The Social Journalist

August 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Henry Tischler, sociologist and a friend of mine, took this picture at the Aspen Ideas Festival  last month – a gathering of hundreds of heavy hitters, many you haven’t heard of , many you have.  (No, Henry was not on the program.)

David Brooks (on the right) having breakfast with Alan Greenspan.

When Henry showed me the photo, I thought of what I.F. Stone once said.
Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.

I.F. Stone was the classic outsider journalist.  He had no inside sources.  Nobody, Democrat or Republican, was leaking ideas or information to him.  Instead, he relied on official government information – documents, Congressional testimony – and on press reports to find out what was really going on. 

Stone didn’t have to worry about offending people.  He didn’t have to worry about being played by important people in government.   He didn’t have to worry that his relationships with the people he wrote about were influencing what he wrote and what he thought.*

David Brooks is a journalist who talks regularly to politicians and FED chairmen.  He sees them at dinner parties and at breakfasts in the Rockies.  Does that affect how tough he is on them in print?  Here’s the opening of a Brooks column of a week ago.
Very few people have the luxury of being freely obnoxious. Most people have to watch what they say for fear of offending their bosses and colleagues. Others resist saying anything that might make them unpopular. 
But, in every society, there are a few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern. Each morning they take their own abrasive urges out for parade. 

The rest of the column is about Donald Trump.  But Jonathan Chait at The New Republic  thinks that this opening is really how Brooks feels about his colleague Paul Krugman.  Regardless of who is in that obnoxious “very few people” category (Trump, Krugman, whoever), it seems clear that Brooks counts himself among “most people” –  the ones who have to fear offending both their colleagues and those with more power, the ones who can’t afford to be unpopular.  (Brooks was at Aspen to talk about his book The Social Animal.)

Does Brooks’s sociability affect how he writes about newsmakers?  Guess who wrote the following: 
Alan Greenspan continues his efforts to cement his reputation as the worst ex-Fed chairman in history. 

(Hint: it’s not Donald Trump.  Answer here.)

In fact, the only Brooks mention of Greenspan I could find in a quick Google search was a column suggesting that Greenspan might have had some “misperception,” but hey, as Brooks explains, we all make perceptual errors.  You can’t blame a guy for being human.

I haven’t read The Social Animal, but I would expect that Brooks discusses how our perceptions and judgments can be influenced by our social ties to others.  Or maybe not.

 * Stone’s independence was a virtue born of necessity.  He was a radical, a socialist.  In the fifties, amid the anti-communism phobia, nobody in Washington would be seen with him.   He could never question them directly.  The Sunday morning shows like “Meet the Press” no longer put him on their panels.


xrt3qj2e said...
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Anonymous said...

Brooks will many times play to people in positions of power. Just read the column he wrote on cable-gate. He instinctively sympathized with American bureaucrats, stating that the cables simply proved how hard they work (he also complained that the release of the cables would make diplomatic work in the future difficult).

Similarly, many of his centrist mantras (which are typically espoused during election cycles), tend to be outright silly and dull. During the 2008 elections, I remember Brooks stating at various times that he thought the country needed another Teddy Roosevelt. A cheap sound byte to garner praise and attention at beltway dinner parties, I assume.

His columns never acknowledge the role money plays in politics. He almost always frames things in terms of ideology (left vs. right), which is simplistic and naive. But, of course, that rarely offends.