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Sridhar Pappu on crafting the white male 'brat pack' narrative

March 29, 2011 - 12:15 PM
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This old thing. (Photo: Associated Press)

Over the weekend, the New York Times Fashion & Style section finally discovered a Washington trend worth investigating: a band of white, highly educated men who are pushing 30 and taking the media world by storm. Who would have thought these crazy kids would make it!

The piece included such anthropological insights into "Washington's new brat pack" (except older, and not new anymore) as: "Sitting in a darkened bar not far from the Washington Convention Center, drinking bourbon, Mr. Yglesias, 29, wistfully recalled his days as a student in Cambridge, Mass., where he developed his own blog with the help of his college roommate, who knew something about this new thing called HTML." Later, Yglesias' romantic situation is compared to St. Elmo's Fire.

Commentators responded to the narrative—white Harvard grad blooms into influential pundit, in grandiose cinematic style—with disdain. Betsy Rothstein framed the piece as "a new low." Yglesias himself considered "Rebranding myself as Matteo Iglesias to help evade mockery for all-white, all-male NYT profile of 'young' pundits." I called the story "masturbatory." And Ann Friedman crafted an elaborate point-by-point satire of the piece's exclusively male focus: “Everyone’s gotten a little bit older and a little more tired of being constantly rendered invisible,” Friedman satirically quoted herself as saying of Washington's female journalists. "Four years ago, we were fact-checking and editing these male pundits, along with creating award-winning work of our own. None of that has changed.”

To Sridhar Pappu, the 35-year-old freelancer behind the piece, the white maleness of the story's players—in addition to Yglesias, he profiled 26-year-old Ezra Klein, 28-year-old Brian Beutler, and 29-year-old Dave Weigel—was purely incidental. "I mean, it’s not a story about every single Washington writer. It’s a story about a very specific group," Pappu told me in a phone interview yesterday. A specific group that just happens to be exclusively white and male. "I don’t think that [them] being male or female had anything to do with it," Pappu said.

Here's the selection criteria that yielded Pappu's study set: "It was about a very specific group who followed a very similar narrative," Pappu explains, "people who came up through blogging" but who "now hold prominence, both in print and in television. These guys are on TV a lot." Plus, they're friends. "Ultimately, it ended up being a story about a group of people that grew up together as individuals and professionally ended up at these places," Pappu says. "They came of age together in a very specific way."

Pappu isn't clear on why that particular career trajectory and circle of friends appears to be—in his piece, at least—exclusive to white guys. "I think it’s a matter of time and place, honestly," Pappu says. "I didn’t focus on specifically why they're all male and why they’re all white."

But Pappu did manage to net a quote from a rising female web presence, Slate economics and business writer (and Weigel colleague) Annie Lowrey. Despite her impressive young career—at 26, she had stints at The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Independent before landing at Slate—Pappu introduced Lowrey in his piece as the object of the phrase "Mr. Klein is engaged to."

Pappu explains that Lowrey just didn't exactly fit into that highly specific group he'd selected for the story. “The thing is, in talking to Annie, you know, she had a much more traditional narrative line than these guys,” says Pappu. "She got her start a different way than these guys did, so I identified her as that. She was someone who was able to speak about them, but a little bit from the outside."

Lowrey isn't convinced that the "new brat pack" math was so exact. "The thesis, as far as I can tell, is: These four dudes who sort of do the same thing, but sort of don't, have grown up! Amazing!" she told me over e-mail. "I'm not sure why he picked these four guys. Matt and Ezra (policy commentators) don't do what Dave and Brian do (political reporters). Brian and Matt never go on television. Dave and Ezra do all the time."

Lowrey agrees that she didn't come to web reporting on the Weigel path—but she pointed Pappu to at least one woman who did. "The waters are crowded now, meaning even if you have the talent of a Matt, it's going to be harder for you to break through," says Lowry. "But there was a woman who broke through, and I mentioned her to Sridhar, and I have no idea why Megan McArdle isn't in the piece. She has enormous stature in the blogosphere—she's freaking fantastic—and came up through the exact same channels as Matt and Ezra—blogging on her own site then parlaying it into her great big job at The Atlantic." Adds Lowrey: "And, she's buds with them to boot."

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  1. David Kinney David Kinney

    David Kinney

    Mar 29, 2011 - 12:45:36 PM

    I have been wondering this whole time why Megan McArdle wasn't in the piece. Glad I wasn't the only one.

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