Back in 2007, future Vox publisher Ezra Klein was still just some dude with a blog, a few years removed from trying and failing to write for his university newspaper, and Washington Babylon’s Ken Silverstein was Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine. In response to a scoop Silverstein obtained by posing as a businessman seeking to employ amoral Beltway lobbyists to rehabilitate Turkmenistan’s dreadful image, blog-boy Klein called Silverstein a “national treasure.”
Now it’s 2019, and Ken Silverstein is still an investigative reporter, breaking stories for his supper. And Ezra Klein? Well, he somehow transmogrified from doing wonky, vaguely left analysis at his blog into to one of the leading media minds of his (and my) generation, with stops at the American Prospect and Washington Post before founding bland, private equity and venture capital-backed Vox, which made Washington Babylon‘s 2017 Hack List.
Nowadays, Ezra is a real big shot, being a regular commentator on MSNBC and hosting his very own podcast for Vox, The Ezra Klein Show, which “gives you a chance to get inside the heads of the newsmakers and power players in politics and media.”
Does Klein, now a Big Fucking Deal, remember what he wrote about Silverstein twelve years ago? Does he even remember what he wrote yesterday, much less the student loan bills he no longer has to pay, or that his parents took care of?
Surely not. He’s busy conducting the definitive interview with then-president-elect Hillary Clinton and doing other important stuff. He’s gone from the gutter to the stars, one of the greatest of the blog boys who aspired to trade their WordPresses and Typepads for lanyards and think-tank fellowships.
Klein, his colleague Matt Yglesias, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, and their blogging ilk were supposed to be the alternative to the op-ed hack squad employed by “The Gray Lady.” They wouldn’t disappoint us the way Thomas Friedman and Frank Rich had many of our radical-hippie parents, leaving behind actual reporting beats to write the same op-ed over and over again. No, these kiddos were sharp, they were clear-minded, they were the Netroots Nation, and like Howard Dean’s seemingly inevitable primary coronation in 2004, they weren’t to be denied.
And they weren’t denied — not the blog boys and not ex-Governor Dean, all of whom became critical parts of the same establishment they sorta-challenged because they weren’t yet in the club.
Folks, this is how it always goes: pundit rises, builds his/her brand, says a few provocative thing, and then starts cashing those fat paychecks. Or, if they’re a bit more savvy in terms of sausage-making, they squeeze their readers for Patreon donations, promising occasional bits of nothing in exchange for their service. [Editor’s disclosure: Washington Babylon has a recently-reactivated Patreon page. Please send cash so I can pay Oliver.]
But Klein, Yglesias, and Kos…we got to live through it. We watched them make their moves, jumping from one publication to another, and we were powerless to stop it. And they knew what they were doing, kissing tail when they needed to kiss tail while waging cold war against the softest targets.
Klein did pretty good work on policy issues during his American Prospect days, which isn’t hard to do because wonk-work is the sort of nonsense any eager-beaver B-student could handle, but by the time you’re getting to “the Vox conversation” with president-elect (only not!) Clinton, he was overseeing a Millennial media empire that churned out loads of thumbsucking explainers and exploitative personal essays (full disclosure: I wrote one of those, as have many of my friends, because they pay $500 a pop).
But Klein is just another name to insert in this formula. Yesterday it was Ezra and Kos, perhaps tomorrow it’s Bhaskar Sunkara as he works to turn a magazine paying naive young leftists $50 to $100 bucks per piece (often on spec!) into the house organ — the Pravda — of the Democratic Socialists of America. And it’s not Sunkara’s fault any more than it’s any other player’s fault: hate the game, not the participants.
Is this just sour grapes, you ask? Nah. I don’t aspire to run a media empire, I don’t want to build my lifestyle brand, and I’ve always cared more about the number of dollars I’m earning on a paycheck that clears my bank than the number of followers I’ve recruited on my Twitter and Instagram accounts (full disclosure: Ken is paying me for this). I’m a working writer, which is better than being an unemployed writer, and I’m also an honest writer.
My obsession with candor impels me to warn you that most “rising star” media millennials are anything but candid. They’re pandering to your prejudices, tossing you softball tweets filled with lazy, thinkable thoughts (“Trump is gaslighting us!”) and sharing tweets from better-positioned fake friends whose asses they are trying to kiss. All these sorta-someones on the way up won’t bother looking back at you once they’ve tasted whatever constitutes the sweet smell of success in this dying business, a staff position with high-deductible insurance that lasts for almost a year or some other cushy gig.
But that’s where Washington Babylon comes in. We here at WB don’t like or trust anybody; everyone’s on the way out, and we’re acting accordingly. It’s a gloomy way to live, playing Cassandra to an audience unwilling to hear your inconvenient truths, but it’s better than getting excited because some $100-a-pop blogger at the New Republic has started “snowballing” after writing a few viral pieces that confirmed a bunch of media-Twitter or left-Twitter or wonk-Twitter’s prejudices. We’re rightly suspicious of used-car salesmen but are all too willing to overlook the budding Thomas Friedmans and David Brookses in our midst.
Heck, their reinforcements have already arrived. Fellow Pittsburgher Bari Weiss is two years younger than I am and ensconced in the Gray Lady’s editorial ranks. Bret Stephens is a mere fortysomething, so we can expect many more decades of him at the New York Times. The list goes on and on, with even most of the media-Twitter people taking potshots at “Matty Ice” Yglesias and Conor Friedersdorf either secretly dreaming about becoming them or getting rich running a Patreon-funded podcast that generates its material by lambasting them for being establishment hacks.
So what’s the matter with that? And further, what other options are open to the hip, with-it millennial? Crunch imaginary numbers like Nate Silver for an audience of lanyard-wearers or launch your own bilious Chapo comedy brand in exchange for crowdfunded wealth…it’s slim pickings in this perma-recession for “creatives.” I suppose there’s always shutting the fuck up and refusing to add to the din of “the discourse,” but then you wouldn’t be “doing the work,” which is apparently what many “kids” — would-be influencers, like pizza delivery-people, are to be referred to as “kids” regardless of their age — think that tweeting about politics and culture amounts to.
Such is life, I guess. Part of growing old is watching as the people around you, particularly the people on the make, disappoint you as they scheme, backstab, and conspire to become comfortable and lazy. The influencers and thinkers, the Ezra Kleins who blow smoke up your patoot while you’re still a few notches ahead of them on some imaginary Klout ladder, will always disappoint you. They start with their sophomoric blogs and their on-the-nose tweets and their dimly-considered ideals, and then they end up like Thomas Friedman. I might even call it a tragedy, if any of this bloviating hot-takery had actually ever had the power to transform the world. It doesn’t, of course, but it sure beats working for a living.