"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Vox, Vix.com, FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight.com, Jay Rosen, view from nowhere, Barack Obama, New York Magazine, Lee Atwater, Race, data journalism, explain the news, Peggy Noonan, george will, CNN, The New York Times, Paul Krugman, Media News, News, Politics News
During his speech honoring the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library this week, President Obama touched on one of his favorite themes, the nature of social progress — or, as he likes to call it, history. “[W]e are here today because we know we cannot be complacent,” Obama said. “For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways. And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens.” I’ve always considered Obama’s skepticism of the conventional narrative of progress — that things are, as Paul McCartney once sang, getting better all the time — to be one of his most appealing intellectual traits, a testament to his ability to, at his best, reject both despair and blind optimism and to understand that justice is not a given and positive change is not guaranteed. Conservatives, of course, ridiculed the line; children of the ever-cheery Ronald Reagan that they are, ambiguity and nuance is not really their thing.
In that moment, Obama was speaking about political progress and social change. But the insight can be extended well beyond the realm of civil rights and electoral politics. Ask someone who was young in the late ’70s, when punk rock supposedly forever vanquished disco, what they think of “Get Lucky”; or how about someone who thought they’d survived the “mom jeans” trend in the 1990s only to see them dotting college campuses once again, less than 20 years later. Or, to pick an example considerably less sexy than Daft Punk and fashion, look at the recent moves of three of the political press’ most influential writers: Ezra Klein, Nate Silver and Jonathan Chait.
These three men aren’t rolling back civil rights or bringing back the Bee Gees, but they’re doing something almost as bad: Whether they know it or not, they’re bringing back what media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen has famously called “the view from nowhere,” an awful tic of American journalism that I believed, apparently in error, most smart and thoughtful reporters had abandoned after the blogosphere shook up the industry some 10-plus years ago.
Before detailing these three leading lights’ recent sins, however, let’s take a brief moment to describe the view from nowhere and explain why it’s pernicious and undeserving of rehabilitation. Probably no one has devised a better definition of the phenomenon than Rosen, who describes it as “a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer.” According to Rosen, the view from nowhere “places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial.’” As Rosen himself will grant, this inclination to be “objective” is not always bad. Indeed, journalism is impossible if its practitioners don’t acknowledge the existence of at least some kind of baseline objective reality. But the view from nowhere is more often a self-flattering and ass-covering gimmick, one that is intended to protect the journalist from receiving criticism for partiality but often leaves the reader less informed as a result. Paul Krugman has a famous joke headline about the view from nowhere, one that’s only a slight exaggeration of the practice at its worst: “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”
When the blogosphere was at its most influential and least co-opted, around 10 years ago, an attack on the view from nowhere was one of its greatest and most disruptive critiques. As bloggers rightly pointed out, establishment journalists’ claims to be able to discern the unbiased, objective reality of any political dispute — which invariably turned out to be the midway point between the two extremes — was patent nonsense. Like any other social group, elite journalists had their unconscious biases and unstated assumptions. Figures like former New York Times editor Bill Keller or former Associated Press Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier could tell themselves that their preference for reducing the deficit by cutting Social Security and raising taxes was untarnished by ideology — but that didn’t make it so. Reporters at prestige outlets like the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal could assume that because none of their friends or sources were globalization skeptics, no one took protectionist trade policy seriously. But the millions of Americans who voted for Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s would beg to differ.
And while it inspired gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from elite journalists more comfortable with the old guard, the ascension of “partisan” media like Fox News, the Huffington Post, “lean forward”-era MSNBC and group blogs on the left (Daily Kos) and right (RedState) was ultimately a good thing. There were drawbacks to ideological news sources, sure; but even if the range of stories covered by a lefty blog was more circumscribed than what you might find at CNN.com, readers could have more of a sense of the biases undergirding any given news source’s reporting and could apply grains of salt accordingly. They wouldn’t have to wonder if a glowing profile of Noam Chomsky gave short shrift to his critics, because they could note the political orientation of the news provider, and get further information from its opposite, before forming their own opinion. It’s not a perfect model, by any means, but it has one huge advantage over the previous standard: It’s honest.
