Obligations to “Spin”

From The New Criterion

“At other times, the pressures of editing on a tight deadline and the fundamental belief that a reporter is telling his editor the truth appeared to work in Mr. Kelley’s favor.”

— From a New York Times article on the disgrace of USA Today reporter Jack Kelley

Did it indeed? Just imagine that! An editor not only believing but believing fundamentally that a reporter he employs is telling him the truth! Whatever next? Hasn’t the New York Times (or USA Today) ever heard of fact-checkers? Do they think we’re living back in the days when people were used to easy talk about honor and relationships of trust? Nowadays you don’t even get married without signing a pre-nuptial agreement. If you can’t trust your wife or husband, what hope is there of trusting a newspaper reporter? Yet the more one looks at it the more one’s conviction grows that there is no hope but in trust. Put up all the fact-checkers and editorial safeguards you like, there are still just too many ways for a reporter who is determined to deceive you and your readers to get away with it.

That’s why I never considered the Times’s own little bout of dishonest journalism last year, when young Jayson Blair was found to have falsified several stories over a two or three year period, a black mark against the Times itself. Many as are that newspaper’s faults, in my view, employing Mr Blair and failing to detect his deceptions for a considerable period of time were not among them. The only deeds worthy of serious censure in the whole episode were those of Mr Blair himself. It might seem odd, therefore, that the Times itself took a different view. At the time there was an outpouring of agonized retrospection, all of which seemed to assume that the paper’s editors were in some significant way to blame for what Mr Blair had done, and two of them, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, the Executive Editor and Managing Editor respectively, were forced to resign.

I have written before in this space of the pleasure journalists have in examining their own conduct and finding it, in certain tightly circumscribed ways, at fault. Remember the orgy of self-criticism that went on over the press’s various intrusions into Bill Clinton’s sex life in 1998? In that instance — as, indeed, in just about every other case of media self-criticism — the conclusions, in which blame and recommendations for action eventually come to be distributed, stopped just short of the point at which anyone would have had to do anything other than what he was already doing. Being nasty and intrusive continues to be all right for the media so long as, from time to time, various appointed worriers are brought forth to make a point of voicing their regret at how nasty and intrusive the media are being. But in the case of Mr Blair, there were other reasons for The Times and Mr Raines, especially, to take upon themselves — admittedly in a half-hearted and insincere fashion — blame that they did not deserve.

One, of course, had to do with race. Mr Blair was black. So was Mr Boyd. Indeed, both of them still are. They are also liberal — as is Mr Raines, who labors under the additional handicap of being a white Alabamian. To have treated Mr Blair with the odium he deserved would not have been in the least racist, but the exquisitely sensitive liberal consciences of Mr Raines and the New York Times, whose editorial conscience he had done so much to form in his years as editorial page editor, could not have borne the suspicion that it might have been racist. Or tinged with racism. Or open in the smallest degree to the charge of racism even from such an obviously self-interested party as the contemptible Mr Blair. That’s why in “My Times,” Mr Raines’s 20,000 word essay in the May number of the Atlantic Monthly purporting to explain his downfall, he hardly mentions Mr Blair. Instead, he wants us to believe that his resignation was brought about by jealousy, resentment and the conservative Times culture that was mindlessly resistant to the beneficial changes he was trying to impose on it.

In the context Jayson Blair is reduced to a mere pretext for Raines’s enemies’ to push him out, which makes Blair himself appear oddly innocent, “a troubled young reporter,” as Raines puts it. Troubled? Troubled be damned, Sir! Haven’t we all got troubles? And weren’t Blair’s mostly brought on by himself? And what, in any case, do his troubles, severe or not, deserved or not, have to do with his unprofessional, dishonest, treacherous and despicable behavior? Even apart from our squeamishness about using such words these days, and especially such words about a black man, it is easy to see that Howell Raines has another reason for letting Blair and his now-famous troubles off the hook. The people he really resents are those, most of them unnamed in the article, who resisted his régime of change at The Times. There must be to a man of Raines’s colossal amour propre something disgustingly ridiculous about having been the victim of a mere prankster like Blair. Obviously, if he must be a martyr, it is far better to be a martyr as the man who tried to bring Change to The Times and was defeated by the dark forces of reaction.

For this it must have been worth taking some of the weight of responsibility from off the worthless shoulders of Jayson Blair. Accordingly, the Atlantic piece shunts Blair aside in favor of embarrassing braggadocio and bogus mea culpas and half-apologies. “I don’t think I worked hard enough to stiffen his [Arthur Sulzberger’s] spine for the survival battle we could have won,” writes Raines in a typically insincere spirit of contrition. He was clearly not exactly a humble person to begin with, and this is not the memoir of a man who has been chastened by experience. “At one point when Gerald [Boyd] and I were meeting with several masthead editors about the Blair problem, someone used the term “damage control.” I told the group that we were not in the damage-control business. “Full disclosure” would be our approach, I said. I wouldn’t change that decision today even though the story as published started the unraveling that cost Gerald and me our jobs.”

