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June 28, 2005

Don't Be a Blogger Manqué, Norman Mailer

"Arianna's team will get you a day pass to the White House press room. Go to some briefings, use your eyes and ears, scribble in your notebook, and, linking to the transcripts, tell readers of her blog what happens to you, Mailer: writer with puzzle."

Once upon a time in journalism Norman Mailer was one of the people pushing the boundaries of the form. The way a Josh Marshall is pushing it today. Or a Glenn Reynolds. Or a Barista of Bloomfield Avenue (Debbie Galant).

There still resides, however, under my aging novelist’s pate a volunteer intelligence agent, sadly manque.

Mailer wrote that at the Huffington Post May 17th. He also said: “I’m beginning to see why one would want to write a blog.” This was a change of heart. In a December, 2002 interview he was asked if he “did” the Internet. “I don’t,” Mailer said. “That would use up what I have left.”

In the short item he posted at Huffington’s place, Mailer suggested that maybe Newsweek was set up, and maybe the riots in Afghanistan were set off as part of the plot. “If you want to discredit a Dan Rather or a Newsweek crew, just feed them false information from a hitherto reliable source,” he wrote. “You learn that in Intelligence 101A.” It wasn’t a serious attempt to push forward into his (paranoid, but not entirely counter-factual) thesis. It was Mailer saying: if I had the time, I could…

“I’m beginning to see why one would want to write a blog.” Now that, I felt, was a little more serious. (So was “sadly manque.”) In fact, a few weeks before his debut at the Huffington Post, Mailer spoke at the University of Texas, where the library had just purchased his papers for $2.5 million. He “recalled being a young writer in the 1950s and said he might have been a blogger if there had been an Internet back then,” according to the AP (April 29, 2005.)

“In the ’50s, you couldn’t get anything interesting published,” he added. (Mailer helped found the Village Voice in 1955, partly for that reason.) He’s probably right; he would have been a blogger if the 1950s had existed when the Net was invented.

Like the guy who does a little magic, but is not a magician (Johnny Carson was in that category) Mailer believes he does a little CIA, though he is not with the Agency. And he would argue that you need a novelist for understanding what the CIA is up to. One of the problems I’ve always had with this argument is that I do not classify Mailer as a novelist, though he has written eleven of them and is no doubt working on a twelth right now.

To me he is a great American journalist and fits well the more general category of writer. His natural forms are (were…) opinionated reportage—often on assignment for magazines—and social criticism. He excelled at political metaphor and the character sketch. He was at his best when writing about what he saw during events in the life of the nation. His political judgments were not to be trusted, but that’s true of most writers, artists and intellectuals (bloggers too.)

And without making a big to-do about it, his books were important to me when I was starting out in prose. This would be mid-1970s, between Armies of the Night (1968, Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction) and The Executioner’s Song (1979, Pulitzer Prize for fiction, even though it’s factual.) It was the scribbler’s equivalent of an adolescent crush.

Mailer’s writings were important to me because they sustained the illusion that journalistic prose could be the most exciting kind of prose. I still believe that, even though it rarely happens. The nonfiction writer Richard Ben Cramer, who is a good example of Mailer’s influence, told my NYU colleague Robert Boynton (in an interview for Boynton’s terrific new book The New New Journalism):

I want my books and articles to have the same impact a novel has on a reader: something happens to the character in the story during which an emotional truth is revealed. That is a goal nonfiction and fiction can share.

The way Mailer did journalism, something happens to the character in the story, who is also our correspondent on the scene. A truth is revealed, and emotion is restored to events. In Mailer’s best reports, something also happens in the life of the nation. (In an interview he said: “America is the real religion of this country.”)

For example: John F. Kennedy is nominated for President and he dazzles the 1960 convention, depressing the traditional party bosses who sense that television and Kennedy’s charisma will undermine their influence by creating a more direct connection between candidate and voter. (Which indeed came to pass, but Mailer had it as news before that.) On the discomfort of the old fashioned boss in 1960:

In fact it is a mystery to the boss how Kennedy got to where he is, not a mystery in its structures; Kennedy is rolling in money, Kennedy got the votes in primaries, and, most of all, Kennedy has a jewel of a political machine. It is as good as a crack Notre Dame team, all discipline and savvy and go-go-go, sound, drilled, never dull, quick as a knife, full of the salt of hipper-dipper, a beautiful machine; the boss could adore it if only a sensible candidate were driving it, a Truman, even a Stevenson, please God a Northern Lyndon Johnson, but it is run by a man who looks young enough to be coach of the Freshman team, and that is not comfortable at all. (Link.)

Which is not what the reporter at the school board meeting in Rochester should be doing. On the other hand, the problems of the reporter at the school board meeting in Rochester should not be the test of all things great and good in journalism— though some preach a religion very much like that.

