The New Vox of Journalism
You may not like this and I hope we can still be friends, but I kind of like Ezra Klein. Not that I actually know the 29-year-old journalist and his “Juicebox Mafia” of liberal bloggers. And not that I am unbothered by some of his antics. There was the secret JournoList of like-minded reporters and academics he curated from 2007 to 2010 until it was discovered and quickly shut down. There was the 2008 tweet in which he suggested using an “acid-tipped” male member to “f— Tim Russert.” There was that time in 2009 when he said Joe Lieberman, then wavering in support of ObamaCare, seemed “willing to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old political score.” And there was his 2010 remark that the Constitution is “not a clear document” because it was “written 100 years ago.” All this annoys me as much as it annoys, or should annoy, you.
Yet I cannot help admiring the diligence with which Klein approaches his work, the quantity of his output, the scope of his ambition, the zeal he has brought to networking, and the manner in which the arc of his career, not even a decade old, so closely mirrors larger changes in our media and our politics.
In January, Klein announced he was leaving the Washington Post, where he had worked since 2009, for Vox Media, where he will be—well, it’s not exactly clear what he’ll be doing there. The article he wrote announcing the new venture was notable mainly for the opacity of its prose and the incomprehensibility of its headline: “Vox Is Our Next.” His argument seems to go like this: What you and I call journalism, the fair-minded reporting of current events, is an anachronism. Newspapers got in the habit of reporting new information not because readers are interested in what happened yesterday, Klein says, but because of limitations imposed by material factors. There just isn’t enough ink and wood pulp on the planet to publish a comprehensive guide to life on a daily basis.
“The news business,” Klein declares, “is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business—and that’s the business we aim to be in.” So how do you join this informing-your-audience business?
Well, thanks to the Internet, “there’s space to tell people both what happened today and what happened that led to today.” Klein’s mission: “Create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is reporting on it.”
As explanations go, he’s off to a rocky start.
After plodding through “Vox Is Our Next” for the fifth time, and coming away no less befuddled by what Klein is going to be doing than I was after the first reading, I was struck by the fact that the content of his announcement mattered far less than the circumstances surrounding it. Once again, Ezra Klein’s professional activities have aligned perfectly with the latest media trend.
The hot storyline in media journalism these days is the reporter-as-brand—the increasing tendency of prominent writers to become the editors-proprietors-stars of their own digital publications. It began in 2011, when Bill Simmons the Sports Guy founded Grantland for ESPN.com, but the craze did not really take off until last year. Andrew Sullivan left the Daily Beast to hawk subscriptions to his blog; Nate Silver, whose election prognostication was the talk of 2012, left the New York Times to join Simmons at ESPN; and tech gurus Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal and David Pogue of the New York Times departed, respectively, for a startup and for Yahoo. With Klein’s exit from the Post, the “state of the industry” features practically wrote themselves.
Klein may not be ahead of the curve, but he is never behind it, either. He was born in Irvine, California, in 1984. By his own account he was a chubby kid, picked on, a nerd and a gamer who read science fiction and fantasy and smoked pot and didn’t bother to study in high school. He got into UC Santa Cruz and in the fall of 2003 began to blog. At first his writing was agitated, activist. He worked for Gary Hart, who was flirting with a 2004 presidential run (not the most successful of Hart’s flirtations). One of Klein’s readers suggested he volunteer for another presidential campaign. The reader was Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, and the campaign was Howard Dean’s.
A decade later, Dean’s failed 2004 campaign is looking more and more like a turning point in American politics. Fueled by visceral opposition to George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, Dean’s movement heralded the arrival of an aggressive, anti-war Democratic Party unafraid to challenge the GOP and conservatism on every level. The Deaniacs tended to be youthful, upscale, educated, and technologically savvy. His campaign organized meet-ups over the Internet. His campaign pioneered the use of online donations. And it was supported intensely by bloggers, whose screeds captured the Dean persona of pugnacity, righteousness, smarts, and snark.
In the end Howard Dean crashed, but his politics did not. The army of bloggers that had rallied to his side continued the anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-conservative crusade, forming the so-called Netroots of online progressive activists. Brash, energetic, and innovative, the Netroots turned on the Democratic Party, criticizing its timidity in the face of Republican power and organizing primary challenges to Democrats, such as Lieberman, who supported the Iraq war. Another target was the mainstream media—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic—which members of the Netroots said had been too accommodating of the war against Saddam, too eager to prioritize objectivity over calling out conservative lies.
The mainstream media, facing this challenge to its credibility and stature, unilaterally disarmed. News and op-ed pages became more aggressively anti-Bush in tone and content. The bloggers got jobs at major outlets. One member of the Juicebox Mafia went to the Atlantic, another went to MSNBC, and Klein, after several years at the American Prospect, went to the Washington Post. There he created his own online section of the paper, “Wonkblog,” wrote a food column, sold a book (it has yet to be completed), and contributed freelance articles to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
It’s an impressive feat, what Klein accomplished, insinuating oneself so deeply into the media ecosystem at such an early age. He seems possessed of an unusual professional energy—the ability, not often found in writers, to wake up early, make numerous phone calls, send out innumerable emails, study the latest domestic-policy research, compose half a dozen blog posts, appear twice on MSNBC, and start that review Bob Silvers wants by Friday of the latest case against the filibuster, all before lunch. He has a cheerful demeanor, is a clear writer when he’s not explaining his new venture, and for several years now has avoided making ad hominem attacks. Acerbic and cutting as an outsider, Klein adapted easily to the genial and cool culture of insiders.
What Klein provides his readers is reassurance. He identified and exploited the liberal obsession with data, social science, and empirical findings that just happen to prove what liberals already suspected was true. His explanations of policy and economics buttress liberal feelings of intellectual superiority by reducing complex phenomena into easily digestible Democratic nuggets. There is a segment on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, for example, called “The Ezra Klein Challenge,” in which Klein tries to summarize an abstruse topic—the bond market, say—in less than two minutes. The point of the game is not actually to convey a sophisticated understanding of the topic at hand, but to remind the audience how clever and intelligent Klein is, and thus how clever and intelligent they are for watching him.
And now, having molded established institutions such as the Washington Post and the Democratic Party into his image, Klein is moving on. Like Caesar and the legions, he and the Netroots came, saw, and conquered. As one of the Gauls, I am disappointed in the outcome, but I can’t help being impressed by the achievement. Ezra Klein is the representative man-child of the new media age.