Let’s be honest: Ben Smith is the best media columnist The New York Times has ever had. He instantly surpassed his poor predecessor upon landing from BuzzFeed earlier this year. He has even eclipsed the legendary David Carr, whose lovely turns of phrase and grizzled wisdom are no match for the blunt force of Smith’s copy. I don’t recall lying in bed on a Sunday night thinking, with the anticipation of a tiger who is about to be fed, “It’s David Carr time.” Ben Smith time, however, has become a weekly ritual—sad, pathetic creature of journalism that I am.
That’s because Smith provides scoops, which in his assessment is the only currency worth trading. “If you’re not breaking news, you don’t have any credibility,” he told New York magazine in September. What kind of scoops are we talking about, though? Take one of his recent columns, on the journalist Joe Biden trusts the most: Jon Meacham, a former Newsweek editor. Under a jaunty headline that could have run in Peter Kaplan’s New York Observer—“Get Me Meacham! Biden Brings Back the the Media’s Good Old Days”—Smith’s article opens with an anecdote of Meacham trying to hire Smith at Newsweek:
I was by then not so sure about the future of print, but Mr. Meacham, the magazine’s editor in chief, told me that his corporate masters had a plan: Newsweek would rid itself of most of its existing, middlebrow subscribers and charge the remaining ones more for a highbrow product. The plan didn’t make much sense to me and, obviously, did not work. The next year, Mr. Meacham, once described as the “oldest 34-year-old journalist in the world” (this was praise in the world of newsweeklies)—left to write and teach at Vanderbilt.
This paragraph is indicative of Smith’s style, down to the sloppy em-dash in the final sentence (where is its partner?). It takes us into the room of a (sort of) powerful man. It shows us his naïveté, which in turn reveals something about an actually powerful man, Joe Biden, whose worldview is informed by the addled utterances of the country’s normiest op-ed writers—the fig leaf of a nut graf that covers what is otherwise outright gossip. And, crucially, it features Smith betraying Meacham’s trust.
I can’t think of another journalist who so gleefully embodies Janet Malcolm’s old saw, from The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” It is a line that Smith knows well, having cited it back in 2010 at his old blog for Politico (which I also read rather religiously—sad, pathetic creature that I always have been) for a post about Joe McGinniss, Malcolm’s titular journalist, who had rented a house in Alaska near Sarah Palin’s, from which to observe her family for a book of his own.
In that case, Smith defended the journalist’s quarry, saying it was perfectly within Palin’s rights to object to McGinniss’s proximity. But the quote could stand as Smith’s credo. It is meant to be a condemnation, but he wears it as a badge of honor.
I would say that he has made his peace with the morally indefensible, but I don’t get the sense that there was much of a struggle in Smith’s soul. There is something about his smiling baby face that is terrifying. They say that the stupidest thing you can do is agree to talk to Isaac Chotiner. I say it is Ben Smith. At least Chotiner meets you on the field of battle. Smith plays a game in which he holds all the cards and his opponent doesn’t even know he’s playing.
This has long been his M.O. In a more innocent time he got in a bit of trouble for reporting about an off-the-record dinner with Uber executives in which no one had cleared the off-the-record terms with him. So he acted as if it was on the record and told his readers what he heard. (The scoop was that an executive said the company should hire opposition researchers to investigate its critics in the media.) As Smith told New York (in a separate profile), “At some point, I was like, ‘Well, this will be a problem for you if it becomes public.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, we would keep it secret.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you just told me.’” How can you not love it? Hilariously, the person who invited Smith to this “influencer” dinner was a deeply embarrassed Michael Wolff, who afterward scolded Smith for being a “gotcha political blogger” who uses “a stern, official-sounding voice, censorious and moralistic,” a description that rings 100 percent false. Wolff, of course, would go on to practice Smith’s smash-and-grab brand of journalism at Donald Trump’s White House, profiting handsomely as a result.
Uber, Donald Trump—these are appropriate targets to betray without remorse, as Malcolm would have it, because they are powerful. Here is how we in this industry defend the indefensible. “Every beat is basically just power,” Smith told New York, and indeed he has used his perch at the Times to challenge and needle powerful people and institutions, including the Times itself. (“[M]y writing about the Times while on its payroll brings with it all sorts of potential conflicts of interest and is generally a bit of a nightmare,” he has charmingly conceded.)
However, every journalist, very much including Smith, at some point will have to face the morally indefensible way we go about our business: namely, using other people to tell a story about the world. Not everyone dupes their subjects into trusting them, but absolutely everyone robs other people of their stories to tell their own. Every journalist knows this flushed feeling, a mix of triumph and guilt, of securing the story that will redound glory unto them, not the subject. Some subjects who have no outlet, who are voiceless, approve of this arrangement, since they have no other way of getting their story heard. But even they will not wholly recognize their own depiction in the newspaper, by virtue of the fact that it was told by someone else with their own agenda. This is what Jonathan Franzen has called the “inescapable shame of being a storyteller”—that it involves stealing from another person, much in the way some people believe a photograph steals a bit of the sitter’s soul.
Consider, if you can, Jon Meacham. A Pulitzer Prize–winning writer who has the president-elect’s ear doesn’t really deserve our pity. To the contrary! I wholly approve of the dissemination of this rather meaningless scrap of gossip, because like every other journalist, I like gossip, which is just another word for information. But he would surely remember the conversation differently, if he remembers it at all. He would not see himself in the rube that Smith has made of him. But Smith has all the power in his own article, and for certain readers (i.e., me), Meacham will forever be not the person who wrote a magisterial biography of Andrew Jackson but the guy who thought he could turn Newsweek into The New Yorker, instead of what it actually became, a clickbait farm that uses its faded glory to launder right-wing conspiracy theories.
I’m committing a form of this exploitative crime, even if I am admittedly practicing the lowest form of journalism, an opinion column with no scoops (sorry, Ben). I trot out my handcrafted cutouts of Ben Smith and Jon Meacham and David Carr and Michael Wolff to take part in the puppet show of my own design, and they are powerless to stop me.
I have chosen Smith as my journalist par excellence because his conscience is so clear. We may be bad people, he seems to say, but … well, we’re just bad people. Journalists hope that the information they convey serves some higher purpose: the education of the public, the dispelling of secrets, the revelation of the truth. But this sometimes seems like a rather convenient framework to justify what is really going on: When we look in the mirror, the person staring back at us is a grinning Ben Smith.