Who’s a “Real Opinion Journalist?”

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.