So even though it’s five weeks late I still want to welcome Norman Mailer, the American writer, to blog writing— and advise him about how to get on with it. A blogger’s currency is not, as so many believe, rattling off an opinion. It is links. Here are three links for Mailer, the would-be blogger.

An author who is 82 should have no trouble making the connection.

As the first gang of bloggers to be credentialed to a national political convention made final preparations for their trip to Boston, I posted this. Many were young, talented upstarts. Many, I figured, would not know exactly what to do when they got to Boston. Nor would they know how Mailer did it when he covered the 1960 convention in Los Angeles, where the Democrats nominated JFK. So when I found that his November 1960 piece for Esquire, Superman Comes to the Supermarket, was online and linkable, the post was born: “There is another way of ‘covering’ a political convention,” I wrote. “Send a writer and let the writer find a language adequate to the event.” I said blogging is about linking. In this case it was linking people to the past when they needed it for an assignment in the present.

One day I found that a famous essay Mailer would know—Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964)—was online. (“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”) I think this is one of the best short essays ever written about American political life, and so I used it to interpret the style of televised resentment in the performance of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Mainly I was trying to reach those who might click the link and delve into Hofstadter’s ideas from 40 years earlier. The whole post was about the link, which still works. Today if you put the words “Bill O’Reilly” and “paranoid” into Google, this post usually comes up first. (There’s the import of being permanent.)

Now through the good offices of the Huffington Post, our common table, I have for Mailer a friendly and practical suggestion. One more time, he should get credentials and do some reporting. I mean White House reporting for the Huffington Post. Bloggers do that, you know. And they ask questions others would not.

I suggest it not because the big story of our time comes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Mailer’s the man to interpret it for us. No. But my free advice is: wanna volunteer, don’t pick amateur spook for an ID. Don’t be a Tom Clancy. Don’t do two-minutes of paranoia. And no more of this, please.

Say the word and I’m sure Arianna’s team will get you a day pass to the White House press room. Go to some briefings, use your eyes and ears, scribble in your notebook, and—linking to the transcripts at—tell readers of her blog what you see, and hear, and what happens to you, Mailer: writer with puzzle. Get inside the heads of the participants, including the reporters asking questions they know will not be answered. (On principle, as it were.)

Scott McClellan at the White House podium: who really has a language adequate to that event? In rendering things steadily more opaque by talking about them with reporters, McClellan will often say: “The President has been very clear…” Which is funny, except that he has no sense of humor. (Unlike Ari Flesicher, who gave you a wink.)

If you actually try to listen to McClellan explain something, you almost always know less after his answer than you did before he began talking. This type of talent (subtractive) is rarely examined because the normal reaction to it is immediate frustration. A proper job description for McClellan would include: “making George W. Bush less legible.” And that is something Mailer might, by blogging from the White House, manfully try to reveal.

Manque means: unfilled or frustrated in realizing an ambition. Don’t be a blogger manqué, Norman Mailer. Do something you do well, journalism with an interior life, and do differently than other correspondents: describe, describe, describe on the big canvas you got from wanting to be a big novelist.

Finally, I admit my purposes are sentimental, and not entirely realistic. Mailer’s first two tries at the Huffington Post I choose to call practice swings. Mailer the blogger has not yet appeared with a bat in his hand. Of course he was correct in 2002: writing seriously for the Internet (and learning to think with a link) “would use up what I have left.”

I can think of worse ways for him to go.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

This also ran at the Huffington Post. I will let you know if there is a reply.

Journalist and press blogger Daniel Conover says he learned what he wanted to learn from his blog and he’s going Into the Great Wide Open.

Mailer in a 2004 interview with Poynter’s Margo Hammond:

The thing about journalists is that they learn about a lot of people in a hurry. Less good is that the experience is very rarely existential. By existential I mean that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. If you’re doing it on spec, then it’s very existential. But if you’re working for a newspaper and you know it’ll be printed no matter what, then you learn a lot, but it doesn’t bite deep. Experiences you can’t control teach you a lot — the others just skim the top.

“I Am Not For World Empire.” Mailer’s 2002 interview with Pat Bunchanan’s magazine, American Conservative, in which he explains why he calls himself a “left conservative.”

See Radar magazine for the scoop on Mailer’s bitter attack on New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani (a reviewer of his books.) The language was harsh enough to make the gossip columns. Satirizing the proceedings is Corsair. More here.

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, e-mails: “Mailer wrote the greatest sports story of my lifetime. Sports Illustrated, I believe, assigned him to cover the Emile Griffith-Benny Paret fight, in which Griffith literally clubbed Paret to death. Mailer, of course, was at ringside. This much I’ve committed to memory…”

And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those 18 punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy axe in the distance chopping into a wet log.

Mailer in a 2004 interview with his son, John Buffalo Mailer, talks about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

NM: Of that whole gang, he’s the only one who seems real to me. In other words, I might not agree with him on anything, but he does believe in what he says. It isn’t as if he searches for the most useful response he can come up with at the moment to wield or save his power. He’s interested in his ideas first. The power is subservient to the ideas.

