In Defense of Journalistic FacelessnessS

The mighty, omniscient "journalistic tone" is largely a convenient myth. Newspapers and other media outlets long adopted this self-assured institutional writing style which admitted no doubt as a way to appear more knowledgeable than they really were. The internet, with its radical transparency and focus on personality, has eaten away at this obfuscating tone. Which is good. Sometimes.

War is a messy, chaotic business, full of emotion and incomplete information. But when a war correspondent wrote an assertive dispatch declaring that one side was winning, it was believed. An innocent 20-something could traipse off to Africa and catch on as a magazine stringer with little real ability to analyze the culture he was covering—but clean up the prose and slap it in The Economist without a byline, and it becomes instant conventional wisdom, carrying the intellectual weight of a respected institution.

These are fine examples of the type of unjustified journalistic authoritativeness that the explosion of online journalism and media criticism has undermined. And good riddance. In many cases, institutional authority was simply a convenient cover for bullshit. No better place for a reporter to hide the fact that he's not sure what exactly is going on than behind the stolid, forbidding typeface of an old-school respected media outlet. The gradual movement away from imperious daily journalistic proclamations and convenient invented narratives and towards a culture of honesty about what the media does and does not know is a very healthy thing.

That said: sometimes, it's better to remain faceless. Bill Keller was relatively quiet as the editor of a very good New York Times. As soon as he decided to step out of the shadows and begin writing a column again, his flawed judgments were on display for all to see, and he instantly became unlikeable. The poor quality of his own work hurt the reputation of the paper as a whole. Likewise, new editor Jill Abramson is capable by most accounts—but knowing every last detail of her obsession with golden retrievers somehow does not work to inspire confidence in her sobriety.

Now comes Andy Rosenthal, the head of the NYT's opinion section, with his own blog—because presiding over the daily opinion section of America's most closely read newspaper just doesn't present Andy with enough opportunities to share his opinion. He dishes: "The Loyal Opposition will be more informal than the editorial page, but I will not be blogging about my Netflix queue or my favorite restaurants. (O.K., maybe my Netflix queue.) Nor will I blog about bloggers. I won't wade into spats with other journalists or with political activists - an undignified practice that I can't imagine is of interest to most people."

Oh, how wrong you are, Andy Rosenthal! These spats, personal feuds, cutting remarks, sharp takedowns, and, alternately, breathless displays of devotion and fandom are the very backbone of the blogosphere. The fact that you believe that you need to start a blog that will contain none of these things betrays the fact that you do not, in reality, need to start a blog. Furthermore, the fact that you believe you will be able to run a blog and resist engaging in any of this behavior betrays the fact that you do not understand human nature very well at all.

All of the above betrays this final fact: sometimes, it is best to remain behind the scenes. Best for readers. Best for your media outlet. And best for the institution of journalism. What makes the NYT different is that its journalistic credentials are well earned; it has something to protect. Whereas many writers use the faceless tone exclusively as a cover for bullshit, the Times uses it for that purpose only some of the time. For those blessed with the chance to run the most important institutions in journalism, that job itself should be its own reward. No need to let your own grating voice spoil it for everyone.

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