An Apology to Jim Fallows

On a subject of no interest to almost everybody

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Well I'm in trouble with my friend and Atlantic colleague Jim Fallows. In an ineptly written few sentences in my last piece, I left the impression that I think Jim has been advising young writers to avoid important topics and not worry about being truthful. Obviously (or I hope it's obvious) I don't think that, and I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I do.

The question was one faced by journalists, especially in Washington, and possibly of no interest to anyone else. What should you do when you run into someone about whom you've written critically or mockingly?

The burden of my piece is that it's OK to take the coward's way out and duck around the corner. By reserving the right to slink away and avoid confrontation in such a circumstance, it is easier to be brave when you're sitting at your lonely computer, churning out words. This was in response to Fallows writing, last week, about advice he had received from Ralph Nader.

He said that a really unattractive personality type was the journalistic bully-coward. That is, the person who breathes absolute fire when sitting at the keyboard, but skulks away nervously if he catches sight of someone he'd so fearlessly denounced from the writer's chair.

Jim elaborated that this means two things: write as if you are going to run into the subject of your ravings, and be straightforward with him or her if you do. I wrote, tongue partly in cheek, that this requires more courage than absolutely necessary. It's hard enough to write what's true and important without in addition having to consider what you will do if you bump into the subject of your abuse.

At this point, tradition requires a citation of the legendary left-wing pamphleteer I.F. Stone, who solved the problem of running into people you write about by ostentatiously resisting all opportunities to socialize with such people. On the other side of this argument are people who believe that by mingling with VIPs they gain understanding, or at least hot tips, that make them better journalists. Might be true. But I still think that running away is the best option.

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