The Current Affairs Interview: Jamelle Bouie & Ryan Cooper

This month: Our Nihilist Press Corps

lighting

In this edition of the Current Affairs Interview, we confront two prominent political journalists about their borderline-obsessive coverage of Donald Trump.

LEGAL NOTICE: Current Affairs in no way wishes to imply that the subjects intended to be interviewed by Current Affairs. The Current Affairs Interview is conducted non-consensually, and consists of bothering the interviewees on Twitter until they respond. The following is transcribed entirely from the results of such public Twitter harassment. It has been edited solely for grammar and clarity.

Current Affairs: Six out of your last twelve articles appear to be about Donald Trump. Is there truly this much to say?

Jamelle Bouie, Slate: Number one, yes. Number two, I write four to five times a week, so that’s not really saying much.

Current Affairs: My goodness, you mean there’s mountains more where that came from! Mr. Bouie, Current Affairs pleads with you to devote your considerable writerly energy to other subjects. 50% Trump is no good.

JB: The vast majority of my work has nothing to do with Trump.

CA: A statement one wishes were true but one belied by the record.

JB: So, what percentage of the 60 stories I’ve written since September do you think are about Trump?

Ryan Cooper, The Week [unprompted]: I’d bet money it’s no more than 10% Trump.* But more to the point, he’s been leading the GOP field for 6 months.

CA: Sorry, we forgot that political writing today means writing over and over about GOP frontrunners. Many apologies. [You probably have] many stories about how other Republicans are wrong, too.

At this point, Jamelle Bouie evidently became so disgusted that he departed the conversation.

RC: Jamelle and I write about all kinds of stuff. But, yes, Republicans are wrong about virtually everything, and it matters.

CA: Don’t think we don’t spot the slip in your logic, Cooper! You’ve used “Republicans are wrong and it matters” to justify “My writing about Republicans being wrong matters.”

RC: It matters as much as anything else anyone writes matters, i.e. not very much. Neither you nor I nor anyone else is going to solve climate change with a couple of fucking blog posts.

CA: Then one might as well have a blog about knitting as do your job.

RC: Pretty much! Except I ain’t gonna make rent with that.

CA: Odd that political writers only pretend to care about solving the issues. Really they’re just feeding the mill to pay the rent.

RC: It might occasionally make some difference. But you’ve got to be insanely deluded to think writers are a major political actor.

CA: But if this is true, then why write about Donald Trump’s day-to-day idiocies instead of something else?

RC: I don’t! But the fact that a quasi-fascist is leading the GOP is interesting.

CA: But this was what you initially defended. “Why, Jamelle Bouie, do you write so many Trump articles?” “Because he is important.”

RC: He is, I just don’t cover his “day-to-day idiocies,” [which are] mainly stuff he swiped from the Nuremberg Laws. But if other people want to, fine. That’s as reasonable a use of their political energy as anything.

CA: This is it! You media people are all nihilists! You do not actually think you are capable of anything. You give up the task of persuading people and just resign yourself to condemning Republican foolishness.

RC: I try every day to persuade people, I just don’t have illusions about whether they’ll be convinced (they won’t).

CA: That doesn’t sound to me like the attitude of someone who is trying very hard.

RC: Read my stuff and judge for yourself, I don’t care. Every political writer in the country has been calling Trump a liar for a week straight and it hasn’t done jack shit.

CA: EXACTLY! We have learned that “calling him a liar” doesn’t work. But this resignation to inconsequentiality seems like suicide. We called the fascists liars, they came anyway. Well, then perhaps writing columns calling them liars wasn’t the best way to prevent fascism!

RC: Good thing the press isn’t the only thing standing between us and Trumpist dictatorship.

CA: Well, it’s not exactly apparent what else is standing in the way! What exactly are you relying on here, if you believe influencing ideas is futile?

RC: Just hope the economy doesn’t collapse next year. ¯\_()_/¯

CA: A prayer, then. You literally think fascism is on the march and you’re greeting it with a shruggie. If fascism threatens us, our every breathing moment should be dedicated to strategizing its destruction.

RC: It has always threatened us. But the solution is proper economic policy and unions, not blog posts about non-Trump subjects.

CA: Do people know how to implement proper economic policy and successfully build unions? If not, why is the job of the writer not to figure out how this is done and then tell people how they can do it?

At this point, Mr. Cooper ceased to reply.

The morning after our interview, we received a message from Mr. Cooper in reply to our suggestion that writers should try to produce work that helps people to do the things that he wishes people would do:

“[Producing writing like that is] worth doing (and I do it) but I think you’re misunderstanding the demographic profile  of the average newspaper reader. 95% of journalism is infotainment for the upper middle class.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. The entire op/ed mill is a stupefaction racket. The sole difference between The National Enquirer and Politico is the average reader’s income bracket. Thus probably safe to ignore all political media.

