A prime rule of US political culture is that nothing rivets, animates or delights the political media like a sex scandal. From Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, and Eliot Spitzer to John Edwards, Larry Craig and David Vitter, their titillation and joy is palpable as they revel in every last arousing detail. This giddy package is delivered draped in a sanctimonious wrapping: their excitement at reporting on these scandals is matched only by their self-righteous condemnations of the moral failings of the responsible person.
All of these behaviors have long been constant, inevitable features of every political sex scandal - until yesterday. Now, none of these sentiments is permitted because the newest salacious scandal features at its center Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned yesterday as CIA Director, citing an extramarital affair.
It has now been widely reported that the affair was with Paula Broadwell, the author of a truly fawning hagiography of Petraeus entitled "All In", and someone whom Petraeus, in her own words, "mentored" when he sat on her dissertation committee. The FBI discovered the affair when it investigated whether she had attempted to gain access to his emails and other classified information. In an interview about Broadwell's book that she gave to the Daily Show back in January, one that is incredibly fascinating and revealing to watch in retrospect, Jon Stewart identified this as the primary question raised by her biography of Petraeus: "is he awesome, or super-awesome?"
Gen. Petraeus is the single most revered man in the most venerated American institution: the National Security State and, specifically, its military. As a result, all the rules are different. Speaking ill of David Petraeus - or the military or CIA as an institution - is strictly prohibited within our adversarial watchdog press corps. Thus, even as he resigns in disgrace, leading media figures are alternatively mournful and worshipful as they discuss it.
On MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell appeared genuinely grief-stricken when she first reported Petraeus' resignation letter. "This is very painful", she began by announcing, as she wore a profoundly sad face. Her voice quivered with a mix of awe and distress as she read his resignation letter, savoring every word as though she were reciting from the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the Rachel Maddow Show later that night, Mitchell began her appearance by decreeing that "this is a personal tragedy" and said she was particularly sorrowful for "the men and women of the CIA, an agency that has many things to be proud about: many things to be proud about" [emphasis in original].
Christiane Amanpour of CNN and ABC made Mitchell look constrained by comparison as she belted out this paean on Twitter:
All I know is that one of the greatest military minds in modern American history is now off the battlefield...— Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) November 10, 2012
For good measure, she then added:
... No, make that two, Stanley McChrystal's gone too. At a time when we need them most.— Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) November 10, 2012
What does all that even mean? From which glorious "battlefield" is the CIA Director now absent, and how and why are we "at a time when we need them most"? But Amanpour is reciting something akin to a prayer here, and it's thus insusceptible to rational inquiry of that sort.
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Meanwhile, Michael Hastings - whose Rolling Stone cover story ended Gen. McChrystal's career by including numerous intemperate quotes and, in doing so, revealingly prompted widespread animosity among his media colleagues for the crime of Making a General Look Bad - was on MSNBC yesterday with Martin Bashir. Hastings explained how the media has been devoted to Petraeus' glorification and thus ignored all the substantive reasons why Petraeus should have received far more media scrutiny and criticism in the past. In response, Bashir - who has previously demonstrated his contempt for anyone who speaks ill of a US General - expressed his anger at Hastings ("That's a fairly harsh assessment of a man who is regarded by many in the military as an outstanding four-star general") and then quickly cut him off just over two minutes into the segment.
Then there's the Foreign Policy Community, for which David Petraeus has long been regarded with deity status. Foreign Policy Magazine Managing Editor Blake Hounshell, under the headline "The Tragedy of David Petraeus", gushed that "Petraeus's downfall is a huge loss for the United States," as "not only was he one of the country's top strategic thinkers, he was also one of the few public figures revered by all sides of the political spectrum for his dedication and good judgment." He added: "He salvaged two disastrous wars, for two very different presidents."
