The Youthful Curmudgeon
To follow up with Rago, and why young journalists like Rago might feel as they do, I think Dean Barnett at Hewitt's blog makes a pretty astute observation on the turmoil going on in the decline of print and tv media and the rise of the blogosphere in its influence:
Thursday, December 28, 2006
The Birth of the Youthful Curmudgeon
Posted by Dean Barnett“I think the best definition of journalism is history as refracted through the prism of the unfolding present.”The above quote comes from young Joe Rago early in his interview with Hugh Tuesday night. When I heard it, I did a spit-take, regrettably spewing a mouthful of my Pinot over my computer screen. “Oh dear,” I thought. “Not only does Rago write that way, he also speaks that way. Worse still, he apparently thinks that way.”
I can’t even pretend to understand Rago’s sophisticated definition of journalism. Maybe if I had gone to J-School, I’d have a better shot at it, but as things stand I don’t have the foggiest idea what he’s talking about.
But I do know this: Rago’s freshly won dollop of fame (or infamy) heralds the arrival of a new creature in journalism – the youthful curmudgeon. Traditionally curmudgeons were old guys, the kind of crusty nuisances who would bellow, “I’ve forgotten more about that than you’ll ever know.” Now, moving at virtual speeds, young men can apparently join the curmudgeon club while still tender in age and light on life experience.
You have to ask yourself, What has made these young people curmudgeons? After all, Rago is far from the only young journalist who has a decided lack of fondness for the blogosphere and has expressed his hostility in print. In short, Why the anger?
PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS THINK journalism is tough. Most of them went to school with an eye towards entering their chosen field, and they think achieving a level of skill at it can only come through years of learning, practice and dedication. After all, refracting history through the unfolding prism of the present is obviously the kind of thing that amateurs shouldn’t attempt.
Most journalists also think they’ve paid their dues. Some clawed their way up by spending years covering Board of Aldermen meetings attended by only get-a-lifers, old people with nothing better to do and ambitious young journalists. Others paid their dues in a less onerous fashion by attending one of our nation’s best schools (or Dartmouth) and doing some writing while there. Regardless, most journalists feel like they had to jump through some hoops to win the privilege of writing for an audience.
With the creation of the blogosphere, the entry barriers to being a writer came down. Anyone who wanted to be a commentator or even practice a little freelance journalism was free to do so. Some of the people who chose to adopt this avocation met with huge success. The Powerline guys, for example, are probably read by more than any op-ed columnist in the country. What’s more, the political class seeks the favor of the top bloggers with an ardor that only the country’s most influential journalists get to experience.
The same is even truer on the left side of the blogosphere. Markos Moulitsas is unquestionably more influential than any American journalist. Actually, he’s probably more influential than America’s top five lefty editorial boards combined. He put Howard Dean on the map and on the path to the Democratic nomination. Later, after a disastrous and embarrassing presidential campaign, Markos got Dean installed as DNC Chair. When the dead-tree gang can pull off stunts like that, then we can debate who’s really got the juice.
IT HAS TO BE FRUSTRATING for journalists that hordes of bankers, lawyers, professors and other anonymous shlubs can so easily crash their gate. It’s probably still more galling that the gate crashing can only go one way. If the typical journalist said he wanted to give being a law professor a whirl, no matter how skilled he was at refracting history through the prism of the unfolding present, he would find no takers.
Neophytes can enter the previously sacred temple of journalism and go as far as their talent will take them. Other professions remain closed. A brain surgeon can go to Townhall.com and start a blog in five minutes. Journalists aren’t allowed to perform brain surgery, unless there’s a really crappy HMO out there that I’m not aware of.
So how has the journalistic class reacted to this new challenge? Some don’t seem to mind. Tom Friedman’s still able to sell a zillion books (God only knows why), and countless others remain confident enough in their talent and what they’re doing to not blindly lash out that their blogging compadres in the marketplace of ideas. I count among my email pals several of America’s most prominent conservative writers.
But other journalists are obviously angry. It just doesn’t seem fair. They spent the time getting their tickets punched, and find themselves not breathing rarefied air but instead being suffocated in a crowded room surround by a bunch of virtual Mongols.
Thus the youthful curmudgeon came into being. Hearing Joe Rago on the radio with Hugh, I felt bad for him. He seems like a nice guy. He also seems befuddled by a world that hasn’t lived up to his youthful notions of what it was going to be. A dozen years ago, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, almost alone, moved conservative opinion. Then came the Weekly Standard and the renaissance of National Review. And later came the blogs. The Journal is now but one voice in the choir and far from the loudest, in large part because it has a minimal internet presence. (James Taranto is great, but he’s only one man.)
So I guess if you graduated Dartmouth and thought you were going to be at the pinnacle of conservative thinking when you landed a gig at the Journal’s editorial page, there could be some disappointment. But there shouldn’t be.
The Journal editorial page remains at the pinnacle of conservative opinion making. It’s just that the pinnacle is a lot broader and a lot more crowded than it was a decade ago. A guy like Rago has a great chance to make a name for himself. His stuff will be read. Whether or not it will be appreciated will depend on its quality.
The fact that Rago and his like-minded colleagues have a problem with that says a lot more about them than I bet they’d be willing to acknowledge.