Today Last week, Marc Ambinder reached the end of his tenure as a politics blogger for the Atlantic, and toasted the event with a thoughtful post on the nature of blogging. The central nugget:
Really good print journalism is ego-free. By that I do not mean that the writer has no skin in the game, or that the writer lacks a perspective, or even that the writer does not write from a perspective. What I mean is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening. Blogging is an ego-intensive process. Even in straight news stories, the format always requires you to put yourself into narrative. You are expected to not only have a point of view and reveal it, but be confident that it is the correct point of view. There is nothing wrong with this. As much as a writer can fabricate a detachment, or a “view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen has put it, the writer can also also fabricate a view from somewhere. You can’t really be a reporter without it. I don’t care whether people know how I feel about particular political issues; it’s no secret where I stand on gay marriage, or on the science of climate change, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder,” rather than because it’s good or interesting.
My esteemed coblogger tweeted some terrific observations about Ambinder’s post:
I expect when Tim has more than 140 characters, he’ll nod to the fact that The Atlantic’s website actually encompasses many different ideas of what blogging means – from Andrew Sullivan’s flood of commentless links and reader emails to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rollicking salons to Ambinder’s own sparsely-linked analyses. And beyond the bounds of the Atlantic there are so many other ideas, as many types of blogs as there are types of books, and maybe more – Waiter Rant to Romenesko to Muslims Wearing Things to this dude’s LiveJournal to BLDGBLOG.
That Ambinder’s essay doesn’t really acknowledge this – that it seems so curiously essentialist about a format that’s engendered so much diversity – disappoints me, because he’s such a thoughtful, subtle writer at his best. His sudden swerve into the passive voice – “You are expected to not only have a point of view” – briefly made me worry that he intends to become one of those print journalists who uses the cloak of institutional voice to write weaselly ridiculous phrases such as “Questions are being raised.”
It puzzles me that the same fellow who wrote that “a good story demolishes counterarguments” would casually drop the line, “Really good print journalism is ego-free.” “What I mean,” Ambinder says, “is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening.” I think I know what type of long-form journalism he’s referring to – there’s a wonderful genre of stories that make their case with a simple, sequential presentation of fact after unadorned fact. The Looming Tower. The Problem from Hell. David Grann’s stunning “Trial by Fire” in the New Yorker.
But there’s an equally excellent genre of journalism that foregrounds the author’s curiosities, concerns and assumptions – James Fallows’ immortal foretelling of the Iraq War, Atul Gawande’s investigation of expenditures in health care. This is ego-driven reporting, in the best possible way. For every Problem from Hell, there’s another Omnivore’s Dilemma. Far from demolishing counterarguments, Ambinder’s mention of “ego-free journalism” instantly summons to mind its opposite.
Likewise, his contention that “blogging is an ego-intensive process” has to grapple with the fact that some of the best blogging is just the reverse. It doesn’t square with examples such as Jim Romenesko, whose art is meticulously effacing himself from the world he covers, leaving a digest rich with voice and judgment so veiled you barely even notice someone’s behind it. In fact, contra Ambinder, I’ve found that one of the most difficult types of blogging to teach traditional reporters is this very trick of being a listener and reader first, suppressing the impulse to develop your own take until you’ve surveyed others and brought the best of them to your crowd. Devoid as it is of links, non-Web journalism often fosters a pride of ownership that can become insidious – a constant race to generate information that might not actually help us understand the world any better, but is (1) new and (2) yours. Unchecked, that leads inevitably to this.
In just the way Marc Ambinder’s post wasn’t necessarily an attack on blogging, this isn’t necessarily a defense of it, or an attack on traditional journalism. If Ambinder recast his musings on blogging in a slightly different way, I’d actually agree with him wholeheartedly. If, as I’ve been arguing in this post, the form is flexible enough to encompass so many approaches, that means every choice contributes to a blog’s unique identity. Perhaps more than any other publishing/broadcasting format, a blog is a manifestation of the choices and idiosyncrasies of its authors.
And I think this is what Ambinder’s experience reflects – his choices and his idiosyncrasies. He chose to blog about national politics – an extraordinarily crowded (and particularly solipsistic) field. To distinguish himself from the crowd, he chose to craft a persona known for its canny insider’s pose and behind-the-scenes insights. I think it was a terrific choice; I’ve enjoyed his Atlantic writing a lot. But there’s little essential about the format that compelled him to this choice.
The title of this post is, of course, facetious. (Although I’d kind of love it if the pointless “Who’s a journalist” debates gave way to pointless “Who’s a blogger” ones.) Of course Marc Ambinder was a blogger – he tended to a series of posts displayed on the Web in reverse-chronological order. Beyond that, there are common patterns and proven techniques, but very few rules. Print imposes more constraints, but some folks find a sort of freedom in that. I hope Marc Ambinder does, and I hope to read the product.