Saturday, November 22, 2008


(The term I reference in the title is one that I fervently hope doesn't catch on.)

Andrew Sullivan points us to an article by Adrian Wooldridge that discusses "journo-gurus," the superstars who are flouting the failing-newspaper trend:
But amid all this gloom a few hacks are doing better than ever. These are the first-class passengers of the journalistic world--sitting on upholstered thrones, surrounded by adoring hostesses, while the rest of the profession is crowded into cattle class or getting hurled off the plane. These are the journo-gurus. They focus on business rather than the usual staple of high-profile journalism, politics. And they specialise in big, bold, brave ideas about world-changing trends.
To what can be no one's surprise, Exhibit A in this trend is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who has "chronicled" globalization "as artfully as anyone." Now, I tend to be slightly more willing than some to give Friedman some credit, but it's hard to think of the word "art" in conjunction with his overheated prose. (Wooldridge pretty much takes Friedman's arguments at face value, meaning that he misses that the essential idea, the "flatness" of the world, is profoundly wrong. The competition is not on a level playing surface as long as it is based on price, not competence. How often do I have to write this?) He then gives Friedman credit for his superior (and earlier) book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, but fails to chastise him for forgetting it when writing The World is Flat.

Exhibit B in the journo-guru trend is Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker, who is credited for producing a string of "big ideas." Actually, Gladwell takes fairly little ideas and extrapolates them beyond all recognition, falsely claiming significance (though doing so quite entertainingly). And his final example is Chris Anderson of Wired, who I've discussed twice before (here and here; in each case, I deferred to Hank Williams, and I suggest you follow my links), and I'll forgo further comment.

Wooldridge goes on to express his big theory, that these journo-gurus are overthrowing two standard categories:

These journo-gurus have overturned two established hierarchies. The first is the billion-dollar management theory industry, hitherto ruled by business professors and management consultants who produced books and then turned those books into business fads. Alas, the books were often dismally written, the fads a recipe for disaster. This created an opportunity for those with sharper pens and more dispassionate attitudes. A recent Wall Street Journal ranking of management gurus, based on Google hits, newspaper mentions and academic citations, included two journalists in the top five (Friedman at two, Gladwell at four) and only one traditional management guru, Gary Hamel. The New Yorker is now a bigger generator of management fads than the Harvard Business Review.

The second overturned hierarchy is that of journalism. This used to be dominated by political journalists who hogged the front pages and secured the best book deals. But the most successful of those--Bob Woodward, George Will--are all getting long in the tooth. And younger political writers are finding it almost impossible to talk their way into the first-class cabin. The big money goes to TV journalists whose grinning faces launch a dozen worthless bestsellers. Political partisanship is tempting political writers to turn themselves into ideological water carriers rather than serious reporters. And the internet is multiplying the number of voices while diminishing the impact of any of them.

I agree that these "established hierarchies" are being overturned, but the connection between the rise of such as Friedman and this upheaval seems far more sketchy. If they are knocking such unadulterated garbage as Who Moved My Cheese? off the best-seller list, they deserve credit for that public service, but their "big ideas" hardly represent real management advice. And the contention that Friedman and his ilk have "dispassionate attitudes"? That's far more of a dream than a reality, these guys are pure advocates for their ideas.

The second paragraph, which essentially suggests that journalism is giving way to political advocacy, may well be true, but it isn't Friedman and Gladwell who are making that happen. That's the result of a desire for celebrity and passion and all those things which pop up in the Q ratings.

Wooldridge finishes with a couple of confounding paragraphs:

These superstar hacks have inevitably provoked criticism, not least from the people stuck in cattle class. Some of it is sour grapes--Friedman, jealous hacks whisper, lives in a palatial mansion in Bethesda; Gladwell collected a $1m advance for his first book.
But some of it has merit. There are legitimate worries that the journo-gurus see too little of the downside of a system that is treating them so conspicuously well. There are also concerns about substance. All these writers follow the old axiom about simplifying and exaggerating: they take one idea and illustrate it with endless examples rather than address complications. The idea at the heart of each book is as much a brand as an analytical tool. "Blink" has been the subject of an amusing send-up, "Blank: The Power of Not Actually Thinking at All". Richard Posner, one of America's public intellectuals, dismissed it as "written like a book intended for people who do not read books."

But it would be churlish not to admire these hacks for thriving in hard times. They produce big ideas that throw light on profound changes. And their books are manna from heaven for a global business class grappling with dizzying challenges. Once the height of journalistic ambition was to shape political events. Now the cleverest journalists are shaping the business world as well. Not bad for a profession in terminal decline.

I'll let the reader try to parse this mess. If there are legitimate "concerns about substance," doesn't that imply that they are not "big ideas"? Well, yes. The global business class doesn't really get much out of the idea that people make snap judgments (the subject of Gladwell's Blink); the entire field of advertising is devoted to shaping those judgments, and they were doing so long before Gladwell was born. These "big ideas" are reflective of thinking that is already happening, not work that shapes that thinking.

There's a reason that these grand thinkers engender such backlash (and it's not simply schadenfreude at the personal financial travails of Mr. Friedman) - they give philosophical cover to extant ideas that perpetuate or exacerbate some of our most ruinous trends. How can globalization be bad if Guru Friedman blesses it? How can we criticize the shallowness of commercials when Guru Gladwell tells us that it's a natural part of being human? It would be good to see more articles that work a little less hard to puff up the egos of this new pundit class.

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