Thursday, February 18, 2010

Me and the New Republic

We finally canceled our subscription to the New Republic. I'd like to contrast my relationship to TNR to two other magazines: The Atlantic, which I also canceled, and the New Yorker, which I've retained.

The Atlantic is a very good magazine, with a top-notch website and bloggers. But when the recession hit, I needed to cut back on frivolities, and I found that I was just not reading the Atlantic that much. Maybe a fifth or quarter of the issue. So out it went - but if my fortunes were better, I'd subscribe again because it's a quality product.

The New Yorker is both a quality product and an identity object. My family's been subscribing for decades, even through the execrable Tina Brown years, and it's part of how we see our life as public intellectuals. The writing is consistently superb - it's probably the finest source non-fiction around. They also employ fact-checkers, so you can actually trust what's between the covers. And they have cartoons.

Just a quick example of the New Yorker's excellence; last week's issue has an story about an international arms dealer, that you should read if you want to (a) know how accurate Hollywood action-thrillers are (e.g. the dealer, Monzer al-Kassar, is the son of a Syrian diplomat, buys weapons from a factory in Poland, lives in Spain, and uses third and fourth person proxies, in different countries, so to avoid violating flaccid international laws against arms trafficking; he's arrested in Spain in 1995 and after three main witnesses are compromised - somebody killed them or kidnapped their children - he's let free); (b) to know just how scary international intrigue is; and (c) read something you can trust, because as opposed to most books, magazines, and especially newspapers, everything in the article has been verified.

Anyway, what about the New Republic? Well, like the Atlantic, I found that I wasn't reading the magazine - or website - all that much. True, both magazines suffered from the end of the Bush era/2008 Election and the news-junky-dom that those terrible times created, but it's more than that. I found that I just couldn't trust what I was reading in TNR anymore. Here's why:
  1. Very Bad Reporters - Top of this list is the uber-hack James "T" Kirchick. I even asked TNR to change their editorial policy and put the authors of specific pieces at the beginning of the article rather than at the end - not only to avoid the worst of their reporters (more below) but specifically for Kirchick who is a serial fantasist, hysteric, and all-around worthless presence. James Woolcott, not usually a person I'd quote due to his persona as bilious cat queen, was spot on when defending Joe Klein in a spat with Kirchick, stating:
    "Kirchick is the Eddie Haskell of neoconservatives, a calculating little suck-up whose obsequious pieties drip like melted plastic. (To wit: "Reached for comment, Kirchick said 'McCain spent five years in a North Vietnamese torture camp. He doesn't need lessons in the horrors of war from the likes of Joe Klein.'") If Commentary made a lunch box, Kirchick is what you find packed inside, between a banana and a hand grenade. "
    There's a certain amount bathhouse politics in Woolcott's assessment, true, and my opposition to Kirchick isn't solely based on his idiot politics (gay republicans, like black republicans, are mystifying to me considering the GOP party platform is explicitly anti-gay and even more so implicitly anti-minority), but is focused on his journalistic crimes: he makes stuff up, distorts everything else, and his continued presence in TNR made me doubt the higher editorial purpose of the journal.

  2. Other bad reporters are there too, and I'd list them, but their names get confusing to me (there's like 11 Jonathans on staff) and the key is that some may get the facts right but when called on to editorialize - which is nearly all the time - their judgement/wisdom is abysmal. The mixing of editorialism and journalism is the next big issue:

  3. TNR Moved from News to Opinion - I never knew if a story could be considered journalism or an editorial. Almost every piece seemed to advocate a position and it was getting maddening. Not only do I want to read journalism from journalists - I get opinions from better people, thank you - but the opinions presented were often purposefully marginal and loopy; what has now been labeled 'Contrarianism.' I first noticed this in Slate - which is why I stopped reading them as well, about 3 years ago. Every Slate piece seemed to be angled to present an opposition to conventional wisdom, which thus meant that facts were twisted or obviated and crazy ideas were emphasized, just to be hip/catchy/shocking/whatever. Since it was clearly a marketing strategy rather than an intellectual one, I swiftly chucked the website from my reading. But then the same tone/goal seemed to spread all across the intertubes and eventually rested uneasily in TNR (see next).

  4. TNR Started to Champion 'Contrarianism' as an editorial policy - as stated above, Contrarianism (for how this is used by others, see this Economist piece) is a journalistic attitude of twisting a story's perspective to present a minority/marginal point of view. E.g. "eating cheese may lower cholesterol!" "Cheney says Obama is not a liberal!" "Spree Killers may eat too much cheese, are too liberal, says Cheney"). It's a terrible trend in journalism and it reeks of flop-sweat. This trend is especially sad given that the Obama administration is fighting gamely against the gnarled nihilistic nub of the GOP who have cynically contradicted everything the good-guys have been trying to do. But since TNR, Slate, and even the Washington Post (so I've been told), among others, are committed to contrarianism - the two intellectual tactics help each other. The GOP happily distorts facts and these journalists oblige with their own twists. It's hurting the country and I want no part of it.

  5. The Website became unusable - at one point, early in 2008, TNR's website was still a place I could go to find out breaking news in politics or what-have-you. Now, I have no idea how to use the dang thing - there's thirteen different blogs, each sharing front-page space, and it's just an addled mess.
All told, TNR had to go, and I don't see returning any time soon.

Update 1: When searching for good pics for this post, which I do after writing it, I found this story from Oct 2009 about others who hate Slate's contrariansism. Nice to know I'm not alone.

Update 2: Just had a blinding insight - contrarianism has existed on the internet for a while, but it's generally called being a 'concern troll.' While they're not exactly the same, the attitude is similar enough that I think the epithet fits.

First pic from here, second from here. Third pic comes from some dude's 4-chan pile and relates to update 2.

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