Roll over, Walter Lippmann and roll over David Broder! Make way for Beutler, Weigel, Yglesias & Klein. These Young Lions blog, send flaming e-mail, and tweet and are moving into the circle of talking heads on 24/7 cable news. If this is a (fair & balanced) changing of the guard, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Washington’s New Brat Pack Masters Media
By Sridhar Pappu
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One winter evening, Brian Beutler, 28, a reporter for the online publication Talking Points Memo, sat with his friend and roommate Dave Weigel, 29, a political reporter for Slate and a contributor to MSNBC, at a coffee shop on U Street. Recovering from a cold as snow fell outside, Mr. Beutler spoke about his younger — well, relatively younger — days in the city.
“Everyone’s gotten a little bit older and a little more boring,” Mr. Beutler said, speaking of a wave of Washington bloggers who have come of age together. “Four years ago, we were far less professionalized, and the work was less rigorous and less stressful. So in addition to being younger, we were also a bit less overwhelmed. That all has changed.”
In only a few years, these young men and others like them have become part of the journalistic establishment in Washington. Once they lived in groups in squalid homes and stayed out late, reading comic books in between posts as more seasoned reporters slogged their way through traditional publications like The Hill and Roll Call. Now the members of this “Juicebox Mafia,” as they were first called by Eli Lake of The Washington Times, in a reference to youth, have become destination reading for — and respected by — the city’s power elite. Indeed, arguably they are themselves approaching power-elite status (as well as, gasp, age 30).
“I look at those guys and call them ‘Facebook pundits,’ ” said Tammy Haddad, the venerable Washington hostess and cable news veteran. “They’ve risen up the media food chain. They’re acknowledged by the White House. They measure their success in a different way than the old guard in this city used to.
“It’s a whole new stream — a new vein of voices engaged and engaging with the power centers in Washington,” added Ms. Haddad, known for the boldface-name-dotted brunch she holds annually before the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
There is precedent for such packs of smart, self-important young men in other capital cities. More than 50 years ago, Gay Talese wrote of “the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation,” led by George Plimpton, who once tromped through Paris.
Of course, Washington is not and never will be Paris. In a city where Ms. Haddad’s brunch is known simply as “Tammy’s” and where young Congressional staffers and reporters still cling to the bars on Capitol Hill, the scene these young men inhabit is as foreign as Mars. On Friday evenings it’s not uncommon to spot them at rock places like Black Cat or the 9:30 Club, or (juice boxes forsooth) drinking overpriced beer from cans — or even Mason jars — in grungy enclaves like the American Ice Company. But they’ve also rerouted the aspirations of young journalists here, for whom a job in print media was once the holy grail.
“This is the age of the individual voice, liberated by the new media,” the former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan — whose reinvention as a prodigious, immensely well-read blogger has inspired many to take to their laptops — said in an e-mail. “Anyone in the younger generation who yearns for a column on the Washington Post op-ed page is seeking oblivion.”
That hasn’t stopped traditional outlets from reaching out to them — with mixed results. In the years surrounding the 2008 presidential election, The Washington Post employed Mr. Weigel; and The American Prospect and then The Post made his peer Ezra Klein into a multiplatform superman of blogging-twittering-column writing. The Atlantic and then Think Progress — the online arm of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund— transformed Matt Yglesias from a formerly bored Harvard kid who hated reporting into an Internet star.
They are cognizant of their evolution.
“I came here, and I had no professional affiliation,” Mr. Klein, 26, said over lunch at Potenza, a decidedly grown-up restaurant in downtown Washington. “I just had a blog that was mine, but I came out here and was trained as a magazine writer, and that was just a much more formalized way of journalism. You made calls. People answered calls. You took down what was said in a respectable account, and that began to influence my blogging. It became a lot less of an ‘Ezra affair.’
“I think you can accuse me of having a much more staid tone than I had in college,” Mr. Klein said, “because I’m a bit older, and you learn when people are reading your work you should be much more careful about what you say and what kind of motives you ascribe.”
