Beltway Culture, Checks on Journalists and Secrecy Obligations

I'm ambivalent about whether even to acknowledge this obviously disturbed, Cheneyite rant from Joe Klein. On
the one hand, I don't want to be dragged down into what is, for him,
quite clearly a deeply emotional and personal matter (having its roots
in things like this, this and http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/05/14/jour

I'm ambivalent about whether even to acknowledge this obviously disturbed, Cheneyite rant from Joe Klein. On
the one hand, I don't want to be dragged down into what is, for him,
quite clearly a deeply emotional and personal matter (having its roots
in things like this, this and this); I don't think very many people care about petty feuds and engaging them isn't the purpose of what I do here. Moreover, Klein's commenters (as usual) have done a thorough and masterful job of demolishing what he wrote, as haveseveralothers. On the other hand, when someone like Klein -- first in a secret club composed of several hundred journalists, editors, bloggers and other peers and colleagues, and then using a megaphone like Time
-- repeatedly calls you a military-hating, unpatriotic, ignorant,
Limbaugh-like, "mean-spirited, dishonorable, graceless, bully" who
doesn't care if America Stays Safe, and that then is "reported" in various places,
it's probably prudent to say something. So I'll just make a couple of
general points illustrated by all of this that I think are worth making:

(1)
Establishment journalists have a very significant impact on the
world. They enthusiastically believe that to be true when it comes
time to building their egos and establishing their own importance, but
they instantly and emphatically deny it when it comes time to holding
them accountable for what they do (don't you have anything better to do than criticize the media?).
Their influence, thankfully, has eroded and continues to erode by the
minute, but it's still substantial. That's why entire industries
exist, and vast resources are expended by the powerful and wealthy, to
manage, manipulate and control what they say.

What they do and
how they think matters. They're the filters through which the
citizenry hears about and understands the actions of the government.
They can illuminate or deceive, disrupt or enable wrongdoing by the
powerful, refute or amplify propaganda, expand or narrow the scope of
accepted ideas. They play a major role in whether we start wars,
torture people, live under lawless leaders, maintain massive wealth
disparities, allow a tiny group of corporations to own and control
government. They constantly go on TV. Their claims are aired to
millions. They're given access to the most powerful people. They're
the public face and voice of the largest and most powerful corporations
in the world. They're paid a lot of money.

It's every bit as
legitimate -- and as vital -- to hold them accountable as it is
political officials themselves. Far more than they are
"outsiders," they are now appendages of -- spokespeople for -- the
political and financial establishment itself, as much as a Cabinet
Secretary or White House Chief of Staff or an official in a large
corporation. I don't see "political officials" and "establishment
journalists" as two separate groups; I view them as merged, with the
latter being important facilitators of (servants to) the former (which
is why they're ableso easilyto switchfrom one to the other).
That's why I write as much as I do about media behavior. What I
learned from the very first political controversy on which I worked
intensely as a blogger (the warrantless eavesdropping scandal) -- when
establishment pundits (including Klein)
rushed forward virtually in unison to insist that Bush had done nothing
wrong by breaking the law -- media behavior can't be extricated from
any issue. It shapes and determines all of them.

It's never personal for me; if, tomorrow, Joe Klein writes something commendable, I'll praise him (as I've done -- quite lavishly
-- in the past when warranted). But for way too long, these
individuals were permitted to spout their received wisdom, enforce
their orthodoxies, and fulfill their assigned functions with no checks,
no scrutiny and no effective criticisms. Even now, with the
democratization of punditry brought about by the Internet, the rewards
they can offer (to join their club, to have access, to be invited, to
be given platforms, to be one of them) and the punishments they can
dole out (to be denied all of that and be shunned) make many people who
could hold them accountable reluctant to do so. Even well-intentioned
people who begin as outsiders can be deterred by those influences; it's
human nature.

Last year, after I wrote critically about a
well-known journalist who frequently appears on the TV and is
considered "liberal," he emailed me (after first asking me to agree
that our conversation would be private) to warn that I should be
more "careful" about attacking "allies" if I wanted to expand my
platforms and get on television. That's how the culture works. Those
are the weapons which politicians -- and journalists -- use to try to
punish those who criticize them and reward those who refrain from doing
that. But for people who are indifferent to those "rewards" and
affirmatively want to be without them, establishment journalists can't
control or otherwise deter them from shining a negative light on what
they do. It's natural that they're angry about that and bitterly
resent those who do it, but that's just the nature of accountability.

