Media Behavior and the Torture 'Debate'

Three Key Rules of Media Behavior Shape Their Discussions of "the 'Torture' Debate"

Karl Rove on torture prosecutions:

It is now clear that the Obama White House didn't think before it tried to appease the hard left of the Democratic Party.

Gloria Borger on Karl Rove:

When Rove speaks, the political class pays attention -- usually with good reason.

Chuck Todd on Obama's concession that the DOJ decides whether to prosecute:

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.

Chris Matthews on the same topic:

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?

David Gregory on what he calls (with scare quotes) "the politics of the 'torture' debate":

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?

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?)

* * * * *

years, media stars ignored the fact that our Government was chronically
breaking the law and systematically torturing detainees (look at this extremely detailed expose 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

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-ideologicalview
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

(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.

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.

* * * * *

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).

* * * * *

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:

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.

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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