The Corruption of the Cocoon

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

Get Out Of Your D$*#( Shells

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

Get Out Of Your D$*#( Shells

a simple way to increase intellectual cross-pollination on the web:
honest bloggers of the left and the right should try to interview at
least one author/historian/politician from the other side of the aisle
at least one a month. So -- Media Matters shouldn't just criticize
Bernard Goldberg; they should interview him. Glenn Greenwald should, I
don't know, see if Jack Goldsmith from Harvard would chat with him
online. Bill Kristol should interview Jane Mayer. Pajamas Media needs
to interview Democrats and Democratic experts, and not just each other,
or Joe the Plumber, or Sen. Jim DeMint. Righties interviewing righties
has gotten so boring and repetitive; lefties fawning over lefties is
lazy. Who's going to be brave enough to reach out to an ideological or
intellectual opponent, promote their new book, or interview them?

agree with this almost entirely, but there's an assumption here that
isn't quite accurate: the lack of such interviews and debates isn't
evidence that there are no such attempts being made. To the
contrary: not only politicians, but a huge portion of pundits and
journalists, simply refuse to acknowledge any criticisms, let alone
engage critics.

Our political discourse is so stratified that
politicians and pundits can get all the exposure they want while
confining themselves to hospitable venues and only speaking to
sympathetic journalists. That, as but one example, is what fuels
"access journalism" -- the willingness of politicians to speak only to
deferential reporters, who stay deferential in order to ensure that
those politicians continue to speak with them, a process that
perpetuates itself ad infnitum. That has created a virtually
complete -- and quite destructive -- accountability-free zone where
politicians and pundits alike can simply avoid any form of adversarial
questioning or challenges to their claims [in fact, ironically enough,
one of my criticisms of Ambinder
during the recent State Secrets controversy was that, when defending
the Obama administration's position as conveyed by anonymous
DOJ officials (whose anonymity prevented them from being questioned or
otherwise engaged), he failed to speak with or even cite anyone who had
an opposing view].

Last week, Rachel Maddow interviewed GOP Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
rather aggressively about what she perceived to be the contradiction
between his opposition to the stimulus bill and his willingness to
accept the monies appropriated by that bill on behalf of his state.
Unlike Keith Olbermann, Maddow clearly has a desire to conduct
adversarial interviews with those with whom she disagrees (as many Democratic politicians who do her show,
likely expecting a friendly venue but receiving the opposite, can
attest). But this is what she said at the end of the Pawlenty

Governor Pawlenty represents Minnesota and I will just say -- we ask a lot of Republicans to be on the show and they almost always say no.
So, I am particularly grateful whenever anybody says yes. And to any
Republicans out there who we ask -- see -- I'm not so bad.

very few exceptions, Republicans simply won't talk to her.
Identically, in 2007, when Bill Moyers produced the first major
television report about the media's failures and deceit in the run-up
to the Iraq War, he attempted to interview most of the key figures
whose actions he intended to highlight and critique -- such as Bill
Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, Tom Friedman and Roger
Ailes. But here's what happened when he tried:

wanted to talk to some others in the media about their role in the run
up to the war. . . . . Judith Miller, who left the Times after becoming
embroiled in a White House leak scandal, declined our request on legal

The Times liberal hawk Thomas Friedman also said
no. So did Bill Safire, who had predicted Iraq would now be leading
the Arab World to democracy. . . .

The Washington Post's
Charles Krauthammer also turned us down. So did Roger Ailes, the man
in charge of Fox News. He declined, an assistant told us, because he's
writing ab ook on how Fox has changed the face of American broadcasting
and doesn't want to scoop himself.

William Kristol led the
march to Baghdad behind a battery of Washington microphones. He has
not responded to any of our requests for an interview, but he still
shows up on TV as an expert, most often on Fox News.

only targets of Moyers' critique willing to speak with him and address
criticisms of their pre-war behavior were (to their credit) Tim Russert
and Peter Beinart, who sat and rather uncomfortably addressed Moyers'
probing, adversarial examination. But most of the super tough-guy
civilization-warriors refused to answer for what they said, instead
cowardly hiding behind their challenge-free monologue-columns and/or
friendly colleagues at Fox News.

The original impetus for the creation of my Salon Radio
show last July was that I wanted to have a forum to question and hear
from any political figures, journalists and pundits who were the target
of criticisms here. As I wrote when announcing the debut of that show:

the podcast show will function as a stand-alone entity, my intent is
that it will supplement much of what I write about by enabling me to
interview, debate or otherwise engage with people on issues that relate
to what I write about. I intend to make it a regular practice to invite
onto the show anyone who is criticized here -- journalists, political
figures or anyone else -- in order to discuss and debate those

What I quickly found, however, is that
such offers were almost always rebuffed or ignored, to the point where
I mostly stopped trying, assuming that it would be futile. Having
accountability-free discourse means that many political figures and
journalists perceive no benefit -- and certainly no obligation -- to
acknowledge critics or confront criticisms.

