Perhaps the only person unsatisfied with Wonkblog’s growth was Klein himself. In addition to posting regularly on the blog and overseeing his staff, he wrote a weekly print column in the Post and another weekly column for Bloomberg View, and still found time to write long articles for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Plus he sold a book to Simon & Schuster. At MSNBC, he got a contract as an analyst.
When, in late 2012, the Times reported that he was likely to be offered his own MSNBC show, it made sense. Maddow had demonstrated it was possible to be smart on the idiot box, and countless journalists have made the transition from print to TV, with its promise of fame and a bigger salary.
One evening last January, I sat with Klein at the MSNBC studio near American University in Washington, D.C., as he was getting ready to guest-host The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. It was clearly part of an ongoing audition for his own show. But even though Klein has a pleasant TV persona, you could see the tension between his desire to be good at hosting and the sense that it wasn’t the most comfortable fit. When a producer suggested that Klein ask Barney Frank about supposed anti-gay remarks made by Chuck Hagel, the nominee for secretary of Defense, Klein deflected: “I just don’t think that attack on Hagel is very interesting.” Later, he anguished over his opening line about Obama’s choice of Hagel. “I kind of want to write, ‘It was the worst day for neoconservatives since the day Vice-President Cheney shot a dude in the face,’ ” he said to me. “Which is a funny way to open the show. But I feel like, Do I need to poke Dick Cheney? This is the thing about TV that I do find hard: It rewards a sharpness that I wouldn’t use in my writing.”
Klein ended up cutting the joke, Chris Hayes ended up getting the MSNBC job, and Klein’s guest-hosting became less frequent. Suddenly, his next move looked uncertain. “He has a bit of the conquistador in him,” says Lowrey. “Everything he does, he’s kind of looking around at the women and the goats and the huts.” With TV off the table, he spent much of the past year planning something ambitious enough to hold his attention but that would take him away from cable TV and, for that matter, the whole personality-driven news business that he finds problematic.“I think the brand part of journalism is not gone, but as far as that being the hot new thing, that was a couple years ago,” he says. “My interest here is entirely about building a truly significant, central news property for the digital age, that if it succeeds—and it definitely might not—will be a huge company that is devoted to helping people, like a Wikipedia or New York Times. The wildest version of this has nothing to do with me.”
For someone who intends to reshape journalism, Klein has an unusual distaste for Great Man theories and a generic distrust of narrative. He prefers the X-ray power of the chart, the infographic, the bullet-point breakdown—of what he calls “data viz.” If Wonkblog ran a post about its creator, it would be titled something like: “The Four Things You Need to Know About Ezra Klein in One Chart.” Minus the chart:
1. Before Klein was a prodigy, he was a slug.
It had briefly seemed that young Ezra might be headed for bigger things when, at age 6, the L.A. Times wrote about his invention of the “Ice Cream Cooler and Melt Stopper,” a plastic guard so “my sister won’t spill everything anymore.” But his moment in the spotlight proved a blip in an otherwise lackluster childhood in Irvine, California.
When he was in seventh grade, a group of classmates formed a little gang, with cards identifying them as the Outlaws, and bullied Ezra and some other kids severely enough that the police were called. Ezra was overweight and unpopular; even in high school the bullying didn’t stop. “We were both obnoxious know-it-alls,” recalls his friend Tristan Reed, “and that’s an easy way to not have people like you.”
His sophomore year in high school, Ezra metamorphosed. Every day, for six months, he ate the same thing and ran three miles. He dropped 50 of his 220-plus pounds and started to focus more on how he dressed. “There was something that happened when he did lose that weight,” Gideon Kracov, his half-brother, says. “Something clicked with him.” Ezra was a voracious reader but a poor student, whiling away hours smoking pot and playing GoldenEye and Tony Hawk on his Nintendo 64. He says he graduated from high school with a 2.2 GPA and barely got into UC Santa Cruz.