Media Behavior and the Torture 'Debate'
Three Key Rules of Media Behavior Shape Their Discussions of "the 'Torture' Debate"
It is now clear that the Obama White House didn't think before it tried to appease the hard left of the Democratic Party.
When Rove speaks, the political class pays attention -- usually with good reason.
There does seem to be a little bit of a reaction to how this was received on the left. . . frankly this feels like a political food fight now. . .. The hard left, the hard right, fighting over this in the blogosphere.
This whole torture debate is likely to tell us a lot about the kind of president Barack Obama intends to be. Will he buckle to the left, the netroots, and pursue an investigation into torture having said he didn't want to? Or will he go post-partisan and leave the past to the historians?
What [Obama officials] got on their hands is a highly politicized and very partisan issue about the treatment of 9/11 prisoners. . . . At a time when the administration and the President will already be under scrutiny for being tough enough, is this a fight they really want to have? I would also point you to, if you haven't see this already, the Wall St. Journal Editorial Page today, which I think raises some really tough points about not only what signal you're sending to the rest of the world, but also to potential Terrorists out there, about just what it is that U.S. interrogators would do and not do, but also the point that's raised there is: did the Bush administration go out of its way to make sure they were adhering to the law and not crossing over that bridge when it came to getting into torture?
(By the way: can someone tell me what a "9/11 prisoner" is?; and is there anything less surprising than the fact that Gregory looks to The Wall St. Journal Editorial Page for guidance on such questions?)
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For years, media stars ignored the fact that our Government was chronically breaking the law and systematically torturing detainees (look at this extremely detailed exposé by The Washington Post's Dana Priest and Barton Gellman from December, 2002 to get a sense for how much we've known about all of this and for how long we've known it). Now that the sheer criminality of this conduct, really for the first time, has exploded into mainstream political debates as a result of the OLC memos, media stars are forced to address it. Exactly as one would expect, they are closing ranks, demanding (as always) that their big powerful political-official-friends and their elite institutions not be subject to the dirty instruments that are meant only for the masses -- things like the rule of law, investigations, prosecutions, and accountability when they abuse their power.
The rules for how media stars behave are vividly evident as they finally take part in what they are calling The 'Torture' Debate. Here are three key rules for Beltway media behavior that, as always, are shaping what they say and do:
(1) Any policy that Beltway elites dislike is demonized as coming from "the Left" or -- in this case (following Karl Rove) -- the "hard Left." Media stars recite that claim regardless of how widely accepted the belief is in American public opinion and regardless of whether there is anything "leftist" about the view in question. For years, withdrawing from Iraq was demonized as the view of the "left" even though large majorities of Americans favored it.
Identically, roughly 40% of Americans favor criminal prosecutions for Bush officials -- even before release of the OLC memos -- and large majorities favor investigations generally. The premise of those who advocate prosecutions is the definitively non-ideological view that political elites should be treated exactly like ordinary Americans when they break the law and commit serious crimes. Individuals such as Gen. Antonio Taguba, Gen. Barry McCaffrey and former CIA officer Robert Baer advocate investigations and/or prosecutions of Bush officials. But no matter: the Beltway opposes the idea, and it is therefore dismissed by media stars as coming from the "Hard Left."
(2) Nobody is more opposed to transparency and disclosure of government secrets than establishment "journalists." Richard Cohen wrote of the Lewis Libby prosecution: "it is often best to keep the lights off." ABC News' Peggy Noonan said this week of torture investigations: "Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking." The Washington Post's David Ignatius, condemning Obama for releasing the OLC memos, warned: "the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn't blind its shadow warriors." And the favorite mantra of media stars and Beltway mavens everywhere -- Look Forward, Not Backwards -- is nothing but a plea that extreme government crimes remain concealed and unexamined.
This remains the single most notable and revealing fact of American political life: that (with some very important exceptions) those most devoted to maintaining and advocating government secrecy is our journalist class, of all people. It would be as if the leading proponents of cigarette smoking were physicians, or those most vocally touting the virtues of illiteracy were school teachers. Nothing proves the true function of these media stars as government spokespeople more than their eagerness to shield government actions from examination and demand that government criminality not be punished.
