OFF THE GRID

Who Killed Journalism? Jonathan Alter?

May 18, 10 | 7:43 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Jonathan Alter has been Newsweek’s lead writer for many years—which may not be, at this point, the first item that you’d want on your resume.

The other day I suggested that his pomposity might be one reason for Newsweek’s terrible decline. I followed up yesterday saying his Obama book was as boring as its subject.

This was too much for Alter, and it earned me an angry response from him (on which, in a never-ending bid for attention, he copied Gawker).

He has been holding it in for some time, I’ll bet. A number of years ago, I portrayed him as a particularly cozy toady at a party at the fabulous home of the financier—and later car Tsar and now scandal subject—Steven Rattner, where Alter fawned over Eliot Spitzer’s wife, Silda (while I stood awkwardly by). Then I quoted him in the introduction to my Murdoch biography lecturing me about how I should write the book: “I hope you’re going to use your access to Murdoch to really screw him.”

But let’s get serious: Jonathan Alter really may be responsible for the death of journalism.

The tabloidization and Foxification of the business have been the bête noire of all right-thinking people. And no doubt those trends represent great insults to the commonweal. But there is another side of the journalism wars that has not received its due amount of blame for the debasement of the culture and the imminent death of the business: that’s the rise of the self-serious, stuffed-shirt, bloviating bishops of the profession.


(AP Photo)

The transformation of the news business from the province of hacks and writers into a redoubt, via cable TV, of would-be public intellectuals is an example of personal brand building run amok.

Alter is one of the original and worst examples of this. As an early print-to-cable guy (on cable it doesn’t matter what you look like or, even, if you’re good at television—which an always glowering Alter is not), Alter was able to transform himself into more than a newsmagazine reporter. In effect, he became the expert—he became his own source. This in turn put him on the level of the world beaters whose opinions he might otherwise be seeking. He, like many in the business, found himself above his station and adjusted his status and mien accordingly—he became a condescending prick.

Now this was supposed to be good for the outlets where these talking-head reporters actually worked—one brand would inflate the other was the thinking. But, as likely, the opposite happened: The public, seeing these dreary people, turned away from them. Readers saw Newsweek and associated it with a cheerless and depressing Jon Alter. Indeed, the nation, with its new up-close familiarity with not-ready-for-prime-time journalists, became thoroughly contemptuous of them.

Still, Alter’s brand extension of himself led to lectures and panels and books, as well as dinner parties—and, recently, to great access to the president and his resulting boring book. Indeed, as Newsweek foundered, Alter—and he’s not the only one—used it as a catapult to build a lucrative side business for himself presumably at the expense (in terms of time, attention, interest, devotion) of the actual, beleaguered journalism business that employed him.

It seems terribly unfair.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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