Chickenhawks (and Others) Down (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)
Today in Shrillblog:
David Sirota outshrills everybody, as he observes that the weapon of choice of the chickenhawk is the Xacto knife:
Sirotablog: SOLDIER: 101st Keyboarder refuses to answer hypocrisy: The New Republic was one of the strongest and most aggressive voices pushing for the invasion of Iraq. Their editor, Peter Beinart, led the charge.... Here's an excerpt from a piece by Second Lt. John Renehan in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education:
In 2004, shortly before I left for basic training, The New Republic ran a piece in which Peter Beinart, then the magazine's editor, bemoaned the increasingly narrow demographics of those who serve and the consequent emergence of 'two countries' -- one that serves, and a second, more-affluent one that thinks of service as a thing done by other Americans. Notably, Beinart admitted his own mixed feelings on being a member of the nonserving elite, wondering aloud what he might say when a child of his someday asks, 'What did you do in the terror war, Daddy?'
Impressed, I wrote a letter to Beinart praising his frankness and noting my own decision to join the military -- one prompted by similar callings of conscience. Then I offered him what I called a 'public-spirited challenge': One of The New Republic's own should serve, and the magazine should write about it...It was a naïve sort of thing to write. My girlfriend took a look at the letter and said, 'You know they're never going to print this, don't you?' I did. But they did print it -- with a notable omission. My 'public-spirited challenge' had been excised, leaving only praise for Beinart.
[T]hat members of the 101st would resort to selectively editing an Army lieutenant's sincere letter to the editor in order to dishonestly heap praise on themselves... tells you all you need to know.... In their comfortable bubble, war is all just a fun little political game based on Washington's false definition of "strength" as a politician willing to sit in their guarded, air conditioned Beltway office and call in airstrikes and ground assaults - regardless of the consequences for the targets or America's national security...
Here's John Renehan's letter, as printed by the New Republic on June 28, 2004:
SERVICE INTERRUPTION: I have witnessed the alienation highlighted by Peter Beinart in his searching essay on elite attitudes toward military service ("Two Countries," May 10). At the University of California and Berkeley, I was one of the few law students--out of more than 500 eligible--to participate in informational interviews with Judge Advocate General (JAG) representatives from the various services. (Others signed up for interview slots, but only to protest the military's presence at Berkeley.) In the end, I did not join JAG. But the question that Beinart dreads--What did you do?--has weighed heavily on me these past two and a half years. I was surprised to learn that 31 years old is still young enough to enter service--particularly under current circumstances. (One of my brothers recently joined the National Guard at age 36.) This fall, I will enroll in the Army Officer Candidate School. I hope to be assigned to the military intelligence branch. Elite young persons will not begin to correct the "ugly--and growing--class skew" in the volunteer military until they have been inculcated with the concept of citizenship to which Beinart alludes, whereby service is accepted as "a phase interspersed with civilian life" rather than an alternative life chosen by "other Americans."
You know, if I had been sitting in Peter Beinart's chair in June of 2004 and somebody had brought this proposed letter edit to me, I would have said: "We can't do this. This is not moral. This substantially changes the points that the author of the letter was trying to make. We either preserve the author's main points, or we don't print the letter at all." I would have gone to say: "Moreover, this would be stupid. Technology is changing very fast. If I were the author of the letter and if we posted this truncated version, I would be seriously pissed. It's likely that the author's being pissed will end up on the internet someday, in which case crazed persons in bathrobes accessing search engines will then be able to use it to give this magazine a real black eye."
But it appears that Peter Beinart did not say this--that nobody at the New Republic said anything like this. The idea that one can misrepresent what is going on without triggering a "But that's not what I said..." or "But that's not what happened..." is to my mind a strange and wondrous one. We see Peter Beinart doing it to John Renehan here. But as I think about it lots of other examples come to mind.
Let me list three:
The complaint by Tom Ricks of the Washington Post that he is being "attacked instantly... [from] the left as well as the right.... [T]he left would only be happy if we started labelling all their enemies liars.... [O]ne leftish blogger criticized me for quoting generals who said in 2003 that we were winning the war... part of my job is to quote people accurately--even if I don't agree with what they are saying." This misrepresents Billmon's (and my) criticisms of Ricks: that if you are going to write in a book in 2006 that Paul Wolfowitz and Raymond Odierno had no contact with the reality of Iraq, you had better be able to explain why the articles in 2003 give no hint of this. Ricks's first reaction to being challenged is dismissal: people who demand some consistency don't understand his job.
The declaration by John Harris of the Washington Post that the "larger political community... was in [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's thrall" in the spring of 2005. As evidence, Harris adduces that "marching in lockstep behind the Speaker, the House [of Representatives] by April 7 had voted on all ten items [of the Republican "Contract with America"], and had passed nine of them," and "[Gingrich] had asked for television time to address the nation at the hundred-day mark. Astonishingly, several networks had agreed to give it to him." But Harris doesn't mention that the provisions of the "Contract with America" then died in the Senate. And Harris doesn't mention that Gingrich's very first new post-election request to his House Republican Caucus--that they support loan guarantees to Mexico in the middle of its financial crisis--blew up in his face. "Thrallship" did not go far. But because Harris's dominant narrative is of Gingrich's rise, facts indicating how partial and incomplete that rise was don't make it into his book.
The declaration by Michael Abramowitz of the Washington Post that "it has not helped the neoconservative case, perhaps, that the occupation of Iraq has not gone as smoothly as some had predicted," with is echoes of the Emperor Hirohito's declaration in his surrender broadcast that "despite the best that has been done by everyone... the [World War II] situation has developed not necessarily to [Japan's] advantage."
Jay Rosen might say that all four of these--Beinart, Abramowitz, Harris, and Ricks--believe that they are performing in front of an audience rather than participating in a conversation. They believe that they are engaged in a one-to-many one-way transmission of information and misinformation, rather than a many-to-many conversation. Beinart and company know that what they printed was not what Renehan wrote, but don't see that as a point of vulnerability. Harris knows that there were those of us in the spring of 2005 who were disappointed that Gingrich was of no help on Mexico but elated that Gingrich's vaunted advocacy of poorly-drafted balanced-budget amendments was all show and no substance, but doesn't think it poses a problem for his story of Gingrich Ascendant. Ricks sees Washington Post readers at the end of 2003 as having no right to learn then of his judgments then that Paul Wolfowitz was a dangerous fool and that Raymond Odierno's division was losing the war, and no right to complain later that he misinformed them. And Michael Abramowitz--rolling on the floor in hapless fits of laughter is the only sane response one can have to somebody who writes that "perhaps" the "neoconservative cause" has "not been helped" by the fact that the occupation of Iraq has "not gone as smoothly" as "some have predicted."
Am I wrong in seeing a common thread here? In all four cases there seems, to me at least, to be a particular default assumption: each of the four seems to believe that he can misrepresent stuff in ways he finds convenient because nobody who knows about it--not John Renehan; not Washington Post readers in late 2003; not those who worked for, with, and against Gingrich in early 2005; not those who have even a shadow of a clue about Iraq--will be able to answer him with as big a megaphone as he has.
This is, I think, a false and increasingly hazardous assumption. And one that will change over the next decade. Journalism will be very different in a decade if reporters know that their readers will publicly ask "why didn't you tell us this when you first learned about it?" and that their sources and experts will publicly say "but that's not the way it looked to me."