(updated below - Update II)
NPR has a thorough examination today of the controversy surrounding Jeffrey Rosen's New Republic anonymity-driven smear attack on Sonia Sotomayor's intellect and character. The audio news report, for which I was interviewed at length, will be posted online at NPR later today.
The one trait that defines establishment pundits more than any other is a pathological inability ever to accept blame or admit error. That's because they work in the most accountability-free profession in America, where people like Bill Kristol (with a record like this) and Jeffrey Goldberg (with a record like this) get promoted despite no retractions or remorse, and establishment media stars in general can pretend that they bear no responsibility for enabling the abuses and crimes of the Bush years. And all of that is simply an extension of the prevailing ethos that political, financial and media elites should be immunized from accountability in general -- which is why the Beltway elite class collectively scoffs at the very notion that there should be any consequences at all when our highest political leaders commit the most serious crimes.
In that grand accountability-free tradition, Rosen blames everyone but himself for what he did, but then melodramatically announces that he will no longer "blog" -- as though it's the medium, rather than his own standards and choices, that are to blame for what he did:
But its author, the noted legal writer Jeffrey Rosen, says he's been burned by the episode, too — enough that he's swearing off blogging for good.
"It was a short Web piece," Rosen says now, sounding a little shell-shocked. "I basically thought of it as a blog entry". . . .
Above all, Rosen says he's drawn a lesson from how his initial essay was treated by people of both ideological stripes. He won't be blogging any more. He wants to spend more time with the material before hitting "send."
How absurd is that? Let us count the ways. First, even when the most establishment "journalists" such as Rosen get caught engaging in patently irresponsible behavior, they still find a way to blame blogs rather than themselves (I thought I was just blogging, and reckless gossip is what bloggers do). It wasn't blogs that "reported" Saddam Hussein's acquisition of scary aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons or that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks; it wasn't blogs that glorified Jessica Lynch's nonexistent heroic firefight with Iraqi goons; it wasn't blogs that turned John Edwards into The Breck Girl and John Kerry into a "French-looking" weakling; and it wasn't blogs that presented retired military generals who were participating in a Pentagon propaganda program and saddled with countless undisclosed conflicts as "independent analysts."
Moreover, the excuse that Rosen was merely "blogging" is, just as a factual matter, so obviously false: his Sotomayor piece wasn't on any of the TNR "blogs" (as happens when Rosen is actually "blogging") but instead was presented as a stand-alone article; it was, as NPR notes, "more than 1,000 words"; and TNR touted it as "the first in a series of reports by TNR legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen about the strengths and weaknesses of the leading candidates." Does that remotely sound as though they intended it to be a "mere blog post"?
Most important, countless people who write blogs every day -- all year long -- give ample thought before "hitting the send button," and do so without descending into irresponsible gossip-mongering and what The New York Times Editorial Page called "character assassination" and "uninformed and mean-spirited chattering" driven by "anonymous detractors" that was "beyond the pale of reasonable debate." Despite his efforts to blame "blogging" for what he did, Rosen didn't use journalistically reckless methods to smear Sotomayor's intellect because of some inherent attribute of the medium. Instead, he did that because -- as Andrew Sullivan noted in defending Rosen from the charge that he did nothing but pass on "gossip" -- that's how the establishment media typically functions: "background reporting from people with various axes to grind, i.e. standard Washington reporting."
Rosen can give up blogging and every other perceived vice all he wants. But until he renounces the defining practices of what Sullivan calls "standard Washington reporting" -- indiscriminately granting anonymity and thus producing accountability-free claims -- he'll still be the same Jeffrey Rosen producing the same sorts of reckless pieces. The effort to depict Sonia Sotomayor as "dumb and obnoxious" was notable only because of how extreme it was. Otherwise, there was nothing unusual about it. To the contrary, as Sullivan says, the unreliable, misleading methods it used were perfectly common for
blogging Washington "reporting."
* * * * *
Even as Rosen swears off blogging as a remedy for his hit piece, TNR itself -- in the form of Jonathan Chait -- continues to defend what he did as "reporting" (as I recently noted, this Twitter commentator astutely observed that when establishment media figures say "my reporting," what "they mean is: 'This is what I was told to repeat'"). John Cole offers the definitive reply to Chait's defense of Rosen; Cole's reply is recommended highly.
Isn't it amazing -- and extremely revealing -- that even as recently as five years ago, the Jeffrey Rosens and TNRs of the world could do things like this, and routinely did them, without any meaningful response or check of any kind? Is it really hard to see why so many establishment media figures harbor such disdain for "bloggers" and blame them for most of their woes? If you enjoyed a monopoly on controlling political discourse and were free to spout the most irresponsible claims without any consequence, wouldn't you also deeply resent whatever it was or whoever it was that put an end to that?
UPDATE: As this blogger -- a fan of Jonathan Chait -- expertly documents, Chait's central claim in defending Rosen is deeply misleading, at best. Chait claims that what Rosen did was "reporting," not mere gossip, because Rosen "spoke first-hand with several of Sotomayor's former clerks, who provided a mixed picture."
That just isn't what happened -- according to Rosen himself. Instead, the few clerks of Sotomayor's with whom he spoke "sing her praises as a demanding but thoughtful boss whose personal experiences have given her a commitment to legal fairness." The chatter that she was dumb and obnoxious came not from her clerks but from others (Rosen: "nearly all of them former law clerks for other judges on the Second Circuit or former federal prosecutors in New York"). That's precisely what made it mere office gossip masquerading as "reporting." Chait's claim about what Rosen did is false by Rosen's own account, and the fact that he and TNR continue to defend it says much about how they -- and the Beltway media generally -- understand "reporting."
UPDATE II: The NPR audio report on the Rosen/TNR controversy -- which contains commentary from both Rosen and me -- can now be heard here. NPR says Rosen's article is "still driving the debate over [Sotomayor's] merits" -- and they call the controversy "a case-study of how the echo chamber of Washington really works." That's exactly what it is.