Blame Brandon Ambrosino’s Editors, Not Him

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein, who never imagined his photograph would accompany so many blog posts this week.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Remember how Dan Savage successfully redefined Santorum to signify the “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of [inadequately prepped] anal sex”? I would not be at all surprised if, by next week, Ambrosino stands for something like “the act of demeaning your community for selfish reasons or as part of working out your own psychological issues; often encouraged by attending traumatizing institutions such as Liberty University.” Cumbersome descriptors like “that guy just wrote a condescending op-ed condemning pride parades because they aren’t palatable to conservative straight people like his parents” can be shortened to “that guy just pulled a massive Ambrosino.”

Such a neologism might make communicating easier, but it would also be unfair. Much of the hate that Brandon Ambrosino—the enfant terrible of LGBTQ opinion writing known for his historically uninformed, politically naive, and/or intellectually coarse opinions on queer issues—has garnered since the announcement earlier this week that he had been hired as a writing fellow at Ezra Klein’s Vox.com has been misdirected: It’s his editors to date who really deserve our ire.

Ambrosino is a budding young writer who, if he wishes to be a serious voice in LGBTQ discourse, needs to spend some time educating himself in the relevant history, theory, and long-running debates that his alma mater and training in dance likely didn’t cover. And to be clear, this is not so that he will come to the same ideological conclusions that I or any other “professional gay” may hold; it’s just that right now, his thinking very often comes off as warmed-over and juvenile. Additionally, it would probably be good for him to stop publically worrying so much about what his parents think of his “chosen lifestyle.” However, all of these are deficiencies that could be ameliorated with effort and time. The problem is, a conscientious editor would have suggested he pursue that growth off the page; instead, a handful at some of the most respected outlets on the Web hit publish.

In searching for words to describe this behavior, cruel and calculating are the ones that jump to mind. If Ambrosino’s editors at the Atlantic, the New Republic, Time, or the Baltimore Sun really cared about grooming fresh talent, they should have recognized that he was not ready for prime time and treated him with the kindness of a rejection until he had further developed his chops. (More on that “should have” part in a bit.) Instead, it seems they saw an opportunity for a clicky headline—gay issues currently being the hottest battleground of the culture wars—and ran the piece with little consideration as to whether this untrained “accidental journalist” was prepared for the front lines. That may come off as paternalistic, but it’s the kind of judgment an editor should be exercising as a matter of course—I try to do it, and I’m grateful that others have done it for me in the past.

Now, perhaps these editors are so clueless about LGBTQ issues that they couldn’t recognize Ambrosino’s unpreparedness. In wondering over the Vox decision over at the American Prospect, Gabriel Arana articulates this disturbing likelihood perfectly: “Not having a gay person in Vox’s leadership—someone who is familiar with the fault lines and sensitivities of the debate—leaves editors vulnerable to making tone-deaf decisions.” Indeed, Klein himself admitted to Arana that he doesn’t have “the context and the background to perfectly or authoritatively judge this debate,” but even so, “didn’t come away with the impression that [Ambrosino] holds an iota of homophobia.”

Forgive me, but as brilliant a thinker as Klein is on economic and policy issues, I’m not sure I trust him to know an iota from a surfeit in this arena, and clearly Ambrosino’s previous editors lack similar discernment. Unfortunately, that’s unacceptable—yes, editors are busy people, but if you would like to enjoy the traffic generated by a “counterintuitive” or “surprising” piece on LGBTQ issues, it is your ethical responsibility to make sure you understand at least the basics of the debate in question. These are not wonky questions of policy or fun data visualizations. The health, safety, and wellbeing of the community you are exploiting (and regardless of your intention, that is in some sense the right word) remains far too precarious in a world that is still very much pre-equality to subject it to editorial flippancy.

That said, should the mistreatment Ambrosino has suffered at the hands of editors thus far disqualify him from a career in journalism, assuming he even wants to pursue one after all of this? I don’t think so. As my colleague David Weigel rightly noted, the guy has potential, and Klein could well be the one to bring it to fruition.

Indeed, in rationalizing the hire on Facebook, Klein dismissed accusations that Vox hired Ambrosino for click-related reasons and noted that, as a fellow, he would be getting “a lot of editing and a lot of guidance.” Klein went on to echo, perhaps unintentionally, my criticism of Ambrosino’s previous editors: “But something that often happens to young freelance writers on the Internet is that they end up writing reams of their most controversial opinions before they ever get a chance to do basic reporting or benefit from a routine relationship with an editor.” This is demonstrably true, and it makes you long for the time when a would-be public intellectual could seclude herself, as Sontag did, for years of study and preparation until she was ready to meet the public. But that luxury is harder to come by—editors practically suck the copy out of you these days—which makes Klein’s desire to rehabilitate Ambrosino all the more noble.

One does wonder if Klein had always intended to run a charitable institution. Either way, saving lost journalistic souls is an admirable cause. Of course, that generosity may be cold comfort to the many less controversial, less established, and perhaps more “on message” young writers who also completed Klein’s arduous 5,000-word application test. (Unless no one else did, in which case, points to Ambrosino for perseverance.) But then, at least they have learned what it takes to grab attention. Ambrosino has certainly done that—now let’s hope the Vox fellowship affords him an opportunity to reflect and grow and, ultimately, to earn respect.