*It’s actually 18%. Having said he would “bet money” that the number was under 10%, Mr. Cooper can send his check to:

The Current Affairs Organization, P.O. Box 441394, West Somerville, MA 02144

Articles Written By Jamelle Bouie About Donald Trump

(11/14/15 – 12/1/15)

Due to space constraints, the following list is incomplete and has left off a number of articles by Mr. Bouie that, while they are about Mr. Trump, do not feature Mr. Trump’s name in the headline and are thus make for somewhat less impactful list entries. 

  • “Donald Trump Is A Fascist,” Nov. 25, 2015.
  • “Donald Trump Is A Conservative Media Creation,” Nov. 23, 2015.
  • “Donald Trump Is Actually A Moderate Republican,” Nov.19, 2015.
  • “Why The Paris Attacks Will Only Boost Donald Trump,” Nov. 16, 2015.
  • “How Stupid Are The People of Iowa? Donald Trump Insults Everyone,” Nov. 14, 2015.

Some Post-Interview Analysis

What depressing creatures these journalists are! What a tragedy it must be to live this way, forever conscious of the superficiality and purposelessness of one’s writing, yet doomed to continue pouring it forth. How can one inhabit such a position without lapsing into despair?

If our conversation with Mr. Cooper is any indication, the answer is that one cannot. It is, in fact, not terriby fun writing five new Trump stories per fortnight. Thus one only has two possible means of protection against the realization of the emptiness of one’s work: (1) touchy defensive posturing, à la Mr. Bouie (of the school that likes to say “How dare you impugn my work!”) or (2) ritual confession and self-flagellation à la Mr. Cooper (in which the journalist convinces himself that, so long as he does not pretend to do more useful work than he knows he is doing, it is acceptable to remain useless.)

There is something very odd indeed about this kind of attitude toward one’s career. The political opinion-writer produces every word as if he is deeply invested in the consequences of an issue. As Mr. Cooper told us, these things matter. Yet he behaves as if these things do not matter very much at all; when confronted with the stakes he shrugs, says “Hey man, I’m just looking to pay my rent.”

The dissonance between the writer’s two beliefs cannot be resolved. He believes politics have important and urgent consequences for people’s lives, yet is content to twiddle his thumbs. And if one says to him “But are you not a mere thumb-twiddler?” he replies “I mean, what do you want me to do?”

Ah, yes, the old “what are we supposed to do about it?” For aeons, it has served the cause of inaction, allowing the comfortable and slothful to rationalize their indulgences. Of course, it is easily met with an answer: “Think of something! That’s your entire job!” But the political journalist is able to wall himself off from those who would place such demands upon his ingenuity.

What is striking is how unwilling political writers are to defend their profession. They know full well that in the age of digital media, the Internet is a sprawling, cavernous echo chamber, and that their job is to make the first noise, so that others may reverberate it across time and space. But they have no aspiration toward altering the situation. They do not believe it can be altered, even though they themselves are the ones who remake it anew every day.

What an aggravating abdication of duty! What fatalistic suicidal resignation! What a cowardly self-fulfilling prophecy! Try nothing, then complain that you’ve failed.

Ah, but what about the question: what ought we do to, then? What would you do, Current Affairs, you arrogant little magazine, sitting about casting aspersions on decent journalists while you remain content to blow spitballs at these hardworking servants of the public good?

Oh, but we’ve said it already! Ask yourself a different question when you write: not “Why is Republican X wrong about Issue Y?” but rather “How can I convince someone who disagrees with me about Republican X that they are mistaken?” Of course, today’s political writers take these questions to mean the same thing. Yet they do not mean the same thing at all. If I write a column entitled “Donald Trump Is A Liar,” and I document the various things this man has said that I believe are lies, and I use evidence and clear argument, I may think I have done my best. I have done nothing of the kind, however. For I have not asked myself a single question about my audience, e.g. “Will those who like Donald Trump and do not think he is a liar read an article entitled ‘Donald Trump Is A Liar’?” (They will not.)

“But then I am stuck,” says the political writer. “They won’t read it even though I’m right.” No, you are not stuck. You must simply make an effort to build a writerly voice that people who disagree with you will enjoy reading. Telling them in blunt prose why their preferred candidate is a liar and a fascist is not the route to a congenial relationship between writer and audience. Perhaps be a friend to potential hostile readers, instead of an antagonist.

Oh, but writers don’t matter anyway, do they? So it hardly makes a difference whether you make an effort or not. But if you believe that, then for God’s sake write about flowers or crochet instead. Otherwise, at least make some attempt to be useful and consequential?