Monday, April 21, 2008

Ducking the Point

Yesterday, I examined the New York Times piece detailing the Pentagon's efforts to promote its policy in the media via retired military officers who were less-than-retired from positions from which to profit from the war.

Predictably, supporters of the war were less than impressed with the article. Specifically, Max Boot and John Podhoretz, writing at Commentary. To take on Boot's objection first:

Hold the front page! Heck, on second thought, hold three full inside pages as well. Notify the Pulitzer jurors. The New York Times has a blockbuster scoop. Its ace reporter, David Barstow, has uncovered shocking evidence that . . . the Pentagon tries to get out its side of the story about Iraq to the news media.

After getting past the obligatory condescension, Boot opens with the premise that the Pentagon deserves to disseminate its side of the story. Undoubtedly, this is fair, but Boot misses the point in framing his argument this way. Namely, that the Pentagon wasn't simply disseminating its side of the story. It is more than welcome to do so, as that's what press conferences are for. I do contend, however, that portraying the presentation of its talking points as efforts of a detached, autonomous group of retired generals who in fact were being fed their lines offstage is not comparable.

The Times piece illustrates as much when it claims, "the access came with a condition. Participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon."

It is the effort to conceal the influence of the government propaganda mechanism that, by its very existence, exhibits the folly of Boot's supposition. These military men were not rolled out as agents of the Pentagon's "side of the story," they were presented as objective commenters expressing their own opinions.

The second objection is perhaps more thoughtless than the first:

As I read and read and read this seemingly endless report, I kept trying to figure out what the news was here. Why did the Times decide this story is so important? After all, it’s no secret that the Pentagon–-and every other branch of government-–routinely provides background briefings to journalists (including columnists and other purveyors of opinion), and tries to influence their coverage by carefully doling out access. It is hardly unheard of for cabinet members–-or even the President and Vice President–--to woo selected journalists deemed to be friendly while cutting off those deemed hostile. Nor is it exactly a scandal for government agencies to hire public relations firms to track coverage of them and try to suggest ways in which they might be cast in a more positive light. All this is part and parcel of the daily grind of Washington journalism in which the Times is, of course, a leading participant.

Here, after yet more condescension, Boot employs the well-worn tactic of 'yeah, well everybody does it.' It would not be much further for Max to have opted instead for the 'well, they started it' routine.

He seems to be suggesting that because the Times relies on government sources--and thus access--that it's merely part of the game for the Defense Department to spread half-truths and outright lies to the public, and thus nothing to be concerned about. But, really, all he's doing is illustrating a second issue, as I noted yesterday:

..the crux of our journalistic problem in the States can be found [here:] In an effort to gain--and maintain--access to 'sources' or 'government contacts,' journalists have sacrificed skepticism. How can we expect journalists to speak truth to power when they rely as their main sources on cogs in the incarnation of that power?

So in saying that journalists do it too, Boot thinks he's made a point of some significance, though clearly in reality he has simply illustrated the second half of the main point, that journalism as a whole relies too heavily on access and succombs to the pressures to maintain that access, sacrificing integrity in bits and pieces along the way.

Certainly, the Times failed to turn the spotlight back on itself, which it absolutely should considering its performance from 2002-2004, but in saying so Boot does not dispel the central theme of the article. He merely extends it to its logical conclusion. This is not, I think, what he had in mind, but I won't argue his point.

Yesterday's article merely covered but one spoke in the propaganda wheel. My objection to Boot though, is that he sees the collection of spokes circling the hub but doesn't think to throw a stick in between.

Podhoretz, contrary to Boot's proximity to a logical conclusion, simply spins toward the edge without hope of re-gaining traction. He's not really sure what all the hubbub is about since the Pentagon was simply looking for "good coverage."