For a while now, this new, more realistic appreciation of every journalist’s limited ability to transcend her own subjectivity was the new conventional wisdom. There were always dissenters and holdouts, to be sure; but the smartest writers on both the left and the right seemed to have internalized this new way of thinking. So imagine my surprise and even dismay when I found out that Ezra Klein — one of the many journalists who built a successful career by coming out of the blogosphere and tweaking old media for its faux-objective habits — began telling people that his much-anticipated new website’s goal would be to “explain the news” to readers. And imagine my disappointment when the site, which came to be known as Vox, had an inaugural post, a self-explainer of sorts, that pronounced that its “end goal” wasn’t “telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened,” but rather to “mak[e] sure you understand what just happened.” Suddenly Klein, the guy who cut his teeth at the American Prospect, was telling readers he could make them “understand what just happened” without “telling you … how we feel about what just happened.” (I should note that Klein has previously disavowed liberalism, telling the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, “I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do.” Liberals, you see, don’t care for facts.)
Somewhat encouragingly, Klein’s lead-off big piece for Vox was a story about “how politics makes us stupid” that focused on yet more research showing that smart, highly informed people were in fact often more rather than less likely to let their fundamental values and beliefs change the way they interpreted new information. By choosing to get things started with a piece about the inescapable nature of subjectivity, Klein seemed to be making a subtle recognition that no one can “explain the news” without having their own biases color their explanation. Vox just wrapped up its first week ever, though — and there are examples of pieces that both do and don’t embrace the view from nowhere — so only time will tell whether Klein and company understand that we’re all, in Klein’s extremely loaded choice of words, a little “stupid.”
Considerably less encouraging, although far less surprising, has been the new version of FiveThirtyEight, data whiz Nate Silver’s ESPN-backed revamp of what used to be a mainly politics-focused prediction site into a more sweeping general interest stop to learn about the world from what Silver calls the “data journalism” perspective. In a very long manifesto that served as the site’s formal introduction, Silver outlines where he sees flaws in modern journalism practice and why he believes a more data-centric approach is needed in the market. Much of his criticism is fair and some of it is absolutely true (journalists, this one included, are disproportionately innumerate; and his knocks on Peggy Noonan and George Will are spot-on). But while Silver correctly notes that “objectivity” as it’s understood in some newsrooms — such as his former haunt, the New York Times — is “often taken to be synonymous with neutrality or nonpartisanship,” he mistakenly concludes that the biggest problem with the model is simply a lack of statistical analysis. “The journalistic notion of objectivity, however flawed,” he writes, “at least creates some standard by which facts are introduced and presented to readers.” In other words, say what you want about the view from nowhere — at least it’s an ethos.
FiveThirtyEight has been poorly received, at least among journalists (hardly a surprise, considering Silver has spent much of the past two years saying how dumb he thinks many reporters are), more for the sin of being boring than for flaws in its analytic model. But that doesn’t mean the flaws aren’t there. Its lead climate reporter, for example, has been the target of a furious campaign of criticism from other journalists in the field, many of whom say he presents data in a manipulative and misleading way in order to play the role of contrarian within the climate change-believing community. The writer in question, Roger Pielke Jr., is technically a freelancer for FiveThirtyEight, but his shoddy work reflects on the entire site, of course, as do his threats to take legal action against his critics. The line can be used glibly, as an excuse for a kind of anti-intellectual obstinacy, but the Pielke Jr. experience brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous quote that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics.” The view from nowhere is no less problematic when it’s festooned with numbers.
Yet for all of Vox and FiveThirtyEight’s early struggles, the person who has given us the best recent example of the view from nowhere’s pitfalls is Jonathan Chait, a political analyst who’s a bit older than Silver and Klein but who still came to prominence as a blogger, first with the left-ish New Republic and then with New York magazine. My politics are and always have been to the left of Chait’s, but until recently he’s been a writer who seemed quite comfortable acknowledging himself as a member of the center-left who understood that good analysis of politics and policy can never be disentangled from overarching and non-empirical beliefs. It appears I thought too much of him, however, because his most recent work — a cover story on the role race plays in American politics during the Obama era — is in many ways the ultimate embodiment of everything that’s wrong with view from nowhere-styled journalism.
