Raise Hell and Take Names
Last weekend, the New York Times published a sympathetic profile of longtime Trump confidante and former presidential adviser Hope Hicks. We know it was sympathetic because it described Hicks’s anguish over a decision whether to testify about Trump to Congress.
The story called that decision an “existential question”.
Twitter had fun with that. Twitter also had fun with the fact that the existential question was whether to obey the law. Hicks wasn’t entertaining an invitation; she was deciding whether to comply with a subpoena.
The fashion-shoot portrait accompanying the story didn’t help, either.
Much of the malicious glee was directed at the story’s writer, Maggie Haberman. Haberman’s one of those White House reporters with regular scoops on Oval Office palace intrigue; it was suggested that Hicks was one of her main anonymous sources, and the sympathetic story was returning the favor.
The weekend passed, the Times quietly changed the offending word to “crucial”, and the party moved on to the next outrage — until Tuesday, when Jonathan Chait published a vociferous defense of Haberman and her work.
“The progressive loathing of Haberman draws some of its force from the mistaken belief that straight news reporters should stand up to the president and call him out for his unfitness to hold office,” Chait wrote. “Some people who believe this fail to grasp the distinction between news gathering and opinion journalism.”
And on Twitter, the Blue Checkmarks came out to join Chait in his praise, proclaiming the unassailable virtue of Haberman’s work and deep misunderstanding of journalism itself.
At which point our head exploded.
Well, no, that’s just us being colorful about our state of mind at that moment. We know that, as a trained journalist, you can’t put that in a story; explosive noggins aren’t facts, absent an incendiary cause or vehicular collision.
We can, however, accurately report the phrase that came to mind:
Raise hell and take names.
It’s a phrase we hadn’t thought about in forever — or some forty years, take your pick. We learned it at the college newspaper, where we learned everything about journalism, including our deep passion for it. It was a real newspaper, too — an independent daily, not some school-funded project. (Our journalism degree was good for learning about libel law, but not much else.)
Raise hell and take names. Journalism wasn’t just a craft but a calling, the fulfillment of the ideal of the First Amendment. Journalism was the citizens’ representative in the halls of power. We could hold the bastards accountable for the crimes they were committing against the public.
It was great fun.
So, yeah, we know a thing about journalism. We know what you can and can’t print, what you can and can’t say. You seek the truth, but you can only run with the facts. If you’re going to nail the bastards to the wall, the nails must be sturdy.
We also know, especially, deeply, who the journalist is writing for: The Reader. Readers are actual people, living actual lives. They may only glance at your school-board story on their way to the sports section, but they’re out there, and they’re why you exist. Readers pay the rent. You’re providing them a service. All journalism is service journalism. If you’re not writing for The Reader, you’re jerking off.
Raise hell and take names. The Reader doesn’t have time to hang out in the halls of government all day, day after day. That’s your job. For them.
At least it should be.
We’ve been trying to get at this for a couple years now, the failure of national journalists to do their fucking jobs in the face of the kind of crisis the First Amendment was designed to counter.
Something happens when you reach that level of journalism — the national level, the prestigious level, the Times level. Your beat changes. Your sources change.
Your audience changes.
Who is Maggie Haberman writing for?
Who is the audience for a sympathetic Hope Hicks profile with a fashion shoot? Who out there cares about the personal anguish of a former White House staffer deciding whether to obey the law?
You know what? Not us.
Probably not you, either.
Our parents wouldn’t have given a shit.
Few souls west of the Mississippi, we’d imagine.
In fact, give us a map of the continental United States, and we’ll draw two circles encompassing the audience for that story, and many others like it: Manhattan, and Washington, D.C. These stories aren’t being written for us; they’re being written for the people they’re writing about. You, dear reader, are not The Reader. They are.
The New York Times is just a community newspaper for the elite, and they all like seeing their names in it.
This is by no means a fresh observation — we were talking about some form of this forty years ago at the college rag. Nor is it an observation without exception — the Times, the Post, the networks, they’re all capable of doing outstanding work when they put their minds to it. But then they slip back into the daily grind, writing for their real audience, whining that we just don’t get them, when in fact we do, all too well.
We don’t exist for them.
We are not the rich, the powerful, the connected. We do not walk the halls of power, as officeholder or observer. We rely on those who do to serve our interests and our needs. When the former don’t, we rely on the latter to tell us about it. And when the latter show more care for the emotional state of the powerful than the consequences for the ruled, we are in deep fucking trouble.
Raise hell and take names. We really haven’t thought about that phrase in forever. Journalism that doesn’t abide by it isn’t serving the citizens of a republic.