The best and worst elements of American journalism

There have been a few instances recently that highlight both the best and worst tendencies in American journalism.  Let’s take a walk through the mine field together, shall we?

Yesterday afternoon, Joe Klein of Time and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic are both accusing Glenn Greenwald, blogger at Salon, of comparing the invasion of Iraq to the Nazi Conquest of Europe.  As John Cole writes:

We’ve now got the spectacle of two prominent journalists, one for Time, one for the Atlantic, willfully misinterpreting someone’s remarks and screaming that person is a Nazi lover and hates America.

If you haven’t been following this story as it developed, don’t feel bad about being confused.  We only arrived at this point because Joey Joe Joe K and Jeffy G — two dinosaurs whose desperation to remain relevant bleeds through their words like India ink through tissue — have decided it’s best to barricade the castle door against the warriors at the gate: in this case, independent journalists.

Here’s the outline in a nutshell, working backwards chronologically.  Yesterday, Greenwald wrote a post titled “The universality of war propaganda,” in which he argued that just because some small part of an invaded country’s population benefits from the invasion, that doesn’t justify an aggressive war.  He writes:

It’s difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn’t supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn’t used.  That’s true even of the most heinous aggressors.

Greenwald advanced that argument in response to Jeffy’s claim that because the Kurds benefited from the Iraq invasion, that makes it morally sound.  Greenwald then documented numerous instances in which certain members of an invaded country cheered on that invasion, but went on to note:

It should go without saying, but doesn’t:  the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions.  It may or may not be, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that every nation which launches even the most brutal, destructive and unprovoked wars of aggression employs moralizing propaganda to claim that their aggression engenders magnanimous and noble ends, and specifically often points to segments of the invaded population which welcome the violence and invaders.  Pointing to the happy and rewarded Kurdish minority no more justifies or legalizes the attack on Iraq than similar claims do for any of those other cases.

Glenn (rightly) anticipated that his words and arguments would be misinterpreted — either willingly or not — and so attempted with the above passage to head off any misplaced criticism off the bat.  Well, such “words” and “logic” are no match for Joe Klein folks.  He came back from vacation (stay, STAY) to launch a childish attack at Greenwald, distorting his argument in exactly the way Greenwald anticipated.

Greenwald–who, so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world–has laid out the incredible notion that the liberation of the Kurds, which Jeff celebrates (and so do I, and so do civilized people everywhere) as a happy byproduct of George W. Bush’s dreadful war in Iraq, can be compared to the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland…This is obscene.

Well, no, Joey Joe Joe, it isn’t.  The point, which Greenwald made explicit, is that wars of aggression are always justified by claiming a certain minority of the population benefited from the war.  Choose to argue that’s not the case if you so desire, Joey Joe Joe, but to hysterically wail about what a monster Greenwald is for making a comparison he explicitly didn’t make is absurd.

Then, as if to perfectly illustrate how the powerful circle the wagons to protect their own, Jeffy’s blog at the Atlantic screamed: Glenn Greenwald compares the Iraq war to the Nazi conquest of Europe.  It’s like a revolting game of battlefield telephone gone awry, on purpose.  Have Jeffy and Joey Joey Joe Joe even read Greenwald’s post?  Are they simply incapable of achieving high school levels of reading comprehension?  Or are they pissed off about something else, maybe.  Something, recent, and personal to them.

Here’s where the story goes from an important — though admittedly Inside Baseball-ish type  — of fight to a bit larger scale.  Earlier in Joey Joe Joe’s post about mean Greenwald, he also mentioned the Washington Post’s recent firing of Internet reporter Dave Weigel.  Joey Joe Joe calls the Post stupid for getting rid of him, and says he disagreed with his friend, Jeffy, who was happy to see Weigel go — at least initially (we’ll get to that later).  But Greenwald, who also disagreed with Jeffy, was so mean in his scathing, nay, blistering, nay, foot-print-leaving post criticizing Jeffy’s “analysis” of Dave Weigel’s resignation.  Why did he have to be so mean, Joey Joe Joe wants to know?

Greenwald also disagreed with Goldberg, but used the opportunity to launch another of his litigious, ambulance-chasing forays–in Greenwald’s case, it is “hits” he’s trying to collect, not fees–in which he posited Jeff as an arch-villain, practicing a form of dishonest journalism that Greenwald believes is corrupting the Republic.

Ambulance chaser!  Come on, now.  To understand that quote, we need to explain the Weigel situation as it relates to our current cast of characters.  Jeffy’s initial reaction upon hearing the Post had let go of a new, and by all accounts fantastic, reporter was to grossly talk about toilet training in a post that was dismissive and lazy.  Jeffy wrote, without a hint of irony:

The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.