Yet this newly discovered caution didn’t prevent Mr. Klein from attacking Senator Joe Lieberman during the health care debate when he wrote that Mr. Lieberman was “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.”
“I’ve said before, I’ve regretted using that phrasing,” Mr. Klein said. “What frustrated me was so many people talked about how long that health care bill was, but didn’t take the next step to say, ‘O.K., I really need to work hard to explain it to people.’ Usually when people talked about the bill’s length, they talked about it not as part of their job, but they tended to see it as a failure of someone else. And that’s not the way I look at complicated policy. When I look at complicated policy, it’s up to someone like me to explain things clearly. If that takes a lot of time, so be it. I have a blog, and I’ve got a lot of space.”
Being in the Brat Pack of the moment doesn’t protect its members from public comeuppance. After the Daily Caller — a conservative Web site run by Tucker Carlson — published e-mail that Mr. Weigel had written in an off-the-cuff, off-the-record manner for the listserv “JournoList,” he resigned from The Post, under pressure.
Betsy Rothstein, editor of the media Web site FishbowlDC, has relentlessly accused the Juicebox Mafia of arrogance (Mr. Klein has blocked her site from his Twitter feeds). “Their sense of themselves is so inflated,” Ms. Rothstein said. “I sometimes think they do good work, but if you’re in their pack, even if what you say makes no sense, you’re golden. I think their popularity is a myth.”
And Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University professor and historian who is working on a biography of Walter Cronkite, expressed nostalgia for an earlier, more in-the-trenches generation of correspondents who didn’t rely on tweeting and linking to generate content. “I’m not making a judgment,” Professor Brinkley said. “What I don’t like is that before, people would start in foreign bureaus all over the world before making their way to Washington. You would be pushing into your deep 20s and have a really deep global background. What you’ve seen is a devaluation of serious journalism in favor of reporters who are able to create a brand identity.”
Mr. Sullivan, 47, disagreed. “I think they are more talented than the journalists of my generation and less self-important than the boomer generation,” he wrote. “People forget how hard it was to get a platform of any kind in the old days. The gatekeepers were few and strict. Lots of talent never got a chance, and I admire the way these bloggers have opened up the D.C. conversation.”
Sitting in a darkened bar not far from the Washington Convention Center, drinking bourbon, Mr. Yglesias, 29, wistfully recalled his days as a student in Cambridge, Mass., where he developed his own blog with the help of his college roommate, who knew something about this new thing called HTML. It was through this blog that he found, among others, Mr. Klein — like-minded policy obsessives who had found an outlet in the early part of the last decade.
“I’m actually glad I was able to avoid a certain amount of dues-paying,” Mr. Yglesias said. “But I flatter myself and would be completely egomaniacal if I didn’t think that there was a certain amount of luck involved. There’s a reason why dues-paying is normally involved in this sort of thing.
“I always think of myself as an explainer,” he continued. “I just try and put sophisticated ideas into the news cycle and connect people with smart ideas that are relevant. One person can only make so much of a difference. I made it my mission years ago to address filibuster reform, and now they’re debating it on the Senate floor. I consider that an achievement I played a part in, and if it succeeds, it’s even more of an achievement.”
In an ending worthy of “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Mr. Yglesias now lives with his girlfriend, Kate Crawford, 27, who works at a trade association for science museums. Mr. Klein is engaged to Annie Lowrey, a 26-year-old reporter for Slate. “They’ve grown up,” Ms. Lowrey said of her fiancé and his cohorts. “They’re not spring chickens anymore.”
Back at the coffee shop, Mr. Weigel noted another way the group’s behavior had shifted since its early days in Washington.
“We had a weekly trivia team, and Ezra was often on it,” he recalled. These days, he said, “I think functionally you couldn’t commit to that on a weeknight, because Ezra’s on TV four times a week.” Ω
[Sridhar Pappu is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. In 2007, Pappu joined the Washington Post as the lead political writer for "Style." Prior to that, he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, and, before that, he wrote the "Off The Record" press column for The New York Observer.]
Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves