Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Plight of the Condorf

It's pretty obvious what Conor Friedersdorf wants to do. He wants to be every pundit's conscience. In his perfect world, he'd be the guy who purged the propagandists from journalism's noble ranks in a grand final battle, maybe with a broadsword. Love it or hate it, that's his schtick.

I happen to be one of those who hate it. I think it's bloodless. I think he comes across as a self-satisfied scold. And I think that the commentary-on-commentary beat is the laziest niche in the blogosphere. "Culture war froth comes to the fore because it’s one thing we all feel competent to talk about" — how much more so meta-punditry!

But never mind my questions about the merits of Condorf's personal mission. It's not my business to trash his vocation unless I have something helpful to say. Well, today I do: Based on what he says in this Bloggingheads with Peter Suderman, I think Condorf should keep writing, if that's what he wants to do, just not about politics. From the transcript:
CONOR: You don't see a lot of journalists making money, but you do see that there's an easy way to sell out as a journalist. If you really want to maximize your dollars in the easiest way possible, the thing to do is to figure out who has a lot of money and who will pay for you to write a particular thing, and then you write that thing. There are ways to do that that are consistent with your beliefs, and I think that's fine, but I also think there are people who go back and forth between journalism and being PR people for political campaigns, or who get into a think tank that they don't actually agree with but sort of tow a line . . . I just think there are a lot of ways to sell out in this town, and a lot of the most successful people here have done that. I don't like the career trajectory ahead of a lot of people who stay here.

PETER: I mean, it sounds to me like you're just frustrated in a general way with the conjunction of money and influence and personal beliefs and personal ambitions -- but, like, that is politics. That's just what politics is. You either like it . . . I wonder how you can be so against that sort of thing, and so frustrated by it, and yet also be someone who's deeply interested in politics. Because that's all that politics is. How these interests and influences and personal ambitions and personal beliefs work together to create policy, and debates. It just sounds to me like you're frustrated with something that is essential and basic to the business of governance and politics.


CONOR: . . . I would be perfectly happy writing about any number of things other than politics for 90 percent of my time. There's a 10 percent itch of stuff about politics that I like to write about. I write about politics more than 10 percent of the time mostly because people who are buying writing right now are buying writing about politics. You see in the stuff that I write for free at the American Scene that I'm more interested in public discourse than I am about politics per se.
Let me put it this way: I think pacifism is wrong, but I wouldn't ever try to talk someone out of it; I'm glad that there are pacifists in the world, and I admire the commitment of the real pacifists I've met. But I wouldn't send one to cover World War Two. I wouldn't send a society matron to cover the NCAA playoffs. And I wouldn't assign a punctiliously honest, "enlightened discourse" loving, goo-goo throwback like Conor to cover politics.

No one has railed against mercenary journalism as fervently as Condorf. He always insists that you should never write something you don't believe simply because you can get paid to write it. But if sending Conor to cover politics is like sending Dorothy Day to cover the Battle of Normandy, then it's strange to hear him admit that money is the only reason he writes about politics so much. Remember, it's not just that Conor doesn't like writing about politics, or that it doesn't interest him. It's that his deep and powerful aversions to things like money, naked ambition, and team loyalty make him constitutionally ill-suited to political journalism. No crime there, but it does make his career seem masochistic.

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