A cure for curmudgeons

(recovered post; comments lost)

Yesterday, I was on a panel with Terry Heaton at the Public Radio News Directors’ annual confab in Washington. Topic: blogging. Terry and I were almost through with opening tap dances when a hotheaded curmudgeon in the third row interrupted — which is fine; we like conversation — to go on the attack and save the world from these horrible blog people. He spat out all the usual lines, including how terribly busy he is being a news director (his italics) and how this is such a nonsense and a bother. My favorite sputtering: “I have a job. Do you have jobs?”

To which the proper response should have been, “Go fug yourself.” But I didn’t say that. Nor did I complain about how rude it was of him to attack us when we took two days out of our lives and came to Washington — for free — to talk about this topic at their invitation. I’m tough. I can take it. This is hardly the first time I’ve heard everything he had to say (but he seemed so proud, as if he’d just thought it up himself; the only thing he didn’t say was that he didn’t want a citizen surgeon, either).

However, I also did not patiently respond to all his cliches. I have decided I’m not going to waste my time anymore with lazy, rude, self-important, self-delusional, intellectually dishonest, closed-minded curmudgeons who bark against the full moon of change. It has all been said before. I see no reason to waste my time, nor that of everyone else in the room. My new policy has been that I’m going to fight curmudgeonliness with curmudgeonliness. I told this fool that f he didn’t want to see the opportunities to do things in new ways, fine.

And then we proceeded with a very nice discussion of practical questions about blogging in news organizations, a discussion that continued later in the day. Everyone else I heard wanted to explore these new opportunities and had plenty of questions and doubts to deal with — as well they should — as well as experience to share; they welcomed change or at least know they couldn’t scare it away.

Meanwhile, the curmudgeon acted like a child sent to the corner and refused to look forward at the panel for the rest of the event. My goal was to get us past the growling as soon as possible and onto a substantive discussion. That is, I think, how to deal with curmudgeons. You can always find reasons not to do things. Then fine, don’t do them. Far more interesting and useful is to explore what might happen if you do them.

I did the same thing a week ago when I was called by a couple of consultants and one of them issued the usual yes-buts, such as, “Well, have you looked at the home page of YouTube, huh?” I said he was wasting my time — especially since I was, again, talking for free.

You see, the problem with curmudgeons and complainers is that its so easy for them hijack any discussion. For not to deal with their very grave concerns is to make you look careless. That’s the rhetorical trick: “You could be wrong, it could go wrong, answer me that!” And if you don’t? “Aha!”

Well, the hour is far too late and the state of the industry far, far too desperate to waste time with these sideshows. They had their time and the objections needed to be addressed in that time. But I haven’t heard fresh objections in a few years. What I want to hear instead is fresh ideas; we must have more of those.

So my advice is to set the ground rules for events and conversations such as these and stick to them. It might have helped the recent Australian-American Future of Media Summit that apparently descended into curmudgeonliness and “endless bloody whinging. Whinging about how journalism has standards and bloggers are all ‘just’ writing whatever they think.” Stilgherrian complains and then journalist Jonathan Este complains about the complaining. And then here’s one more. [links via a Jay Rosen tweet].

What a waste of time, of which there is so little to waste.

: LATER: Jay Rosen declared the war over in 2005 but he tweets: “I’ve since realized that they are each other’s ideal ‘other.’”

: MORE: I’m bringing this exchange with Jay Rosen out from the comments. He wrote:

Personally, I think the campaign to discredit and marginalize the curmudgeons is going just fine; and I do not intend to stop writing about them. As I’ve said before, the curmudgeon is a newsroom type, and the newsroom’s romance with this type has been a disaster. It is within the power of any living breathing thinking journalist not to conform to this type, not to “be” a curmudgeon. But when people do step into that role and go high curmudgeon on you, the performance should be discredited in any way that works. Could be smiling politely and reciting facts, or arguing back, or ignoring the provocation and moving on.

You have to persist, not only through the encounters like the one you write about here, but also through all the mini-lectures from all the well-meaning and usually quite intelligent, informed people who do the he said she said can’t we all get along the truth must be somewhere in the middle what extremists on both sides overlook we need to be more civil can’t we get beyond this now what a tired debate thing at you.

And I responded:

But, Jay, I’m not sure I do have to persist.

In campaign terms, Obama stopped arguing with Clinton when he knew she was vanquished. The question is: are the curmudgeon’s vanquished? Well, not while they’re in charge, perhaps. But they’re in charge of sinking ships and they’re helping sink them.

I suppose what you’re saying is that we should — we even have a duty to — grab their hands off the wheel and save the boat. What I’m saying is that I’m not at all sure that is worth the time and effort (and frustration) anymore.

Personally, this is why I left the corporation and went to teach and why I started a class in entrepreneurial journalism — to effect change outside these curmudgeon-run organizations. I also talk with and help organizations that are past the rule of the curmudgeons (starting with the Guardian). I find that more productive and ultimately helpful to the cause we’re both trying to serve than still taking the time to deal with the curmudgeons.

No, I think the time has come to abandon them to die. I’ll turn the hose and its precious water away from them to plants, new or old, that have a chance to survive. It’s triage time. Curmudgeons get tags on their toes.