(2)
Klein's complaint that "twice in the past month, [his] private
communications have been splashed about the internet" is revealing.
The first incident was when he went to a beach party, spat a slew of
insults (I'm not only a "civil liberties absolutist" but also
"evil") in front of a group of people, all while speaking with an
individual he didn't know but who happened to be a prolific and
excellent blog commenter, sometimes blogger and I.F. Stone's
granddaughter. She then wrote about what he said
in a very widely-linked post. That's who Klein, in yesterday's post,
bizarrely called a "rather pathetic woman acolyte of Greenwald's."

The second incident happened yesterday. Klein
belongs to "Journolist," a secret online club where several hundred
liberal journalists, pundits, bloggers, editors, policy experts and the
like gather to discuss various matters, all organized by The Washington Post's
Ezra Klein. It includes some of the most influential people in the
profession. I'm not a member and never have been. Yesterday morning,
one of the participants (whose identity I don't know) emailed me to
advise me that Joe Klein was sending out extremely insulting and
derogatory emails to the entire group about me, and forwarded that
email discussion to me, telling me he thought it was wrong that I was
being repeatedly attacked by Klein in front of hundreds of people --
including many people who are my colleagues and peers -- without my
knowledge and without being able to defend myself. He told me I could
do whatever I thought was best with what he sent. I then posted some of those emails on a site I use to post documents, and briefly mentioned it on Twitter.
That -- a political rant in front of strangers on a beach and an insult
fest sent to hundreds of journalists -- are the ostensibly "private
communications" to which Klein is referring.

I don't think
there's anything wrong at all with journalists emailing one another to
discuss various political issues as they do on Journolist.
Journalists, like everyone else, are entitled to have private
conversations, and privacy can facilitate more candid discussions. But
when hundreds of highly influential opinion-makers gather to talk about
politics, that is a matter of public interest. If participants in that
discussion agree to keep the discussions confidential, they
should abide by that. But the rest of the world isn't bound to honor
that secrecy. That's what journalism and leaks are about: disclosing
and publishing other people's secrets that are a matter of public
interest. That's what journalists do all the time, or at least should
do: inform the public what powerful people are saying and doing in
"private." Unless you're Tim Russert,
you don't need "permission" or "authorization" to publish what you
learn. Beyond that, the very idea that someone has the right to attack
and insult someone who isn't present in front of hundreds of people --
and then demand that the entire world, including the target of the
attacks, honor that discussion as secret and private, that the target
has no right to publicize it or respond -- is ludicrous beyond words.

Excessive
secrecy is one of the prime afflictions of Beltway culture -- among
both politicians and, especially, journalists. Secrecy is supposed to
be anathema to journalism. The whole point of journalism is to uncover
secrets, not to find new ways to preserve it. But secrecy is the prime
currency in Washington. Your importance is determined by what you are
allowed to know -- what you're allowed to access -- that the masses are
blocked from knowing. That was the most amazing part of the Plame
scandal: all of the Important People in Washington -- including
journalists -- knew what happened, knew who the leakers were. But none
of them told, including the journalists. It was their little Village
secret. And they loved having their private scandal that only they
knew about but not the "public." Whether someone had access to those
secrets determined whether they mattered, and so the last thing they
wanted was to have that secret exposed and have the masses know about
it, because that would destroy their specialness. And that dynamic
repeats itself over and over, where the most powerful people in
Washington get together with the most influential journalists and
constantly agree to keep everything secret, away from the masses,
reserved only for those who matter. That's how Washington stays opaque
and how it is able so easily to mislead.

When you write for 4
million people in a national political magazine and constantly go on
TV to opine, outbursts that you have about politics at a beach party or
in a club of a few hundred journalists aren't "private" and the entire
world isn't obligated to honor the demand that it stay secret. If,
tomorrow, someone provides me with incriminating or otherwise revealing
emails written by a government official about a matter of public
interest, I'm going to publish them without first asking "permission"
from the official who wrote it and regardless of whether it will anger
them. By definition, it's not "private" even if they want it to be.
There's no reason to treat high-profile establishment journalists any
differently. Other than things I expressly agree to keep confidential,
I'm much more interested in revealing secrets to readers than I am in
preserving secrets. That's the nature of journalism and
accountability. We need far more transparency when it comes to the
conduct and statements of influential people in Washington, not less.

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