What a hero! he would presumably have us murmur in admiration. It shows that, nearly a year after having departed from the Times, he himself is still so far imbued with the paper’s spirit of self-importance that he is still seeking ways to turn the Blair affair into an occasion for self-congratulation. To a man with a sense of irony, this might be a tip-off as to why he found it so difficult to change the editorial culture. Meanwhile Jayson Blair, kindly let off the hook by those who have most reason to despise him, is seeking to capitalize on his notoriety in order to sell a book he has written called Burning Down My Master’s House — as if he had led a slave rebellion. He, like Raines, has found a way to make himself the hero of his own story, knowing that the celebrity culture will look with indulgence on even so self-serving an account as this so long as he can claim to be a victim.

Blair’s memoir is beneath contempt, but Raines’s has a more comical aspect, especially in its sublime unconsciousness of the absurdity of his apparent belief that the world should and would be more outraged at the reactionaries who prevented him, Howell Raines, from introducing new and revolutionary measures to increase the appeal of the New York Times to a more youthful demographic cohort than that a liar and a cheat would use his betrayal of his friends and benefactors as a ticket to money and fame. Still, we may find the smile dying on our lips when we reflect that, within the journalistic world anyway, he’s probably right. Or, if they don’t care very much about what Raines could or could not accomplish at the Times, they care even less about Jayson Blair’s turning himself into a minor celebrity.

Why shouldn’t he? Fame, even of Blair’s kind, implies the right to use it to one’s own advantage. It would seem hard indeed upon him or his fellow fabulist, Stephen Glass, who has also lately been trying to sell a book — his an acknowledged work of fiction — to deny them the chance to scratch a living in the demimonde of celebrity to which their amusing lies have now relegated them. Some such consideration may also have been at work in the case of the former counter-terrorism coordinator in the Clinton and Bush administrations, Richard Clarke who, like Blair, sought to capitalize upon his betrayal of friends, colleagues and benefactors. At any rate, there was a widespread reluctance on the part of the media who greeted Clarke’s testimony before the commission investigating the security failures behind the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001 with an embarrassing outpouring of hero-worship even to mention that he was hardly a disinterested witness.

To be sure, there were other reasons for not mentioning it. Since last summer, large portions of the media have abandoned even the pretense of political neutrality as between President Bush and his various prospective opponents. An ever more vociferous media chorus has tried to turn into full-blown scandals a whole string of non-stories, including the failure to prevent the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, the allegation that Bush was AWOL for part or all of his last year of National Guard service in 1972-3, his use of images of 9/11 in television ads for his political campaign, the naming of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent by Robert Novak and the allegation by her husband that her name had been leaked in order to punish him for an investigation into a dud lead about Saddam Hussein’s quest for fissile materials in Niger — which was itself part of the biggest would-be scandal of all, the faulty intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. The last was at least a real story, but it was one which was not easily turned into a scandal about President Bush, since virtually every intelligence service in the world, to say nothing of the United Nations, made the same mistake he did about the WMDs.

So in their unrelenting attempts to discredit the incumbent administration, the media turned back, in March and April, to a promising runner from last year — and the year before that — the intimation that it could somehow be held responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Clarke’s testimony before the committee supposedly investigating this question of responsibility happened to coincide with the publication of his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror and an interview on “60 Minutes” broadcast on CBS — whose parent company, Viacom, also owns Simon and Schuster, the publishers of the book — in order to popularize his most sensational allegations. These all pretty much boiled down the same allegation, namely that the only person in the Bush administration who took the terrorist threat at all seriously before September 11th was one R.Clarke. Like Jayson Blair and Howell Raines, Clarke thus made himself the hero of his own story. Moreover, like the former he betrayed those to whom he owed a duty of loyalty in order to do so; like the latter he had such an exalted idea of his own importance that the unseemliness of such self-puffery never seems to have occurred to him.

But if the media’s interest in buying into Clarke’s self-promotion was clearly political, they were enabled to exercise it with such a free hand because of a tacit understanding that it is bad manners to ask cui bono? of a journalistic source who is in the process of turning himself into a celebrity. News organizations like CBS which would never dream of paying for information directly have no scruple whatsoever about stuffing the pockets of the likes of Richard Clarke, to say nothing of their own corporate masters, so long as there is a book or movie deal with which to effect the pixillation of their indecent exposure. Clarke could not have failed to know and take advantage of this sort of media courtesy. Two years ago when he testified to his confidence in the administration of which he was then a part no one in the media took any notice. It did not require any great degree of perspicacity on his part to see that the choice before him was to be loyal and obscure or disloyal and an instant celebrity, fawned over by the likes of Maureen Dowd and Tina Brown, with vastly increased earning power.

