I almost felt guilty about posting this pontificating thing about Michael Hastings the other day, talking about how he did the right thing in publishing something that he knew would burn bridges for him not only with General McChrystal but with the White House.
I felt maybe I was overstating things – it’s not like there’s some kind of written agreement among journalists not to go after powerful figures unless a) they’re already dead politically, or b) they belong to the team opposite to your newspaper’s political orientation. I mean, no journalist would actually say out loud that when a powerful guy makes damaging comments in front of a reporter holding a microphone in his face, said reporter is supposed to sit on those comments out of a sense of loyalty to the ideal of public order and a scandal-free media atmosphere.
Then along comes you know who – David Brooks – with an amazing column called The Culture of Exposure . In it, the world’s BoBo-in-chief says, out loud, that reporters should protect public officials from their own stupidity. The column is so full of typically Brooksian power-worshipping pathology that the fact that I failed to predict it makes me worry that I really am slipping, now that I’m past forty.
In the column Brooks talks about how the media landscape has changed over the past 50 years, about the gotcha journalism culture in which a public official, sadly, no longer feels safe in having a beer with a reporter and bragging about his mistresses and his Swiss bank accounts. Once upon a time, Brooks says, pols and reporters did a lot of “kvetching” together, gossiping about events in and around the Hill – and most of that “kvetching” stayed out of print:
Those of us in the press corps have to figure out how to treat this torrent of private kvetching. During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.
From there Brooks drags us all to the same dreary place that every conservative columnist eventually goes to in these discussions of sourcing and secrecy and attribution. He regurgitates the tired idea that the press lost its sense of patriotism after Vietnam and Watergate and began reflexively searching for political scalps with gotcha headlines – instead of working collegially with power to sift through the “kvetching” to sit on embarrassing but irrelevant stuff while revealing to the public the few truths it needed to know. Here’s how Brooks put it:
Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.
This is a load of crap. It’s bad even by Brooks standards.
Yeah, we have a press corps that goes after “impurities” these days, but you know what kind of impurities they’re after? They’re after Monica Lewinsky’s dress, they’re after gay blowjobs in train stations, they’re after governors who like high-priced escorts and televangelists who like to do meth with male escorts. And yes, they go after that stuff with an Inquisition-like intensity nowadays, but that has nothing to do with Watergate and Vietnam and everything to do with the media business turning into a nihilistic for-profit industry every bit as amoral and bloodless as oil or banking or big tobacco.
When a Bill Clinton or a Larry Craig steps into the Rupert Murdoch bear trap by getting blown by someone he shouldn’t, ratings go through the roof; and since most editors no longer have the discretion to sit on these things because corporate bean-counters will drop the ax if those sorts of profit opportunities are passed up, we get tons and tons of that sort of reporting.
What we get very little of is reporting that asks difficult questions about complicated issues and makes a sincere effort to explain to the public who’s really running this country and how they go about doing it. Brooks would have us believe that we’ve been overrun by Pentagon Papers-esque stories and Watergate-style investigative reporting, but the reality is that most of the major news organizations have gutted their editorial departments to the bone, to the point where long-form investigative journalism doesn’t really exist apart from a few scattered outlets here and there.
We’ve got plenty of that “gotcha” stuff where a hundred reporters chase after politicians with cameras and boom mics to ask him if it it’s really true that he stuck his pee-pee in an intern, but when was the last time you saw a major network do a feature on Pentagon contracting? On campaign fundraising corruption? Or where were all those gotcha journalists during the internet bubble that ended up costing America $5 trillion? Answer: hounding Bill Clinton about the Lewinsky business.
Where were they during the mortgage bubble? Why was it left to Jeremy Scahill and a few guys like Seymour Hersh to go after the insanity of the Iraq war? Answer: because it’s much easier to make money selling a war using fancy graphics and daily boosterish capsule reports (using wire footage shot by embedded journos, usually) than it is busting one open by sponsoring expensive, cranky investigative journalists who may not produce more than once story every few months or so.
Brooks is trying to paint this Hastings article as cheap “gotcha” journalism, and there’s no doubt that there’s an element here of a reporter catching a people saying really and/or doing stupid shit that they should probably never have said, joking about being nicknamed “Team America” and all that. But this stupid shit, the shit that got all the headlines, was said in the context of a larger story that is incredibly important.
We have a president who during his election campaign ran on the idea that he was going to pursue a narrow strategy in Afghanistan centered around fighting al-Qaeda. Then he gets elected and puts in charge a guy who immediately wants more troops and seems committed to a loony nation-building exercise run under the banner of a counterinsurgency program called COIN, in which armed soldiers are supposed to double as cultural representatives — “Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps” is how Hastings wrote it. This COIN program was supposed to use large masses of American troops to go out into Afghanistan, perhaps the most change-resistant place on the planet, and help the whole country come around to our point view from behind kevlar vests.
So there was clear tension here between Obama’s stated campaign vision and McChrystal’s own vision, which to me sounds a lot like the old “hearts and minds” strategy of McNamara and all those other violent meddling morons from the Vietnam era. And while I know David Brooks probably does want America back using the military to convert unwitting foreign peoples to the Wal-Mart/Ikea culture at the tip of a sword, I sure as hell don’t, and if someone is trying to do so on my behalf I want to know about it.
In this context the dumb insubordination of McChrystal and his drunken staff didn’t just constitute brief and perhaps accidental indiscretions than an understanding reporter should have overlooked on behalf of God and country, but were completely newsworthy and relevant comments that Hastings absolutely had to put into print in order to shed light on the larger issue. But to Brooks it was just an opportunistic reporter seizing on a little “kvetching” to make the world a meaner, less trusting place:
Another scalp is on the wall. Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.
Of course Brooks himself almost certainly never even considered the newsworthiness of McChrystal’s perhaps-unilateral expansion of the Afghan war; I doubt his thinking about this issue even went that far. I’m almost certain that to him this is a matter of decorum, that what he doesn’t like about the Hastings article is that it violates what I’m sure are deeply-held ideas of how a reporter should behave toward a large strapping man with immense political power and a snappy uniform.
Hastings did the opposite of what Brooks would have done in the same situation — instead of wetting himself in the presence of all those stars and epaulettes and spending long Saleri-esque nights dreaming up new descriptive bon mots for the General (“Grazi Senore,” he’d have said with a kiss blown heavenward, after typing the phrase “McChrystal’s craggy sagacity”), Hastings did his job and let the public decide what sort of news, and on-the-record comments, it is and is not ready to handle.
Anyway, there goes that beatific glow and love for all mankind I had post-tropical vacation. It took exactly one David Brooks article to ruin it. Does anyone out there have any Xanax?