One of my strangest all-time experiences was becoming a fan of a weblog -- the now-defunct, or at least moribund, halfbakered.blogspot.com, operated by one Mike Hollihan and named in my, er, honor. Actually, the blog's stated purpose was to counter me in my role, as Hollihan saw it, as "liberal shill." Alternately, "Democratic shill." Never mind that I also get e-mail accusing me of being a "GOPer" and that conservative Republican firebrand Jeff Ward of Tipton County is kind enough to brag about me in his TeamGOP e-mail bulletins as the "best" and "fairest" political reporter in the state. High praise and much appreciated. The fact is, I try to be phenomenological; i.e., I try to see the world as my subjects see it and to render their vision pure. Anyone looking straight down the road is going to see that, for better or for worse, I leave a lot of margin on either side.
The difference between Ward and Hollihan, by the way, is that Jeff is actually in the arena and knows how things work. Politics, with all its deals and leaks and trade-offs and quirks and feuds and cozy relationships, is a machinery that requires some hands-on experience in order to understand. You can't grasp it from your living-room chair, not even with the best how-to manual in your lap.
Or to put that another way, employing a metaphor that I had ready to go when Hollihan not long ago boasted on his site of a wholly imaginary "takedown" he claimed to have done of my coverage, in 2001, of the income-tax fight in Nashville. It reminded me, I was about to say, of those sad old men in rooms at the Y, pants down around their ankles, one hand clutching a copy of the latest Playboy, the other assuring them they had just made love to Britney Spears.
In truth, though, I don't see Mike that way at all. He is (was?) a damned fine media critic, by and large, and I didn't turn my polemical guns on him for several reasons -- not least of which was that he did some compelling work in analyzing several local situations and personalities and the coverage of them. The problem was that, as soon as Hollihan stopped trying to figure everything out in his head and made an effort to do some real reporting, he discovered that a variant of Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle governs all true journalism. As the 20th-century German scientist found in looking at sub-atomic matter -- or any variable, for that matter -- the very act of observing something changes it. Among the implications of that, for political journalists, is that no preconception -- count 'em, none -- holds up when you're looking squarely and fairly at your subject.
Hollihan, for example, had City Council member Carol Chumney pegged as a grandstander and ego-tripper -- a case easy enough to make, even for those who watch her closely -- but he made the mistake of actually getting in touch with her and discovered that he'd been charmed. Thereafter, his certainties seemed to fade. Join the club, Mike. Something of the sort happens all the time.
It's that kind of experience -- actual contact with the amorphousness of reality -- that, I believe, caused Hollihan to throw up his hands recently and scrap his blog. In a final cri de coeur, he said, among other things, "I don't know much more than the average Joe or Jane here in Memphis. Yet I am more than happy to tell paid, experienced, credentialed people how to do their jobs. Who the hell am I to think that?"
That's a sobering insight, Mike, but it shouldn't stop you in your tracks. Real-deal journalists go through the same manner of angst several times a week. In its way, it's no worse than having to make some kind of sense against the pressure of never-ending deadlines. Work through the pain and the confusion. Come on back to work.
But, lookit, the next time I cite Woodrow Wilson on "open covenants, openly arrived at" (as I did during the course of an encomium on Governor Phil Bredesen's public budget process), I'm not thereby confessing membership in some sinister secret society of the Illuminati, as you supposed in one of your elongated, dead-serious postings. I'm just cribbing a quote to fill a hole in my copy.
Lighten up. The world is not the dogmatic, Manichean place you imagine (though we for damn sure have international enemies now, and even some domestic sorts, who want to see it that way).. By all means, go back to blogging. And, if you have to take shots at me, so be it. You and your ilk are pioneers on a new frontier, and what you do is necessarily going to be as imperfect as what us other muckers do.
"The blog is closed. No need to keep checking in. Y'all take care," you say, in your last posting. But I've got you bookmarked on my computer, and I'm going to keep it that way until I'm sure you're not coming back. •