The exoneration desk

Well, so much for my “mission.” By the time I’d responded to even one-tenth the references to me as a “useful idiot,” there was no time for drinks with Herb Matthews, not to mention my Brazilian. If I don’t get that wax once every 12 hours, I really start to itch. Hate that.

Besides, Bill and Pinch were doing suicide shots after it turned out Loughner, the dimwit in Tucson, wasn’t a right-wing crazy after all. He was a nihilist crazy, whatever the hell that means. What kind of a nihilist thinks nihilism has any meaning? Who knows. No way to find out, either: the Nietzche compound on 5 is completely surrounded by Dobermans, plus there’s syphilis in the groundwater, even. If I wanted that, I’d just pee in my corn flakes.

So I start getting worried notes from Pinch. “How do I play my Krugman?” “Any ideas about how we can make Rich more interesting?” “Who gave Charles Blow a job? He sucks.” Pinch gets all strategic when things go south. Keller, on the other hand, does a full-Smithers.

So we do meetings. Pinch suggests something – “Say, how about an op-ed by Loughner? If we just can get him to stay on the anti-gov theme, we’ll look good. Or maybe Charlie Manson on Loughner? Edgy!” Bill’s already on the phone to Squeaky.

My idea’s better. “We create an exoneration desk.” There’s, like, stunned silence. Keller hangs up the phone and pulls his pants back on. There’s something delicious in feeding useless idiots small morsels of useful genius. They physically freeze, like the idea’s so monumentally good they can’t breathe. “Give me two futureless reporters – maybe a guy covering cable TV and a guy writing about how magazines give prisoners meaningful lives by providing a place for them to send letters. Give me those and I’ll give you an exoneration desk. Every now and them we make them write stories that exonerate us of doing such a crappy job running a paper.”

Keller’s all worried looking. Whenever he asks what to him are searching questions, he has this really disconcerting habit of unbuttoning his short and looking into his navel while speaking. “Do we do a crappy job?”

“Idiot,” says Pinch. “You do a crappy job.”

“Of course,” says Keller, suddenly enlightened. He looks happy. Then he looks worried again. “Frank won’t like it.”

I explain it to them. “Look, if you lost Walter Cronkite, you could say you lost America. But if you lose Frank Rich, you can be sure you’ve lost nothing. Who cares about a guy who’s been throwing the same tantrum for twenty years? Frank’s a one-note samba, a one-trick pony, a one-fortune cookie. Frank’s not news.

“We need real news. What’s news is that The New York Times avoids the pitfalls that plague the competition! That’s news.” I wait for the coin to drop. With Pinch, you have to slow things down. The idea always has to be his.

He tries to look pensive, but that boyish grin just won’t sleep. “I like it!” he says. “It’s worth a story just to report that we got the news right. So what if that’s not quite accurate? That’s not news.”

So that’s how Peters and Stelter got their new gig. Pulitzers have been made with less. Ask me.

So I’m back home this week doing rewrites for Krugman. Much harder than rewriting Freidman. Nobody knows what Friedman’s talking about, so you can say anything. With Krugman, you have to marry the earnestness of a TED lecture with the economic wisdom of a Madoff. I get extra for that.

Posted 17.01.2011 by Pultizer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty
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