Also at Foreign Policy, Thomas Ricks, formerly of the Washington Post, argued that Obama should not have accepted his resignation: "So the surprise to me is that Obama let him go. But the administration's loss may be Princeton's gain." Like most people in the media, Ricks has long been an ardent admirer of Petraeus, even turning his platform over to Paula Broadwell in the past for her to spread her hagiography far and wide.
There are several revealing lessons about this media swooning for Petraeus even as he exits from a scandal that would normally send them into tittering delight. First, military worship is the central religion of America's political and media culture. The military is by far the most respected and beloved institution among the US population - a dangerous fact in any democracy - and, even assuming they wanted to (which they don't), our brave denizens of establishment journalism are petrified of running afoul of that kind of popular sentiment.
Recall the intense controversy that erupted last Memorial Day when MSNBC's Chris Hayes gently pondered whether all soldiers should be considered "heroes". His own network, NBC, quickly assembled a panel on the Today Show to unanimously denounce him in the harshest and most personal terms ("I hope that he doesn't get more viewers as a result of this...this guy is like a – if you've seen him...he looks like a weenie" - "Could you be more inappropriate on Memorial Day?"), and Hayes then subjected himself to the predictable ritual of public apology (though he notably did not retract the substance of his remarks).
Hayes was forced (either overtly or by the rising pressure) to apologize because his comments were blasphemous: of America's true religion. At virtually every major sporting event, some uber-patriotic display of military might is featured as the crowd chants and swoons. It's perfectly reasonable not to hold members of the military responsible for the acts of aggression ordered by US politicians, but that hardly means that the other extreme - compelled reverence - is justifiable either.
Yet US journalists - whose ostensible role is to be adversarial to powerful and secretive political institutions (which includes, first and foremost, the National Security State) - are the most pious high priests of this national religion. John Parker, former military reporter and fellow of the University of Maryland Knight Center for Specialized Journalism-Military Reporting, wrote an extraordinarily good letter back in 2010 regarding why leading Pentagon reporters were so angry at WikiLeaks for revealing government secrets: because they identify with the military to the point of uncritical adoration:
"The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe - interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity - and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it's personally humbling for reporters who've never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters' innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically. . . .
"Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching 'The Selling of the Pentagon', a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon's desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers."
That is what makes this media worship of All Things Military not only creepy to behold, but downright dangerous.
Second, it is truly remarkable what ends people's careers in Washington - and what does not end them. As Hastings detailed in that interview, Petraeus has left a string of failures and even scandals behind him: a disastrous Iraqi training program, a worsening of the war in Afghanistan since he ran it, the attempt to convert the CIA into principally a para-military force, the series of misleading statements about the Benghazi attack and the revealed large CIA presence in Libya. To that one could add the constant killing of innocent people in the Muslim world without a whiff of due process, transparency or oversight.
Yet none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps. His career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal - a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair - to force him from power. That is the warped world of Washington. Of all the heinous things the CIA does, the only one that seems to attract the notice or concern of our media is a banal sex scandal. Listening to media coverage, one would think an extramarital affair is the worst thing the CIA ever did, maybe even the only bad thing it ever did (Andrea Mitchell: "an agency that has many things to be proud about: many things to be proud about").
Third, there is something deeply symbolic and revealing about this whole episode. Broadwell ended up spending substantial time with Petraeus when she, in essence, embedded with him and followed him around Afghanistan in order to write her biography. What ended up being produced was not only the type of propagandistic hagiography such arrangements typically produce, but also deeply personal affection as well.
This is access journalism and the embedding dynamic in its classic form, just a bit more vividly expressed. The very close and inter-dependent relationship between media figures and the political and military officials they cover often produces exactly these same sentiments even if they do not find the full-scale expression as they did in this case. In that regard, the relationship between the now-former CIA Director and his fawning hagiographer should be studied in journalism schools to see the results reliably produced by access journalism and the embedding process. Whatever Broadwell did for Petraeus is what US media figures are routinely doing for political and especially military officials with their "journalism".