JBM: What makes you say that?

NM: Because he’s real. He reacts. He doesn’t weigh his words. If something makes him angry, he’s angry. If something pleases him, he smiles. If he has doubts about how the situation is going, he expresses those doubts. In that sense, he’s the only one of that coven I’d call an honorable man.

Garrett M. Graff of Media Bistro’s FishbowlDC comments on this post, which he says is “challenging/begging/asking” Mailer to blog from the White House. Graff: “Someone needs to dive into Scott McClellan’s techniques, and someone needs to disassemble life in the veal pen and see what lies beneath the motivations of those involved.”

You may recall that Mr. Graff, 23 at the time, gained news attention as the proverbial first blogger to be given a day pass to cover the White House. (See his “impressions” post for more.) This is from a report by Katharine Seelye in the New York Times:

Mr. Graff said he was surprised at the help he received from “real” reporters covering the White House, given what he described as the animosity between some bloggers and the mainstream news media.

Mr. Graff is something of a bridge between those two worlds. Although he is a blogger, he has old-media genes: his father, Christopher Graff, is the chief correspondent in Vermont for The Associated Press; and his grandfather, Bert McCord, was the drama critic for The New York Herald Tribune.

Mr. Graff himself was executive editor of The Harvard Crimson. He said he became a blogger because “it’s the newest trend in journalism.”

Mailer, of course, went to Harvard as well. The Seelye article had some comments from me: Rosen said “Mr. Graff was expanding the definition of what constitutes the press…” (I said the same thing about the bloggers at the Democratic Convention in 2004: “it’s just another expansion of who the press is.”)

LOGIC UPDATE: I like Mailer-as-blogger in the White House because I think there should be more 82 year-olds writing a mean blog post so that people in their 20s might read it and say: wow. That way they cut the baby boomers out altogether and talk among themselves.

This has to be good for the soul of conversation.

But to cooperate in my press corps fantasia Mailer has to write something “different” and hot. Rather than a legend, blogging a blogger (Mailer) showing why he’s a nonfiction legend. So far no show. Check out what Technorati has to say about Mailer post one and post two.

Howard Kurtz, there’s an iconic baby boomer journalist for you. See, therefore, Garrett M. Graff’s long and detailed profile of the Washington Post’s media writer. It’s from Washingtonian magazine.

Back in 1990, the media beat barely existed at most newspapers. The opinion of Gene Roberts, the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor who decried media reporting as navel-gazing, was typical. The New York Times, one of the few other papers with a media writer, focused mostly on the business side, and the Los Angeles Times’s David Shaw was best known for exhaustive three-part series. Kurtz is largely credited with establishing the media as a regular day-in and day-out beat and inspiring similar reporters around the country.

Lots more. Incidentally, Kurtz and I were editor of the same college newspaper, The Spectrum at SUNY Buffalo, four years apart. We did not meet until many years later, but I heard newsroom stories about him. He was “Howie” Kurtz then, and that’s what his by-line said too. Graff has it. In 1981 Kurtz moved from the Washington Star when it died to the Washington Post: “Kurtz’s byline—-previously ‘Howie Kurtz’—- now at the suggestion of Post editors became the more respectable ‘Howard.’”

Graff gets way more attention (he works, after all, for the Media Bistro empire under the guidance of Elizabeth Spiers, who writes FishbowlNY) but the blogger who is actually doing the White House beat in an outsider-gotten-inside way is Eric Brewer, White House correspondent for Weldon’s Berger’s blog, BTC News. Check out what these guys do. They’re expanding the press.

For those following the Downing Street Memo story (the subject of my last post) this round-up and link-fest from Ron Brynaert is extremely valuable: ‘Spikes of Activity’ In The DSM.

Oh, and “Jeff Gannon” has reactions to this post.

Australian journalist and teacher Margaret Simons says the press matters because it finds things out. That point has been made a lot. What she goes on to say has not been said a lot:

Finding things out involves trying hard to talk to people you don’t know and who have no reason for wanting to talk to you. Often it involves making people angry, or hurting them.

It involves opening yourself up to rejection and anger. It involves building relationships of trust with sources - and not only and not chiefly political professionals or spin doctors. Sometimes one must get close to the loud, the objectionable. The smoother the source, the less likely they will tell you anything that is both important and new.

It involves understanding and using public records. It involves taking the time and trouble to read often lengthy and impenetrable documents, reports and statistics. It involves asking stupid questions until you understand. It involves humility.

Most important of all it involves talking to people - lots of people - and asking them questions you would feel embarrassed to ask your best friend…

I met Margaret Simon (a seriously talented journalist) when I was in Australia last month. Via Jozef Imrich (Media Dragon) who has other great links in comments.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 28, 2005 1:01 AM