by Conor Friedersdorf
Since he joined The Washington Post lots of people have been attacking Ezra Klein. The latest is Kenneth Anderson, who blogs at The Volokh Conspiracy. He is bothered by the fact that a person so young has been hired as a commentator, especially since he's never worked as a reporter, a usual prerequisite for becoming an opinion writer at a newspaper. Though I often disagree with Ezra, find his faith in progressive policy solutions naive, and even occasionally write blog posts criticizing his work, I regard him as among the best policy bloggers on the Internet, and I am particularly puzzled by the specific critiques laid out by Mr. Anderson. I say that as someone who is older than Ezra, if only by a few years, and who did work as a newspaper reporter before trying my hand at commentary, benefiting from the experience.
Mr. Anderson writes, "Klein's career has consisted entirely, so far as I can tell, of delivering himself of many opinions." That isn't how I see it. The value Ezra adds is due to largely to the deep policy knowledge he accrues, and his ability to explain very complicated proposals and legislation in concise, easily understandable language that is impressively accurate, especially given how quickly he produces that kind of writing. As my friend Peter Suderman wrote in a blog post congratulating Ezra on being hired at The Washington Post, "Ezra Klein not only cares about policy, he cares about making it accessible without dumbing it down." His ability to do so seems like a skill worth having at a newspaper in the nation's capital. And I can't really see how his utility would be much improved had Ezra spent a few years covering City Council meetings, as I did. What about spending a few years reporting on the health care policy beat? Well isn't that actually what Ezra does now?
As it happens, I recently asked Ezra about his wonky approach to blogging, intending to include his answer among the blogger interviews I've been posting elsewhere at The Atlantic. It seems appropriate to offer it here instead. "This 'deep in the weeds' approach isn't the norm among paid pundits, nor is it very prominent in American public discourse," I noted. "Why do you find it to be a model worth pursuing?"
...it's not just me: It's Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum and Brad Plumer and many others. And there are certainly old media types -- Walter Pincus is the eternal example, but David Leonhardt works too -- of writers who value research papers and appendices. So I don't, in any way, want to overstate the uniqueness of what I do. I'm part of a fraternity. I'm not, as The Hangover's Alan would say, a wolf pack of one.
More personally, I didn't begin as a reporter at my school paper (was rejected, actually) or an intern at a magazine. I began as a blogger. In 2003. Sources didn't return the calls of bloggers in 2003. And so I developed a heavy reliance on, and a healthy attachment to, the ugly stepsister of reporting: research. Since I couldn't depend on experts to tell me what they thought, I had to read what they'd written. And that had some drawbacks -- there really is no substitute for talking to people -- but also some advantages. The difference between reading a think tank paper and interviewing the author is the difference between learning what an expert thinks you should know and learning what you think you want to know. There are advantages to both. But I think traditional outlets have a tendency to overvalue the benefits of interviews and undervalue the benefits of document diving.
The result of this approach, which now actually includes a lot of interviews that he publishes to the blog, is that when a certain kind of policy news breaks, Ezra is sometimes better educated about its substance than The Washington Post reporter assigned to write the story for the print edition, and nearly always more knowledgeable -- due to a certain kind of reporting -- than the average staff writer at the kind of American newspaper where Mr. Anderson presumably thinks that Ezra should have gotten his start.
Mr. Anderson next proceeds to his most mystifying argument:
...his is a career track that thrives on high level, refined, abstract bickering among experts and talking heads. Pick a fight with Greg Mankiw and hope that he responds so that you can show your general worldly relevance and audience connection. That's the currency you're selling to the WaPo, at the end of the day, the heat, not the light. Including the snidification I'm producing here - how do we put it on the internet, "Don't feed the trolls"?
Ezra Klein generates more heat than light? Does he generate any heat? The idea that Ezra is some kind of attack dog who generates traffic by baiting ideological adversaries into flame wars is about as complete a misreading of his blog as I can imagine. The left margin of his site is a regularly updated list of white papers he recommends to his readers! Mr. Anderson even implies that the right wing equivalent of Ezra is a talk radio host. Weird.
Lord knows I've criticized some Ezra Klein blog posts, that I am sometimes put off by the breezy arrogance that can creep into his writing, and that he errors in his analysis and rhetorical approach at times, as do we all. When Mr. Anderson wonders whether Ezra would be perform better were he older or a veteran of reporting, however, I can't help but wonder why that is possibly relevant. We'd all be better at our jobs, compared to our current self, given more experience. The important question is how Ezra fares relative to other opinion journalists.
I'd say he offers a valuable comparative advantage; that he is better than plenty of aged pundits who began their careers as reporters; and that whatever his flaws or occasional ill-conceived posts, he is worth reading.
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