You wouldn’t have to be as completely without shame or scruple as Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass to be tempted into making such a bargain as that — particularly if it came with a promise on the part of the tempter not to be so vulgar as to make any public reference as to what was in it for either of them. Nor could the tempters of the media have been unaware of what they were offering to the likes of Mr Clarke — and for what they were offering it. All their subsequent coverage of his allegedly “damaging” testimony about the Bush administration’s lack of a sense of urgency about terrorism in the weeks before 9/11 — and who, besides Richard Clarke himself, was not lacking a sense of urgency about terrorism in those weeks? — was therefore utterly disingenuous. Yet in all the reams of coverage of Clarke’s remarks, you had to look long and hard to find anyone willing to point out the difference between such remarks from a disinterested party and from a man who stood to grow rich and famous from making them. Whether you think he was right in what he said the first time, when he found Bush’s behavior impeccable, or the second time, when he found it culpable, you would think that at the very least it was worth pointing this out as a caveat every time you quote the man.

But it was pointed out as a caveat virtually never. On one of the few occasions when it was, when Tim Russert asked Clarke if he would donate his royalties to the 9/11 victims he had so ostentatiously and unnecessarily apologized to, he answered that he had long planned to make “a substantial contribution” to the victims and that his future livelihood was threatened by the resentments of the administration at his betrayal. Only, of course, he didn’t call it that. This signal act of generosity juxtaposed with the administration’s presumed vindictiveness was treated by Tina Brown as yet another example of her hero’s high sense of principle — the movie deal for Clarke’s book, which is being “developed” by some of the people who made All the President’s Men, was announced a few days later — but I was more struck by his answer to another of Mr Russert’s questions. This was the one about the reason for the discrepancy between Clarke’s recent criticisms of the Bush administration and his public support of it two years ago. To this, Clarke appeared to think it was a sufficient answer to say that “I was told to spin it in a positive way.”

Now, the question is: Why do you do that? I thought Pat Buchanan, a conservative Republican, former White House aide, put it pretty well last night when he was asked the same question. He said, “When you’re in the White House, you may disagree with policy.” But when you’re asked to defend that policy, you defend it, if you’re a special assistant to the president, as Pat Buchanan was and as I was. I had a choice. I could have done what I was asked to do and defend them when they were being criticized for not having done enough before September 11 or I could have resigned. Why didn’t I resign? Because I believed it was very, very important for the United States to develop a plan to secure its cyberspace from terrorism. And the president had asked me to do that. I did it. I didn’t get it done until February of 2003. Here it is: The National Plan to Secure Cyberspace, which the president thanked me for effusively. I wouldn’t have been able to do this — important document if I had quit on the date that you suggest. And so there’s no inconsistency. I said the things that I was told to say. They’re true. We did consider these things but no decisions were taken. And that’s the point. It was an important issue for them but not an urgent issue. They had a hundred meetings before they got around to having one on terrorism.

As an apology for lying — that is, deliberately misrepresenting the true state of his understanding of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism efforts — that beats anything Jayson Blair could have come up with. Perhaps only Howell Raines could have rivaled Clarke’s monumental self-conceit in claiming that his personal importance, not to say indispensability, to the war on terror was the only excuse he needed for disregarding the principle of good faith. But the best is yet to come. When Russert followed up by asking, “But if you were willing to go forward, and, as you say, ‘spin’ on behalf of the president, then why shouldn’t people now think that this book is also spin? Why should people believe you?” To this Clark replied, “Because I have no obligation anymore to spin.”

In other words, the obligation to “spin” — which is to say lie — is expected on all sides to be among the routine duties of a public servant. Once you are out of government you have the luxury, especially if you have a book to sell, of telling the truth. Or “the truth,” since we are to understand it as signifying such a version of the truth as may be as serviceable to yourself as the former version of the truth was meant to be serviceable to your political masters. This is worse than an apology for lying. It is a denial that the truth even exists. All is spin. And if all is spin, why shouldn’t a government functionary paid to spin on behalf of others apply his skills to spinning on behalf of the media consensus for a great deal more money and the adulation of such simpletons as Tina Brown? Jayson Blair, who won’t make nearly so much money out of his book or, probably, get a movie deal anything like as fizzy as Clarke’s, was a piker by comparison. Maybe that’s why Howell Raines feels sorry for him.

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