A Nasty Little Storm
How it can go in journalism today


Years ago, someone cracked, “There are two kinds of people in the world: people who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.” (I confess the cracker was me.) I have never liked the “two kinds” formulation. But I sometimes think there are two kinds of journalist in America today: those who write about other journalists, and those who write about the president, Congress, the Supreme Court, etc.

I’m amazed at how many writers spend their lives writing about other writers. Say the president makes some big announcement, or Congress passes some major act, or the Supreme Court hands down some important decision. If you’re an “old-fashioned” journalist, you’ll write about it. But then five other journalists will write about what you have written: dissecting it, distorting it, damning it . . .

Who wants to work like that? Many, it seems. Legions of people don’t care about what the president says or does; they just care about what Rush Limbaugh says about what the president says or does.

I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and I don’t surf the Web (although there are a few sites I regularly go to). It’s not that I’m opposed to these things; it’s that there are so few hours in the day. But I am vaguely aware of what’s being said, because people tell me. It gets around in various ways. No one is completely cocooned, I suppose. And I know that I come under attack now and then. It goes with the territory.

Occasionally, I’ll get an e-mail from some blogger on the left, and the e-mail will contain nothing but a link. The link will lead me to some slam he’s written about me. A day or two will go by, and he’ll e-mail again. This time, he’ll say, in effect, “Hey, don’t you see that I’ve slammed you? How come you’re not responding to me? What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you play?”

One time, I had Impromptus, my regular National Review Online column, up. This is kind of a grab-bag column, containing many and disparate items. This particular column ended with an item about golf. A reader wrote me with indignation: “So-and-so has been beating you like a mule for days, and you’re writing about golf? Come on, man, get in the game! Defend yourself!”

Thing was, I didn’t want to get in the game — not that one. I wanted to write about all the things I wanted to write about, including golf. And people are always trying to control your time, you know?

About ten years ago, a Solzhenitsyn son told me something about his father: He almost never answered his critics (who were numerous and fierce), and he didn’t even read them. He preferred to write The Red Wheel. “He could have written The Red Wheel,” said his son, “or he could have dealt with his critics. There wasn’t time to do both.”

One day, or week, he did read his critics, and he answered them, in one fell swoop. The answer appeared in that famous Russian exile journal, published in Paris. Can’t remember its name. Anyway, Solzhenitsyn bent to his critics that one time. Otherwise, he kept his shoulder to the wheel (so to speak), letting the world say what it would.

I’m not comparing myself to Solzhenitsyn, believe me: He was writing his epic novels, I’m writing my little journalistic ditties. I will say, however, that I know how he felt.

Let me tell you about an experience I had last week. I did my usual columns, reviews, and blogposts (no magazine piece). On Monday afternoon, a colleague appeared at my door. “You’ve stirred up controversy,” he said. Once upon a time, stirring up controversy was a good thing, in journalism — particularly in opinion journalism. But I could tell by my colleague’s tone, this was not a good thing. He said, “People are complaining about a post of yours.” “What do you mean, ‘people’?” “You know: people.” People out in the great Land of Comment.

I didn’t think anything of it. People are always complaining. And you should probably be happy they’re paying attention.

Let me interrupt my story to share a memory with you. Probably seven years ago, I made a mistake in a review — a recordings roundup, as I recall. I confused Mario del Monaco with Franco Corelli, or the other way around — I can’t remember! Still have them confused. And the whole, nutso operatic world went nuts. I said to someone working at the Met, “I didn’t think anyone was reading.” “Oh, they do,” he said.

Fifty reviews go by, not a word — and then, bam.

So, not long after that first colleague appeared at my door, another colleague sent me an e-mail. She said, “Someone has called in to complain.” And not long after that, another colleague sent me an e-mail, containing a link from Twitter: A tweeter was slamming me. Then still another colleague e-mailed me to say, “Just wanted you to know there is Twitter activity. This could be bad for you.”

Uh-oh. Twitter activity? That sounded oddly unnerving — like a mob forming. And bad for me? That was dramatic, even operatic.