Sour grapes

After trashing Ezra Klein and David Weigel in a column on the demise of Journolist, Jeffrey Goldberg apparently received positive comments from unnamed reporters at the paper:

This is not just sour grapes about the sudden rise of these untrained kids, though I have to think that some people in the building resent them for bypassing the usual way people rise here. This is really about the serial stupidity of allowing these bloggers to trade on the name of the Washington Post.

“It makes me crazy when I see these guys referred to as reporters. They’re anything but. And they hurt the newspaper when they claim to be reporters.

“Ezra Klein is a talented guy, but he’s just an absolute partisan. If this is where journalism has to go, so be it, but I don’t want to go there.

Two comments.

First, take it from me—an employed but late-blooming nonstar—this is sour grapes. I can readily imagine the envy that might lead people to vent over the electronic water cooler regarding a younger and shinier star given the cubicle near the corner office. When these understandable human emotions produce anonymous internet backstabbing, I am less sympathetic.

Second, the above quotes betray misunderstanding of what Weigel and Klein actually do. These guys are excellent reporters. I don’t know much about the conservative movement. So I’ll leave the Weigel controversy to others. I do know Ezra Klein through his work on health reform. He doesn’t need me to defend him. Michael Tomasky and Greg Sargent have already done an admirable job. Still, I want to add my voice.

I got to know Ezra a few years ago when he edited a piece I submitted to American Prospect regarding my wife’s harrowing experiences in a cardiac ICU. The piece was way too long, and a bit of a mess, too. Ezra was a skilled and perceptive editor who helped me make the piece into something I’m proud of. I hold an endowed chair at the University of Chicago, where I teach public health and health policy. I’ve learned a lot from Ezra’s columns, interviews, and straight reporting at the intersection of health politics and health policy. I don’t like to single out well-known journalists out for praise, when many less famous people did great work covering health reform. Still, by any reasonable account, Ezra is one of very best. I’ll bet he did more successful shoe leather reporting than his anonymous critics.

His extended interviews with Democratic and Republican lawmakers were especially valuable. These interviews provide an excellent on-the-record library for anyone trying to understand what actually happened. They also illustrate how one can combine old-media virtues of careful reporting with the new-media luxury of using greatly expanded space to regularly go deeper and longer than paper-based stories can generally go. Having done a similar, lower-profile feature for the New Republic, I know how deceptively difficult that work really is.

Some of these interviews were with administration officials such as Nancy-Ann DeParle, or with traditional liberals such as Bernie Sanders Others were with conservative Democrats such as Max Baucus and Kent Conrad. The Conrad interview is my favorite. The Senator repeatedly dropped bromides about our national values in health policy, the French, and German health care systems. Perhaps the Senator expected the usual brownie points for sophistication from reporters who don’t know this beat. Instead, Ezra questioned him closely about the great diversity of European approaches, many of which are actually more market-oriented than Medicare.

There’s also a pretty impressive list of Republicans, too: Paul Ryan, Olympia Snowe, Lindsey Graham, and Mark McClellan. If Klein were a Democratic partisan or simple left-winger, these men and women would have stopped answering his calls. I would certainly have stopped reading.

The guy is not a partisan. He certainly has an overt political perspective. For want of a better term, he’s a technocratic liberal. He is nonpartisan in the sense that really matters. He does not identify with or seek to advance the political interests of particular politicians, be they President Obama or Nancy Pelosi. He slammed Candidate Obama’s “lack of audacity” in rejecting the individual mandate. He’s written critically about the administration. He’s gotten into it with left critics of health reform such as Jane Hamsher.

I don’t always agree with Ezra, but I always learn from him. There is a meme floating around that he’s a glib partisan. He’s not. He is a skilled professional who combines virtues of old-school journalism with new possibilities the internet affords. The Post is lucky to have him.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.