But, of course, it's not 'good coverage' that is of concern. It's, well, 'false' coverage. The Times:

Mr. [Robert] Bevelacqua, then a Fox analyst, was among those invited to a briefing in early 2003 about Iraq’s purported stockpiles of illicit weapons. … Mr. [Robert] Maginnis said he concluded that the analysts were being ‘manipulated’ to convey a false sense of certainty about the evidence of the weapons. Yet he and Mr. Bevelacqua and the other analysts who attended the briefing did not share any misgivings with the American public.

One…participant [of a hosted trip to Iraq in Sept. 2003], General Nash of ABC, said some briefings were so clearly ‘artificial’ that he joked to another group member that they were on ‘the George Romney memorial trip to Iraq,’ a reference to Mr. Romney’s infamous claim that American officials had ‘brainwashed’ him into supporting the Vietnam War during a tour there in 1965.

Podhoretz's opening salvo:

I think, based on many years of experience working at various newspapers, that there is an explanation for the extreme length — 7800 words — of the story and the fact that it manages to find nothing more than an effort by the Pentagon to get good coverage. The Times thought it was on to something very big, ended up with something very small, and then took what little they had and tried to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear that was reporter David Barstow’s investigation.

Claiming "many years of experience working at various newspapers" is nothing more than an erroneous implication that his conclusion is not to be confused with mere opinion. He knows about papers, so you just shut your mouth and listen to him, okay?

His conclusion?: That the Times failed to persuade a fanatical believer in the war, namely John Podhoretz, and thus must admit that they "tried to make a silk purse from the sow's ear." Mind you, Podhoretz offers nothing in the way of support of his thesis, but he knows papers, so that would just be superfluous.

Barstow’s endless tale reveals nothing more than that the Pentagon treated former military personnel like VIPs, courted them and served them extremely well, in hopes of getting the kind of coverage that would counteract the nastier stuff written about the Defense Department in the media.

Both Boot and Podhoretz mention the length of the article several times, ostensibly in an attempt to elicit sympathy from the reader for their having to have turned a page or two. I can think of no other reason to continuously mention it, other than perhaps some relationship I've missed regarding the inverse nature of article length and accuracy.

Other than that, though, this sentence is incredible. First, the Pentagon didn't have "hopes" they would receive friendly coverage. They had a team of military men they knew to be sympathetic who had an added financial incentive they were unlikely to opine against. There was no hope involved.

Second, neither Boot nor Podhoretz ever broach the subject of whether the information provided was true. They both seem adamant that the Pentagon's side should be included, even if delivered under cloak of darkness, regardless of its veracity. That journalism should be a vehicle for truth seems anathema to both theses.

Maybe they believed the Pentagon, maybe they didn't. But whether it was being honest with the American people clearly is of minimal concern. Both pundits are merely concerned with the right of the propaganda machine to exert its influence on public discourse, not the right of the public to honesty.

My favorite line:

I intuit that this story, which features extensive use of Freedom of Information requests...

One need look no further. The obvious disdain Podhoretz has for the mere idea that the public has even limited access to facts from within government illustrates clearer than anything I can imagine why he must cling to his dismissal of the story. One would suppose, based on this aversion to government documents being viewed, that he would support the alternative method of public fact-finding endeavors. Namely, that the public would graciously accept the government talking points delivered to them in stealth form. After all, if democracy can rest on nothing else, shouldn't it be able to preside happily over the ignorance of its constituents?

Other than eliciting a chuckle or two, I have yet to find after several readings any significant analysis of why the story was unimportant, misleading, inappropriate or any other adjective.

Podhoretz feels strongly about the issue, we are left with no doubt about that. But all one can ascertain from his parable are his imaginative suppositions as to the process of development of the piece itself. Even the phrasing of the title--What the Times Was Up To--in the form of the affirmative rather than the inquisitive leaves no question as to his premise.

It can be surmised, I guess, that somewhere in America, someone was clamoring to hear John Podhoretz's opinion as to how the story came to be printed, though I'm at a loss to comprehend where this might be.

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