Yesterday I had the good fortune of meeting a very wise and distinguished scholar and sitting with her for a spell. The following is how one conversation ended and how it might have continued.
Me: There is a young writer I had been following whose career has recently taken off, but it seems to me to have been for the worse. She was an excellent and careful writer within her area of expertise, but now all she does is churn out hit piece after hit piece, and it is clear from the content of those pieces that she has not bothered to read much of anything by the people she attacks.
Her: Her employer has taken a drastic turn for the worse. I don’t see how it can survive.
Me: It will be worse if it does survive. A writer like her needs mentors. Experienced people with principles who will not let her print a word without doing her due diligence. Instead they’re bringing out the worst in her, nurturing a mediocre partisan crowd-pleaser.
Her: You’re right that a good environment is needed. I only ever had one article published by her employer, years ago, and the editing was fantastic. They made me work for it, let me tell you. The fact-checker, who was excellent, went on to get a PhD.
Me: She definitely does not have that. As far as I can tell most of the other people there aren’t much older than she is, and what they want is exactly what she delivers: pieces that partisans love, and opponents love to hate.
Her: That is a shame.
Me: And the Internet, which can be such a wonder, and is how I even know of her in the first place, has made things much, much worse for her. These pieces she writes, they invite the worst from the groups she targets. And so, as is all too common, the very worst, scum-sucking juveniles from those groups go after her and say the vilest stuff, not just insults, but death and rape threats, that sort of thing. Truly disgusting. And in doing so, they make her feel that she has been righteous from the beginning. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle and I think it’s very unlikely she’ll get out of it any time soon.
Her: It used to be that a young writer started at a paper and they were kept under the watchful eye of an old, experienced editor. This editor held them to a high standard, even if they had the most boring beat—which the new ones always did. But they learned!
Me: On the other hand I think there’s a tension here, and it gets to the heart of the story of the Great Enrichment. There’s two ways to look at that old news room. From one perspective, it is a place where apprentices are introduced to a craft by experienced practitioners. From another perspective, it is a place where the old are gatekeepers to the young and impose their way on them, as well as on the industry.
Her: Like the old craft and merchant guilds in Europe.
Her: We’re definitely being too indulgent in golden age thinking. Yellow journalism has a history as long as journalism itself; from a certain point of view, longer.
Me: That’s always been my belief. I’ve never thought that journalism or news or what have you was in decline, because I honestly never thought the old system had much to recommend it.
Her: I think that’s a little too harsh to the old system. It produced a lot of writers and thinkers of quality.
Me: But it also seems hard to believe that we’re worse off now because of lowered barriers to entry.
Her: Well, think like an economist for a moment. Lowered barriers to entry make it possible for cheap, low quality competition to come in.
Me: It also makes high quality competition able to enter the market that might have been excluded because of the higher barriers. When Sam Hammond and I had a similar conversation, he pointed out that William F. Buckley was only 30 years old when he started National Review. Though Josiah Neeley quickly pointed out that Buckley also hired a lot of seasoned veterans, unlike the case with the young journalist we discussed.
Her: There’s something to Sam’s example though. The media industry has never stood still; it was changing in Buckley’s time. It doesn’t seem as dramatic now, compared to the Internet. But it was a big part of what was going on.
Me: All this aside, I still wonder about the narrative of apprenticeship as opposed to the narrative of liberation. Doesn’t the young journalist I mentioned show how the latter erodes the quality achieved by the former?
Her: The name of the game is experimentation. And the old quality rarely goes away. The last crowd at her employer were thrown out, but I’m sure they’ll turn up and some young writers will benefit from their experience somewhere. Meanwhile, maybe that institution has been gutted, but a thousand experiments crop up every day. The blog you and your friends created is a part of that.
Me: A very small and very obscure part.
Her: The old knowledge and skills are largely preserved, while new knowledge and new skills—and entirely new practices—are generated all the time. This is the strength of the liberated, dignified system of market-tested betterment.
Me: You know I agree with you. It’s just a shame to see someone so promising fall through the cracks.
Her: Of course. But you can only expect so much. We’re fallen creatures, and even the most virtuous of us are liable to stumble along the path.
Me: I’ll hold out hope that this is just a stumble, then.
At this point—long before it in fact—I had been monopolizing her time for too long, and we stood up to mingle with the group.