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Trevor Butterworth Headshot

Dotards and Maybe Fools: Bacon Gate Turns Into a Brawl

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Wow -you have to love Bacon-gate as a media scandal! It has everything: frothing editors, who if not quite superannuated, are definitely long-in-the-tooth, supercilious media critics, vitriolic journalism professors, ageism, elitism, Islamophobia and whether it will derail the first black presidency of the United States.

So let's recap, Perry Bacon wrote a piece that is only marginally better written than a computer manual - there is not a trace of verve or voice in a single paragraph - and it rewards the reader with less insight and intelligence. It reads, in voice and in structure, as if it took an hour or two to write and report. Maybe less. And after the vague, sub-Wildean nod to paradox in the opening paragraph, one has to struggle mightily against nodding off, so meandering and dull is the story. Bravo to those who were aroused enough to engage in substantive criticism of the content, which focuses on whether it allowed malicious smears to fester where reportorial truth should have shouted "foul!"

And now, in the cause of defending what ought to have been quickly forgotten, Bacon has become the poster-boy for either callow youth given too much responsibility (driven by outsider critic and professor Chris Daly or rising stardom in need of a break (insider depositions by star colleagues at the Post and former employer Time Magazine ).

Suddenly the question has become whether 27-year olds can do good journalism and not whether old-fogey Post editors erred in giving a mediocre story by a young journalist front-page status.

Driving this rhetorical slight of hand was the genus loci of the Post itself, Leonard Downie Jr, who stepped into the fray on Romenesko to denounce Daly for "an outrageous personal attack on a fine young journalist," and to express his disappointment "that it has been given circulation on Romenesko."

If posting on the Poynter Institute's water-cooler for American journalism was charming in its bare knuckle defense of his tyke -- it brought to mind Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (V.I).

Thou hast so wrong'd mine innocent child and me

That I am forced to lay my reverence by

And, with grey hairs and bruise of many days,

Do challenge thee to trial of a man... etc

-- the lèse majesté in going after Romenesko for tabloidism was just a little too ironic. Bacon may well be a fine young journalist, but this not so fine example of journalism was midwifed into print by the Post's editors: Downie's impassioned defense of youth was transparently self-serving.

More hysterical still, in the furious deployment of smoke and mirrors, was David Von Drehle's defense of under-30 journalism, which by implication placed Bacon among such greats as Hunter S. Thompson and Orwell:

I will say that I'm glad Hunter S. Thompson didn't consult with journalism professor Chris Daly before he wrote, at age 27, his career-launching work on the Hell's Angels. And I'm glad Eric Blair didn't seek the professor's permission before writing "A Hanging" under the pen-name George Orwell at about the same age. Otherwise I would never have had a chance to read the first perfectly shaped journalistic essay I encountered in my career.

Dare it be said that Thompson never made it beyond the status of a copy-boy at Time? Would he, today, even manage an internship given his glaring lack of Bacon-esque credentials (Yale Daily News etc)? But that's beside the point. If Thompson hadn't turned in a great article to the Nation on the Hell's Angels, fame would have to wait until he did.

And with Orwell, it helps to remember the considerable work Cyril Connolly did as an editor (one of his primary tasks was to stop Orwell dissipating his talent by writing for newspapers).

Age isn't always accidental to a project: think of the old saw about mathematicians doing their best work young and constitutional historians their best work old. Maybe most journalists fall somewhere in-between foolishness and dotage. With Bacon, age is a factor because the piece in question is callow. It doesn't mean Bacon's next piece won't soar out of the ballpark, or youth won't score because it can't.

Indeed, Bacon could turn out to be a great political journalist; I certainly hope he does (although he should take a lesson from Thompson and type out the Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms to learn about style and structure - as should we all who try to make a living writing).

But if there is a real age problem here it is not with youth in general, or even with the particulars of one that is still young; it is that the magisterium of the Post looks decidedly creaky. Is there so little imagination, so little sense of possibility among the good, the gray and the bald that on a topic of no idle consequence to America and the world one of the world's greatest newspapers should have arrived at something so shabby and dull?