* * * * *

who want to opine politically or otherwise have an influence on the
political process have -- in my view -- an obligation to engage
criticisms. That's the reason I do things such as spend 45 minutes on the Hugh Hewitt Show defending my views on Israel-Gaza and foreign policy generally, going on Fox News to explain objections to John Brennan, debating someone like Cass Sunstein on his excreable opposition to investigations of Bush officials or someone like David Rivkin on his defense of warrantless eavesdropping, or engaging in online discussions
with people (such as Megan McArdle, Ben Smith and Ana Marie Cox) with
whom I've had sharp disagreements. That's why I virtually always post complaints and responses from those whom I criticize.
Speakers at Cato Institute events, as a matter of policy, almost
always have someone included in the event to criticize the speaker's
views [as I did when I presented Tragic Legacy there,
after which former Reagan DOJ official Lee Casey rather harshly
critiqued my book, and will have again at an upcoming
(soon-to-be-announced) Cato presentation I'm making in early April].

these sorts of clashes are unpleasant. Sometimes, due to the people
involved or other factors, they are not constructive. But often they
are (as but one example, I unexpectedly found my discussion with Hewitt
to be quite substantive and weirdly respectful). And, in all events,
doing these things is something which, if one wants to spout political
opinions in public, one should feel compelled to do [and, to be
meaningful, the obligation extends beyond pseudo-debates between such mutually admiring friends (and like-minded comrades) that the bubbly lovefest precludes any serious clashes].

importantly, it's precisely the ability of politicians, journalists and
pundits to avoid meaningful challenges to their views that, more than
any other factor, degrades our political discourse. The reason the Wall St. Journal Editors (and others like them) disseminate blatant falsehoods and then never bother to correct or even acknowledge those errors -- and the reason people like Karl Rove
can spout the most intellecutally dishonest columns imaginable -- is
precisely because they know they can just avoid any venues where they
will be questioned or challenged about what they say. Those who
insulate themselves from critics and just ignore all criticisms, and
who speak only to hospitable audiences, know that they can say anything
without consequence or accountability (just compare the cowardly Bill
Kristol's humiliating history of deceit and error-plagued punditry to his endless promotions within our media establishment).

fact, it is this exact dynamic that makes the absence of adversarial
journalism -- and the dominance of access journalism -- so
destructive. Bush officials were able to spend eight years spewing the
most blatant falsehoods because they knew that most journalists
wouldn't challenge them or even point out the falsity of their claims.
Bush spent eight years almost exclusively speaking to adoring,
pre-screened audiences where he heard no challenges to what he
asserted. And, in general, it's hard to overstate how severely the
cocooning process can distort reality (see here and here for a couple recent, typical examples).

challenges to one's statements are a vital check on errors and deceit.
Clashes of ideas are an irreplaceable instrument for truth-finding.
Shielding oneself from such challenges (or just ignoring them) is not
only irresponsible and cowardly, but ensures that one can opine without
accountability. That's why bloggers who have an active, smart and
critical comment section with which they interact have a major
advantage over journalists who hide from critical scrutiny. In all of
this, it's reasonable to exercise some discretion -- not all criticisms
and/or critics merit attention -- but those who avoid any real
challenges to their statements (whether politicians, journalists, or
pundits) ought to be stigmatized for doing so, and it ought to be
viewed as a powerful indictment against their credibility (Ambinder's
post will prompt me to resume efforts to invite onto Salon Radio those who are criticized here and to make note of those who refuse).

* * * * *

Ambinder describes as this self-imposed cocooning process is now so
pervasive that it has actually become the norm, at least in many
precincts. During those few occasions when I have been able to interview those whose views I've criticized,
my comment section and inbox were filled with warnings that
aggressively adversarial interviews should be avoided because it will
lead most potential interviewees to refuse future requests. Criticisms
of TV journalists who conduct painfully sycophantic, unchallenging interviews with powerful political figures
will inevitably prompt defenses that the journalist can't be more
adversarial because to do so will ensure that nobody will submit to
future interviews. Just as people have been trained to believe that
there is something inherently illegitimate about primary challenges to
incumbent politicians (it's an undemocratic purge! a circular firing-squad!),
so, too, have many people been trained to believe that the ability of
politicians and other opinion-makers to shield themselves from any real
critical examination is both understandable and even necessary. And
thus, there is no real price to pay for those who hide from it.

those who suffer a serious loss of credibility from speaking only in
hospitable venues and to access-eager journalists -- and until there is
a real price to pay for simply ignoring criticisms and even documentation of factual errors
-- these practices will almost certainly continue. Ambinder raised an
important point here. It's a good suggestion. But it's likely to fall
on deaf ears without there being some real incentive for people to
change this cocooning behavior.

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