(3) The single most sacred Beltway belief is that elites are exempt from the rule of law. Amidst all the talk about how prosecutions would destroy post-partisan harmony and whether torture "works," it is virtually impossible to find any media star discussions about the fact that torture is illegal and that those who order, authorize or engage in torture are committing felonies. That is because -- other than for fun sex scandals and other Blagojevich-like sensationalistic acts -- the overriding belief of the political class is that elites (such as themselves) have the right to break the law and not be held accountable.
Amazingly, when it comes to crimes by ordinary Americans, being "tough on crime" is a virtually nonnegotiable prerequisite to being Serious, but when it comes to political officials who commit crimes in the exercise of their power, absolute leniency is the mandated belief upon pain of being dismissed as "shrill" and extremist. Can anyone find an establishment media pundit anywhere -- just one -- who is advocating that Bush officials who broke the law be held accountable under our laws? That view seems actively excluded from establishment media discussions.
The OLC memos that were released last week reflect a deeply corrupted, criminal and morally depraved political class (see this video clip for a strangely affecting demonstration of that fact - linked fixed), but our media stars are a vital reason why that has happened. It cannot be overstated the extent to which they are nothing but appendages of, servants to, political power (as one Twitter commentator said today about this painfully vapid video from the painfully vapid David Gregory: when media stars say "my reporting," what they usually mean is: "this is what I was told to repeat"). These three media rules repeatedly shape how they talk about government actions, and these rules are particularly pronounced as the establishment media now is finally forced to discuss what to do about the fact that our highest political leaders repeatedly broke our most serious laws.
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As a testament to the positive effect media criticisms can have, Columbia Journalism Review's Charles Kaiser has been tenaciously criticizing The New York Times for failing to challenge -- and instead mindlessly adopting -- the claim of Bush officials that torture "worked" by producing valuable intelligence. Yesterday, a NYT Editor told Kaiser that he agreed that more attention needed to be paid to this issue, and today, the NYT published a very potent Op-Ed from an FBI interrogator at Guantanamo who aggressively disputes the claim that torture "worked."
Also: I'll be on Warren Onley's To the Point program today at 2:10 p.m. EST (along with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer and National Review's Cliff May) to debate the question of investigations and prosecutions. Local listings and live audio feed can be found here (the segment will be posted to their website later today).
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UPDATE: As the recent debate-changing discovery of Marcy Wheeler demonstrated, one extremely important way to improve media coverage of these issues is to have independent journalists able to work on them. Marcy has long been one of the hardest-working and most important writers on these matters, yet has been doing it all for free, as a side hobby before and after her full-time job. FireDogLake is now attempting to raise funds to hire Marcy to enable her to work on her investigative journalism full-time. For those able to do so, contributing to that fund is something I'd highly recommend. That can be done here.
UPDATE II: The link to the video I referenced above was wrong; the correct link is here. In addition to Generals Taguba and McCaffrey, the Hard Left has another new member: Sheperd Smith (here and here). And Greg Sargent makes a key point: whether torture "worked" is, among other things, entirely irrelevant. As I pointed out more times than I can count during discussions of the warrantless eavesdropping debates, we don't have a country where political leaders are free to commit crimes and then, afterwards, claim that their doing so produced good outcomes.
UPDATE III: The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates posts video of the Peggy Noonan comments and writes:
The job of journalists is to challenge the government and to challenge their readers and viewers. What sort of journalist tells his readers that some things must be mysterious? What sort of writer tells her readers, and viewers, essentially, to not ask too many questions? We have a fine era, when otherwise respected, intelligent, and well-read people step on a national stage and endorse national ignorance.
There's nothing unusual about Noonan's mentality; it's the dominant mindset of our political and media class. The American Prospect's Adam Serwer notes a column from The New York Times' Roger Cohen today arguing against prosecutions (of course) and observes:
Cohen's argument simply reflects the consensus among certain journalistic and political elites that the powerful simply shouldn't be held accountable when they make mistakes, because, after all, we all make mistakes. This compassionate attitude naturally doesn't extend beyond this small group. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, fully 1 percent of the population. I'm sure there are millions of people currently incarcerated who would like it if Cohen's policy of absolution for crimes was extended to them.
That elite-protecting consensus is the central affliction of America's political culture. It explains not only how we continuously shield our elites from the consequences of their crimes, but also explains the reason such crimes keep happening. If you constantly announce to a small group of people that they will be able to break the law with impunity, you are rendering inevitable future rampant criminality. That's just obvious.
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