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Another indispensable man


A couple of follow-up thoughts on the Franken affair:

Jane Mayer is a great journalist — in my view she’s the best investigative journalist in America — but I think she got tripped up a bit by a couple of endemic risks to doing long-form investigative journalism.

The first is the tendency to make something more of a story than it really is because you’ve put so much time and effort into it. Mayer’s investigations reveal that Tweeden’s accusations were sketchy in various ways, but that there seems to be no reason to seriously doubt the other seven accusers, and that there’s no evidence of any sort of co-ordinated GOP campaign.

The problem with that conclusion is that it hardly qualifies as news. I mean that’s exactly what I would have expected a deep dive into the evidence to reveal. But understandably Mayer wants to frame her confirmation of that predictable story arc as a significant revelation/expose.

It really isn’t.

The second is made up of the many powerful incentives to focus on a subject for reasons that have no justification beyond the purely pragmatic and commercial judgment that people want to read about it.

The Al Franken story gets 12,000 words in the New Yorker because its subject is Al Franken, former SNL star and beloved figure among the donor class, rather than former Sen. Joe Smith from Flyover who Nobody Who Matters has ever even really heard of.

There’s an insidious synergy between these two factors of course: It’s a lot easier to make a mountain out of a molehill if the molehill has a celebrity on top of it.

Yet a third factor is that, as a stand-alone piece, Mayer’s story can be read as a sympathetic-towards-its subject yet ultimately descriptive, rather than normative, comment on that subject’s relation to a particular social moment. But again, the imperatives of the genre more or less require a kind of social media meta-framing in which the story is an expose of the grave injustice done to Al Franken, even though Mayer’s own story doesn’t really support that framing. (I.E. why am I supposed to read 12,000 words about this guy again?).

Finally, all of this is yet another example of the ubiquity of the myth of the indispensable man. I feel bad for Franken personally, and hope that he can go on to do other good things, but basically he lost his super-high status job for what in the grand scheme are good reasons, all things considered. At this particular historical moment that doesn’t seem like a particularly compelling story.

(Also too, the odds are 3/5 that Biden says something dumb about this affair before the dealing’s done).

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