moved to Ezra's left by the economic conditions and the grotesque condition of the current Republican party.
It doesn't help that the Post's website is ugly and takes forever to load, especially on my phone. And Ezra has always been a relatively dry writer. Working for the Post's business section has exacerbated that tendency. Wonkblog's good -- high-quality information -- but it's every bit as entertaining as the name implies.
Ezra Klein is one of the most brilliant persons I have ever encountered, albeit at a distance, and watching his ascent over the last decade has been a daily wonder. I could not begin to describe how amazing, interesting and informative I find him, in his daily work and the trajectory of his career. For me, Klein and Obama are the stories of the century so far, showing not who, but what has triumphed in its most accomplished manifestations. Mike Konczal my current favorite econblogger, examines, here and in the post immediately preceding, Klein's latest long form work on the Obama administration's early response to the recession. I imagine that the piece will function as a kind of baseline argument for critiquing the Obama administration on the economy from the liberal wonkosphere corner of the blogosphere. To say Klein creates the "conventional wisdom" of "neo-liberal" narrative on a daily basis is to vastly underestimate how unassailable his accounts will become. He's running the place and writing the history.
My car wouldn't start and Ezra walked up, offering to help. He snapped his fingers. The car started and has now run for ten years straight without even needing me to refill the gas tank.
Mike is great and I had intended to link to that piece that Bob did in 3 as well, and also the Ezra Klein piece it comments on. It's sort of jaw-dropping to see neoliberals advance the argument that "hey, we can't be expected to be equal to this kind of crisis" and expect people to buy into it. Talk about surrendering the field to the radicals on the other side! Matt deserves credit for leaving the Atlantic to go to Think Progress. CAP is too tied into establishment liberalism, but it is still very active in the fight and Matt was choosing a side by doing that.
I heard Ezra Klein has, like, 30 goddam d*&$#. I used to find his media criticism really interesting, and I'm sad that he doesn't seem to be in a position where he can do that any more. (Unless I'm wrong about that - I, too, don't read him religiously any more.)
Also on the "bored by Wonkbook" bench. I catch up with it once or twice a week, but while I can see that it's chock-full of information, I can very rarely figure out why it's information that I have any reason to know. I can't think of when a Wonkbook post has either changed my mind on an issue, strengthened my belief in a position that I was shaky about, or brought something that I recognized as important to my attention that I hadn't known about. (Or amused or entertained me, but obviously he's not going for that.)
You are all the Albert Brooks character in Broadcast News (and Holly Hunter). Russell Arben Fox on Naomi Klein, Global Warming, and liberal technocrats.
While Klein was still blogging he published a blatantly reasonable "on the other hand" piece, and I predicted that he was on the way up. Within a month he was hired. It's to Sausagely's credit that he hasn't been promoted yet.
BTW, the Ezra Klein piece linked through Mike Konczal is really excellent, the single best tour I have ever seen of why the Administration feels it did the best job it could and our current crappy situation is the Best of All Politically Feasible Economies Given Circumstances in January 2008. The way he then leads you to the sorrowful conclusion that they might be right is why Bob is saying that he's so brilliant as the official court scribe of the establishment liberals. (Though I would compare him to a smart, wonkier Bob Woodward rather than a dark Cold War figure like Alsop). The thing is, I'm not so sure they're wrong either...but I damn sure do know that we need a lot more people out there expanding the range of policy options that can at least be considered within the system. Ezra is for sure not one of those people, makes no effort to be and doesn't seem to want to be. The sources he reaches out to invariably read like the guest list to a chin-stroking Brookings event.
Back on the original post, I thought Drum was underrated before it was cool to think he was underrated. I think there's always been a tendency to read his emotionally moderate style as indicating the bad kind of 'moderation' in his politics. But while he's certainly gotten things wrong, I don't remember him doing much (since the beginning of the war, and he did start opposing the war before the invasion) of 'moderately' splitting the difference between something reasonable and something insane.
Drum also has the advantage of living in the political future (i.e. California), which makes it easier to be prescient.
Comparing Klein to, say, Wittes, shows his elevation to be a huge improvement for civilization.
"Klein and Yglesias both suffer from the problem that they don't know anything first-hand." This is the most succinct and accurate criticism of an entire generation of political/policy bloggers that I have seen in ages. It explains perfectly why I periodically end up in a sputtering rage when I read these guys, reduced to an inchoate reaction of "But they HAVEN'T DONE ANYTHING!!!!" Despite the thousands of legitimate criticisms of the old journalism, one side effect of the dues-paying was that by the time you ascended to David Broder territory, you had spent some in the trenches having to actually do reactive work, rather than the permanent luxury of autonomous, pro-active work.
Ironically, I find that as TPM has become BIGGER! and BETTER!, it has become more dispensible. Speaking as a loyal reader who has read probably 90 pct of the front page posts that have ever appeared on TPM, I wonder sometimes lately why I still bother. Mind you, I think Josh deserves canonization for his role in mobilizing against Social Security privatization in '05, but lately his whole site seems somehow peripheral to the conversation.
Is "I have a good job and Wall Street still terrifies and angers me. I'm employed for now, but I'm still in the 99%." too wordy for a sign?
"Lawyers can be people in the 99%, too."
It's worse than that. LB is a lawyer and a cyclist.
"We are the 99%, but not the 90% so we're going to support this a bit nervously."
That sounds much better. Possibly I will make a sign, and put in some morning and afternoon time hanging out.
The lizard is a nice touch.
That's awesome. I think the image conveys the snuggly lovableness of the typical litigator with almost frightening accuracy.
Ezra Klein just tweeted a link to Brad Delong's poster version of Moby Hick's 97. That may not be irony, but it sure is something.