Editor's Desk

Great Moments in Journalism

Lately the pickings have been slim. At Slate they're bound to get slimmer.

By 4.30.02

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Summer is still a ways away, though you wouldn't know it from the lazy and hazy thinking you can come across these days. In the latest New Republic, a letter to the editor from a chaired professor at Columbia University criticizes the magazine for "practicing the kind of 'If there's smoke, there's fire' journalism previously associated with David Brock and The American Spectator.'" In a similar vein, the staunchly Democratic American Prospect's online publication declared last week that it is "incumbent upon" conservatives who claim Brock is now a liar to admit "that they were wrong to accept Brock's reporting about Bill Clinton, Anita Hill, etc." On Monday the same site expressed that thought in unadulterated form, noting that it's been "pitching a fit about conservatives who attack David Brock for lying without also rejecting his previous fact free reporting on various Clinton scandals for The American Spectator."

Anyone who could characterize that previous reporting as being "fact free" obviously hasn't read a word of it. The young men and women who run the American Prospect Online were perhaps still in high school when that reporting appeared. But that's no excuse for not doing one's homework today. If only the writer of those passages had taken the time, she'd see that all of Brock's Spectator reports were richly detailed, built on a factual base that remains unchallenged. If those stories were attacked at the time, it was because of their implications. Simon and Schuster would not have paid Brock a million dollars if his facts weren't iron clad.

The current flap has given rise to one great misunderstanding: That because Brock, for political reasons best known to himself and Sidney Blumenthal, now rejects the fruits of his earlier labors, those labors are today of no value. As anyone who'll trouble himself to check the record will quickly notice, there's a clear dividing point in Brock's writing. So long as he wasn't a part of his story -- i.e., so long as he played the professional reporter coolly laying out the factual evidence -- his work remained impressive. By 1997, after suffering what he felt was personal and professional humiliation when his Hillary biography failed to catch fire, the subject of his work increasingly became himself. The more he talked about himself, the more obviously tendentious and hollow his writing became.

His books offer a lasting record: the first two were heavily footnote, annotated, and indexed, as well as fact-checked and vetted with scrupulous care; the current one contains not a single footnote; it has no index; and it is almost entirely based on Brock's shaky (or alleged) recall. There no evidence it was even fact-checked. The first mention of me alone (p. 85), contains three errors of fact.

And you know what? Brock couldn't care less. Whenever he's been caught out, he's fallen back on Clintonian evasion and brazen spin, because he knows that in the circles he now travels in accuracy and a modicum of honesty are the last things anyone expects. Brock today is interesting only because he once was interesting.

The American Prospect Online's comments were in reaction to the most recent mini-tempest involving Brock: his appearance last Thursday on "Crossfire," where he gave the false impression (certainly reinforced by co-host James Carville) that Fox News was afraid to have him on to discuss his book. To observers like Andrew Sullivan, the Media Research Center, and National Review Online, the evidence again suggested that Brock was lying, since one of his first appearances after his current book came out was on a Fox afternoon program. The American Prospect Online initially also thought he had lied, but then pulled back when sonar listening devices once owned by Oliver Stone apparently detected a qualifying reference by Brock to Fox "prime time" amid some "Crossfire" crosstalk. In other words, Brock had an out. Such are the great issues of our day.

How fortunate that they are not limited to conservative-liberal rivalries. Yesterday it was reported that the great two-man race to succeed Michael Kinsley as editor of Slate.com had ended, and that the winner was Jacob Weisberg. The stock market promptly rose to pre-post-bubble heights, and the fellow Weisberg had defeated, Jack Shafer, learned he was slated to be transferred to the web magazine's Tajikistan bureau.

Now if there had been no JFK and we could rest confident that life is fair, there would have been no Weisberg-Shafer contest. But this was one of those deals where the fix was in from the start. Weisberg is a good conventional corporate liberal, but with about as much sparkle and unpredictability as a year-old open can of Coke. Shafer, by contrast, as I'm sure anyone who has ever worked with him will tell you, is brilliant, original, independent, and probably more than a little impossible at times -- but the results, the results! Left to his own devices he'd shake up the gray-flannel suited journalistic world. Microsoft-owned Slate obviously couldn't dare make an interesting choice.

And so we were left with such valedictory comments to yesterday's New York Times as this one from Kinsley, who said of Weisberg that "Many of the more successful editorial ideas on Slate are his -- he came up with the Today's Papers feature, for instance -- and he thinks very Webby. He has a gift for this." That's it? Kinsley's successor's major claim to fame is that he suggested their webzine run a daily review of the morning papers? How very webby of him. Weisberg's own remarks weren't any better. Noting Slate's "strong orientation toward politics, policy and economics, and some very good arts and cultural comment," he added that he'd "like to increase the quantity of cultural comment with more music, perhaps a TV column and more life-style stuff." Life-style stuff? Shafer would beat the stuffing out of a lazy comment like that. But high time someone recognized the crying need for another TV column. Never can have enough meaning in our lives.

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.