Clarification On The Press

I just wanted to follow-up on that swipe I took yesterday in this post praising Ezra. I think I probably could have thrown in some context that might clarify where I'm coming from.

The first thing that needs to be said is that I consider myself a print guy. I started in print, and should I be lucky, I'll die doing print. I wrote, almost exclusively in print, for over ten years before I started blogging. In that time I covered everything from community development to police brutality to local politics to Bill Cosby to M.F. Doom. At almost every stage I was aided in that pursuit by editors who were willing to make space for stories that pushed the limits of the average attention span. I don't dismiss criticism of bloggers by "traditional" journalists out of any questioning of the value of newspapers, books and magazines.

That said, I do find this sense that, say, people writing on the internet don't report to be snobbish, ignorant, and ultimately unreflective. Journalism is riddled with problems. It's practitioners are fond of claiming "objectivity" while practicing weak-ass "on the other hand"-ism. It's often poorly written, and betrays a loyalty to getting a quote, but not necessarily to getting a quote that tells us something. (Less spokespeople, please.) It uses anonymous sources as a crutch, hence reducing whatever reserves of trust still remain in the reader. At the highest level, it's dominated by the Ivies to such an extent that you'd think no one at a state school ever had an original thought.

These are not the reasons why the business model is suffering--though they aren't helping. But I bring them out to counter this sense that great journalism requires a bank of seasoned editors, a hallowed masthead extending back through decades, and a bevy of bright young things who've mastered the art of contrarianism. ("Does Taco Bell help you lose weight?")

Incredible journalism is like incredible baby-making--it starts with passion. The guy combing through the city budgets because it's his job, isn't the same as the guy combing through them because it keeps him up at night, because he thinks about it when he shouldn't be. Institutions support that passion--but they don't create it. When my old Howard buddy was killed by the cops, it was all I could think about, and it was all I wanted to write about. And I did it almost for free, because it helped me sleep at night. I was burning to get it down. I deeply suspect that the bloggers you love, and the reporters you love, are similarly on fire inside.

I don't have a strict allegiance to "journalism," as much as I have one to the written word. Perhaps there's no difference. But my point is that to the extent blogging makes it possible for more people who are "on fire" to employ the written word, than it's good for the written word. It's true that it creates a situation in which anyone, for $15 a month, can say their piece. But I have more faith in the market of ideas, than in a brain-trust of editors, to separate the wheat from the chafe.

Moreover, while there are an incredible number of bloggers out there, with no institutional support, who suck. There are a truly shocking number of writers, who have all the institutional support in the world, and not only suck, but bring nothing save cynicism, incuriousity, and cold poisoned hearts. And the institutions enable them. To the extent that blogging exposes these frauds, I am all in.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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