I read three articles recently that put me in mind of the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” In it, three bears head out for an afternoon trip to the mall or someplace while a local vagrant, Goldilocks, breaks into their home. She tastes the porridge they have left out, saying that Papa Bear’s is “too hot,” Mama Bear’s is “too cold,” and Baby Bear’s is “just right.” She does a similar thing with the bears’ three chairs and beds, finding two extremes before settling on the third one that is “just right.” Eventually the bears come back and find her in their home. She is scared straight and becomes a productive member of society.
When I read these three articles over a couple of days, I decided that the difference between them could be viewed as a difference in how the writer views the subject. One was “too hot,” one was “too cold,” and the last was “just right.”
Too hot: Richard Dawkins, an Original Thinker who Bashes Orthodoxy. This article, while presenting some interesting background, reads like it was written by a card-carrying member of the Dawkins Fan Club. It is no sin to like your subject, but it is not a good thing to like your subject so much that you don’t challenge them. You end up with a profile that doesn’t actually tell anyone anything they don’t already know. This profile ends up being mildly interesting, but breaks no new ground.
Too cold: What I Learned in Two Years at the Tea Party. This article is written by someone who spent a couple of years attending Tea Party meetings and observing the people there. The argument that the Tea Party is not all about economics is an interesting one, but the article itself is marred by the writer’s clear contempt for those he writes about.
Just right: Dubya and Me. This article, while written by a person who explicitly points out that he disagrees with Bush politically, is a wonderful attempt to understand who George W. Bush is and why he thinks the way he does. What makes this article great is that the author, knowing that he disagrees with Bush, still attempts to understand him. This is a character trait called empathy, which has never been common. In our world, it is positively endangered.
A lot of bad journalism comes down to being “too hot” or “too cold.” This amounts to a character flaw in the writer: either an uncritical love of the subject, or a contempt for the subject. Journalists who get it “just right” are able to show empathy for the subjects they find it hard to relate to, and challenge the subjects they find it easy to relate to.