Chait’s argument is a bit complicated and, going by defenses he’s mounted both on his blog and on Twitter, not intended to be read as an analysis of race in modern America but rather the way political partisans talk about race in modern America. This strikes me as an extremely played-out and uninteresting topic to write a long essay in one of America’s most-respected magazines about — which may explain why the headline and the subhead of the piece imply it’s about America and race, not Fox News and MSNBC — but maybe people who are less immersed in the daily political squabbling of the Obama presidency than I will find it to be of interest. (Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has written a definitive takedown of the piece here, and the response from Salon’s Joan Walsh is well worth reading, too.) But rather than get into all of the problems with Chait’s false equivalence between liberals’ sometimes knee-jerk cries of racism and conservatives’ long-standing and enduring reliance on white resentment as a political tool, I’ll just point out that nearly everything wrong with the article can be explained by Chait’s curious and unfortunate habit of presenting himself as the only reasonable man in the room. Or, to put it differently, his implication that he’s best able to judge competing claims of racial demagoguery because he holds the view from nowhere.
This conceit is baked into the entire piece, but it’s most obvious when Chait writes about Lee Atwater’s infamous quote about how conservative politicians went from shouting disgusting racial slurs in the 1950s to abstract talk of tax cuts in the 1980s not because they realized white supremacy was wrong but because they knew that changing social norms would make running a winning campaign on explicit racism impossible. Liberals sometimes lean a bit too much on the Atwater quote; it’s becoming a bit of a cliché to see it in a lefty’s treatise on conservative racism; but it’s widely passed around not only because it’s damning to hear one of the chief GOP operatives of his time cop to relying on racism to win votes but also because it explains the way racial resentment has been subsumed into right-wing economics. Chait mostly affirms such an interpretation of Atwater’s remarks, and yet, because he’s writing a piece from high on the mountaintop, intended to explain to those blinded by ideology on both sides what’s really going on, he ends up writing one of the most regrettable couple of sentences I’ve ever read. “Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be,” he says, “it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.”
This is a straw man of the highest order. No serious commentator has or would say that tax cuts are, ipso facto, racist. If President Obama were to propose a big tax cut on everyone making less than $25,000 a year — perhaps by replacing the payroll tax for them with a larger payroll tax on high-earners — I seriously doubt anyone would say such a plan was racist (and, actually, if anyone were to do so, the chances are better that it’d be a conservative than a liberal). What’s more, not only is Chait’s argument fallacious in this instance, but because of the central role his estimation of the liberal point-of-view plays in his essay’s overall framework, this straw man undermines the piece entire. And it’s just so, so unnecessary. Throughout the piece, Chait walks up to the very edge of endorsing the liberal view; but because to do so would make it easy for readers so inclined to dismiss him as “biased,” his fealty to the view from nowhere forces him into logical dead-ends. Chait could simply own up to his own prejudices instead of pretending to be some neutral arbiter over what is a profoundly fraught and complicated discussion, but the view from nowhere won’t allow it.
In the end, what Chait’s essay shows more than anything else is the way the view from nowhere not only leads to sloppy thinking but actually leaves the reader less informed than she would be had she simply read an unapologetically ideological source or even, in some cases, nothing at all. A reader who walks away from an article about race in America under the impression that hearing a dogwhistle in the phrase “food stamp president” is just as unfounded as saying people only voted for Obama out of white guilt is a reader who understands the issue less than she did before. A pose of nonpartisanship may be better for one’s career than acknowledging upfront one’s biases; it certainly makes the road to a plum spot at the New York Times or on CNN less rocky. But it’s not only a disservice to readers but, at its worst, a betrayal of journalism’s very purpose. I thought this was a point that by now did not need repeating — but as the president says, “history can travel backwards,” too.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)