Hendrik Hertzberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates at MIT

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT, 10/29/2013

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT, 10/29/2013. Love the old-school blackboards and equations.

Tonight I got to see a conversation at MIT between Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic author/blogger and currently an MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT. This was a talk on the theme of “What’s the “Journalism” in Opinion Journalism?” and focused on the writerly craft of writing opinion pieces, as Hertzberg does biweekly for “The Talk of the Town” and “TNC” does multiple times a week on his blog, and occasionally in the NY Times.

A model of a hacked MIT Police cruiser in the Stata Center festooned with origami

A model of a hacked MIT Police cruiser in the Stata Center festooned with origami

I wrote about TNC on the occasion of his first talk at MIT two years ago, and since then I have felt a unique sense of pride and respect for the work he does on his blog. Pride, in the sense that as part of “the horde” (his blog commenter community, tho I am but a lurker) I see how his own intellectual pursuits have drawn upon the relationships he develops with his public–plus he is at MIT! Respect, in seeing how he has grown as a writer in the 5 years or so since his blog emerged into broader view. Just in the past month he has been cranking out really amazing work connecting his reading about postwar Europe and the legacy of slavery in the US. So it was great to get the chance to see him and a beacon of the opinion establishment talk.

Quick hit: who are Hertzberg and TNC’s favorite bloggers? No big surprises: both follow Andrew Sullivan, Jim Fallows, Jonathan Chait, Talking Points Memo. RH also likes James Walcott, and TNC also reads Grantland and The Toast (woot! nice to see The Awl’s tentacles reach into these precints).

For my jealous homies who wish they could have been there, some fan’s notes:

  • TNC asked whether Hertzberg really had a writing teacher who gave him insights into, for example, the lessons of Orwell on the use of metaphor and avoidance of cliche. RH said that as an editor at the Harvard Crimson all the opinion writers would submit their work to public critique by all the other staff, and that this was the toughest and best instruction he had.
  • RH said he went to college wanting to be a newspaper man, and that his favorite job at the Crimson was laying out the front page. He said his sense of composing a sentence or an essay drew upon that graphic sense of laying out the newspaper, and arranging the elements of his work.
  • On whether opinion writers write beautifully: “Leon Weiseltier’s writing is way more beautiful than his ideas…Beautiful writing attracts readers and gives the possibility of preaching outside the choir”
  • In praising TNC, RH said that he possessed “Sitzfleisch,” or the ability to sit for hours focused on writing, as opposed to RH who is a classic tortured writer, pulling at least one all-nighter on a mattress in his office per column
  • Both talked about blogging as recreation: it allows you to come up with things that writing a formal essay does not (though in his preview of this talk, TNC pointed at the value of writing within a strict form like the Talk of the Town leader).
  • There was a lot of talk about gatekeepers in opinion writing, from the old days with more limited outlets to now where everyone with a Tumblr account is an opinionator, nominally open to the whole world as an audience. TNC said that this explosion of access to the public is part of a broader “end of boredom” environment, in which essay writers need to work even harder to grab readers by collar and say read this, care about this
  • The question was posed as to whether our dire state of politics relates to the dire/cheap/silod state of writing? RH said such claims, i.e. of “epistemic closure” on the right, are exaggerated, and that most of journalism has always been about the current equivalent of the Kardashians.
  • Sounding the same alarm as Fallows, RH says we blame our problems (on climate change, guns, immigration) and failure to address them on everything except the broken machinery of our government. He said he is such a one-noter on the filibuster and its associated problems that it is a running joke in the New Yorker–but that he believes people are starting to come around to his view on that topic.
  • Someone asked about the Snowden/Assange leaks and Glenn Greenwald as “opinionated” journalist vs. “objective” New York Times (along which lines, this interesting debate between Greenwald and NYT ex-editor Bill Keller this week was very interesting). TNC said that he was glad Greenwald raised the question of the Times’ refusal to call US torture by its name, and that such examples show how we hide behind ideas of objectivity and civility to obscure what are in fact very partisan stances.

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