Live blogging David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times

OK, so perhaps it isn’t exactly live blogging. I arrived at SCI 115 with about half of the Intro to Digital Communication class (which rocks, btw! I was so pleased with the turnout and the impression that this army of laptop-toting bloggers made in taking up the back row of the room, computers fired up and ready to roll).

I opened up my laptop and immediately discovered that my space bar had been rendered inoperable by fingers much younger than mine (my kids sometimes borrow the unit for school). Oye vez. In my fumbling to quickly repair the computer whilst Dr. Frank introduced Mr. Brooks, I’m sure I annoyed the otherwise placid Dr. Lawler sitting next to me while shipwrecking my part in the live blog experiment. Fortunately, Chelsea, Laura Price, Leigh, Stephen, Hannah, Katie, Ashton and Rebekah had my back. Hannah I am doubly proud of — she live blogged the event for Hometown Headlines (a Patty for her!). She did a great job providing a running account of the session and reacting to both Brooks’s style and content.

So, from memory, I do want to pass along a few takeaways from the Q&A, which lasted about 50 minutes in a classroom half-filled with about 40 students and a few odd faculty (“odd” in both senses). Two of the early questions — Caitlin Carroll‘s and mine (no relation) — regarded John McCain’s viability as a presidential candidate, specifically in the area of foreign policy. I was surprised to hear of Brooks’s long-time friendship with McCain — 15 years — and, therefore, an access and intimacy with the real McCain that gives Brooks a unique credibility on the subject.

In short, Brooks offered as bona fides for McCain’s candidacy the senator’s mastery of foreign policy in general and the Iraq problem specifically, his rapport with world leaders, people he — unlike Bush — takes seriously, the diversity of ideology and perspective among his advisors (also a significant departure from Bush) and the fact that McCain, unlike Bush, had a plan for Iraq after the military offensive. That said, Brooks, a self-proclaimed “progressive conservative,” said he puts his odds-on bet on Obama, a gifted orator who embodies the change most of America so desperately wants (80% by a recent poll cited by Brooks).

THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM

Our speaker had several interesting observations on journalism, though I think it’s important to point out that Brooks’s role is a peculiar type of journalism. He is a columnist, and a conservative one for an otherwise left-of-center newspaper, the New York Times. He is not a reporter, or at least not primarily so. His observations, therefore, do not come from inside the newsroom, any newsroom. Opinion writers live and work outside the newsroom, which is a place dedicated to rooting opinion out of its product. This is not to disparage him, but to qualify his remarks.

Rebekah asked a question we’ve been wrestling with all semester, which is, “When can blogging be considered journalism? What distinguishes journalistic blogging from all the rest?” Brooks immediately identified the key criterion or quality of journalism in blogs or anywhere else >> original reporting. Interestingly, Brooks’s form of journalism — column writing — is, as I mentioned, a hybrid of journalism and pure opinion. He does do original reporting; he told us he talks with at least three politicians or officials (sources) each and every day, to keep a steady stream of new information flowing into his commentary. But he uses that reporting to inform what is opinion, perspective, his unique take on politics and American life.

He then acknowledged that there is a lot of good commentary in blogs, including some written by 12-year-olds, and of course a lot of crap. I liked his description of blogs as having joined in “the national conversation.” We will return to this notion of journalism as conversation in class, and very soon.

Valuable was Brooks’s description of himself, a print journalist, as someone in “the whaling business.” My digital communication students should have found this doubly interesting because of our discussions in class describing the newspaper business as a whale, or in other words a large, slow-moving mammal in and around and by which an entire ecosystem depends (the little fishes, plankton, barnacles and whatall — blogs are the barnacles in this metaphor). His point is that his medium is about to become extinct, and he was candid in admitting that he knows little of how it will all shake out other than to say that people will still need, want and value good journalism.

An interesting media-related distinction Brooks made in responding to Rebekah’s question is how different his persona or ethos is depending on the medium. On TV, he’s much more free in his oratory, in what he says and in the claims he makes. Talk Radio is “no holds barred,” while in print, “I feel it is more permanent,” and, therefore, worth more time to get it just right.

BREAKING INTO JOURNALISM

Laura Price asked for advice for students looking to break into journalism, specifically editing. Brooks’s answer here was really interesting. In his very colorful (and accurate) metaphor, writers are the narcissistic little children who have to be coddled and cared for, coaxed into sitting in a circle and playing together. Editors are the nursery workers doing the coddling and coaxing. Being an editor takes real people skills, in other words. “I found I didn’t care for it,” he said. “As a writer, you really get involved with a subject. As an editor, the stories just sort of pass through you. I couldn’t remember the stories from week to week.” (Brooks was an editor with William F. Buckley’s National Review.) Earlier he called students who go into journalism “suckers,” presumably because of the typically low pay and long hours.

In expanding his premise, he described the Times as a place with 500 reporters (WOW!) who all are gunning to make page 1. If they think they are going page 1 and don’t, they cry. (This, by the way, explains why otherwise intelligent people work long hours for low pay — byline envy. Well, this and a hunger for truth, accountability in government and a vibrant democracy.)

I BEG TO DIFFER

I’ve read Brooks for years and years, and I find that his take on politics lines up very much with my own. In the Q&A, I really only disagreed with him on one point. Someone sitting next to Stephen, I think it was Blair, asked if negativity is indemic to journalism? Brooks answered that journalists want to prove that they’re smarter than the people they are interviewing or covering and that this competition breeds negativity. Criticism is viewed by most readers as “smart,” or at least smarter than a piece that isn’t critical.

I disagree, though the description might fit journalists who cover politics; I know little about this breed. But to apply this description to journalists in general I think is wildly inaccurate. The negativity and cynicism that some find part and parcel of a lot of journalism in my view comes from the mission of journalism, which is to uncover truth, check power, hold government accountable and serve the public interest.

This means asking really hard questions, questioning authority, demanding evidence and documentation, and being cynical enough to even imagine how power might obfuscate, manipulate, deceive and evade. To catch a thief, you have to think like one, or something along those lines. I know that in my 15 years as a reporter, I can’t remember a time when I was trying to “outsmart” a source. This motive to me is entirely alien. (Gunning for page 1, now that is totally accurate, as is crying when I didn’t get it!)

That’s plenty for now. I encourage readers to compare my reactions and commentary to those of my very sharp digital communication students. I have Hannah’s URL because it’s posted at HometownHeadlines. Start there; Hannah did a great job distilling the session. I’ll post those of my other students when I get them tomorrow.

We live blogged as a class as an experiment, to get first-hand experience with the demands of keying in words while listening to the speaker while thinking of questions while hitting “publish” while hoping it works while trying not to annoy anyone in the room with all the key clacking. It’s quite a rush. I hope we gained an appreciation for the strengths and limitations of this format and style of reporting, and again I was so pleased with the class turnout. It has been a great day for this journalism prof!

3 Responses to Live blogging David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times

  1. Leigh Harris has sent along her URL, for her thoughts on the David Brooks Q&A.

    http://ramblings-lharris.blogspot.com

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