He later admitted that he was maybe wrong to opine about someone who he literally knew nothing about, but even in that post (as in his first) he cited no one but unnamed “friends” who told him what to believe and what to type out, like they new he would.  Greenwald, in typical fashion, took Jeffy to task for his atrocious “reporting” in the run-up to the Iraq war, as well as his willingness to turn his blog into a safe haven for his “friends” to disparage Weigel, whose reporting was actually well received by many on the Right.  Well, that little whipping might have stung a little — forcing the beast to stare at itself in the mirror may prove to be the only way to slay Medusa (or we may have to wait for decomposition to take its course) — and it’s not hard to imagine Jeffy taking any opportunity possible to strike back at Greenwald, no matter how intellectually bankrupt his weak return volley might be.  Joey Joe Joe’s distortion of Greenwald’s post gave Jeffy the perfect cover.

Speaking more broadly, Weigel’s almost unanimous support from the blogosphere, both liberal and conservative, speaks volumes about the gap between the old model of journalism and the new one — whatever this young, delicate lolita grows up to be.  I don’t get optimistic around here often, but there have been recent developments in journalism that deserve to be celebrated.  It’s a bit hard to articulate this (measured) optimism, somewhat like walking on stage and just knowing the crowd will be with you, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are enough good reporters out there who were so sickened by the run-up to the Iraq war that now, finally, we may be seeing a break in the old way’s facade.

Certainly Greenwald himself is at the center of this media reform — as well as journalists like Jeremy Scahill, and Matt Taibbi — and now we can add to that embarrassingly incomplete list: Michael Hastings.  His interview on CNN, along with Lara Logan’s, highlighted as clearly as possible the dichotomy between reporters who are inside and reporters who are outside.  Logan’s reprehensible performance laid bare where her alliances lay: with those she covers.  As Taibbi wrote:

Anyone who wants to know why network television news hasn’t mattered since the seventies just needs to check out this appearance by Logan. Here’s CBS’s chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that’s killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.

Hastings didn’t eat the story.  He held those in power accountable for their words and actions, trading (theoretically) future access for the story of the year.  Leave aside for the moment whether future access is valuable if you will still spike the story.  What Logan was advocating is that Hastings should have spiked the story because it reflected negatively on its subjects.  That is the role of the petty, grovelling stenographer: inform the King when he’s making a drunken ass of himself, and sit on the story so as not to embarrass the Empire.  Hastings, Greenwald, Scahill, Amy Goodman, and numerous others (some of whom even work at dying newspapers) are compelled by their conscience to attack those in power.  Your standard Washington Journalist is compelled by insecurity to do the opposite.

Consider this embarrassingly out of touch column by the Washington Post’s ombudsman concerning the Weigel firing. (It really deserves it’s own entry with the headline: WaPo ombudsman more out of touch than parents in Twisted Sister music video.)  He writes:

Weigel’s exit, and the events that prompted it, have further damaged The Post among conservatives who believe it is not properly attuned to their ideology or activities. Ironically, Weigel was hired to address precisely those concerns.

First of all, that’s not correct.  As I noted above, conservatives across the board didn’t have a problem with Weigel.  He just wasn’t a rabid, frothing culture warrior.  In fact, he called out the frothing fringe for what it was, but still defended Palin when he felt she deserved it.  But that’s not what the Post wanted.  They wanted, well, it’s not clear what they wanted.  But Andy the ombudsman doesn’t cite a single complaint about Weigel’s reporting.  Think about that.  A good, respected reporter turns in his resignation after a 24-hour media frenzy, and the paper doesn’t cite even one instance in which his so-called bias affected his reporting.  Andy concludes:

Alas, it took only one listserv participant to bundle up Weigel’s archived comments and start leaking them outside the group. The result is that Weigel lost his job. But the bigger loss is The Post’s standing among conservatives.

There is no mention of why, in and of itself, “The Post’s standing among conservatives” should be thought of as a good thing.  After attempting to sell access to its reporters at salons, the paper should be focused on trying retain any credibility as a newspaper.  Succumbing to right-wing fury is pathetic enough, but dressing it up as an attempt to correct an ideological blind-spot is simply inexcusable.

The Washington Post, like Joey Joe Joe, Jeffy, and Lara Logan see their role as those whose duty it is to maintain the status quo.  Those in power should be protected.  Those filthy barbarians clamoring at the gates need to be “toilet trained” to properly respect authority.  Established dichotomies — Left vs Right, Blogger vs Reporter, Serious vs Shrill — need to be protected at all costs.  There is a new crop of reporters and opinion writers who are challenging that model, and indeed have been for some time.  Hastings’ article is simply a dramatic illustration of what journalism can and should be, and that makes media insiders very nervous.  Little in America deserves to be celebrated more than that.

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