Entry from May 24, 2005

The pampered darlings of the media are feeling sorry for themselves again over the Newsweek Koran-flushing story. Look how those intellectual thugs of the right-wing blogosphere and the Bush administration are criticising them for getting a silly little story about Koran desecration wrong while they themselves are so decent, so saintly that they would sooner engage in self-criticism than fight back. Such at least is the opinion of Michelle Cottle of The New Republic who claims that

on some level, many journalists lack the instinct to fight for themselves. By nature, we are a hypercritical bunch, eternally nitpicking and dwelling on the negative side of humanity. (Remember: No news is good news.) But despite our collective reputation for arrogance, journalists” harsh nature absolutely extends to endless, obsessive dissection of our own industry and work, to a degree that risks becoming self- destructive. . . .My suspicion is that journalists somehow believe that our high-mindedness, our self-restraint, our willingness to take all this abuse — even to dish it out — somehow will win us credibility in the eyes of the public.

This high-mindedness and self-restr — excuse me but the gag reflex won’t quite allow me to get the words out — um, restraint, reminds Miss Cottle of the equally mild and gentle John Kerry who was similarly forbearing in “not fighting back fiercely or quickly enough against the Republicans” dirty campaigning last election.” So that’s why he lost!

Needless to say, Miss Cottle herself is no milquetoast. In fact, she incited her readers to commit assault against a “gasbag” Republican congressman for suggesting that Newsweek’s reporters and editors might be guilty of a criminal act if their false report led to a public disturbance that cost several human lives. I don’t think the congressman is likely to be successful in making any such charge stick, but his choosing this method of expressing his disgust with the magazine seems a pretty poor reason for her to urge someone to “pop” him “squarely in the nose.” It almost begins to look as if the media, having tasted the blood of some dozen and a half Afghan rioters are only emboldened to become even more aggressive, especially against the Bush administration and its supporters for suggesting that Newsweek might want to make some amends for the damage which its false report had caused to America’s image in Muslim lands.

Oh wait. It’s not a false report after all. Or not really a false report. Like the forged documents on the basis of which Dan Rather accused President Bush of misconduct when he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard, the evidence may be tainted but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the substance of the report is false. “The most vigorous defenses” of the media, Miss Cottle writes, “have tended to be on political grounds and (as with the ‘60 Minutes II’ blowup) run along the lines of: Well, sure, Newsweek got the details of this particular item wrong, but the real issue is why this story was so believable in the first place.” In other words, the high-mindedness and self-restraint of the media ought to fight back against critics by asserting that it’s more important (“the real issue”) that a story should be believable — believable to the media folk themselves, of course — than that it should be true.

Wisely, perhaps, she doesn’t pursue this suggestion much further but instead echoes a number of other loud defenders of the allegedly meek and mild media such as Richard Cohen and Frank Rich by charging us conservatives with hypocrisy:

Conservative activists and pundits, meanwhile, have been loudly insisting that Newsweek”s screw up is some morally debased, unpatriotic, politically motivated attempt to damage the Bush administration — nay, the Armed Forces themselves — in the eyes of the world. And though less vitriolic, even the White House is proclaiming a little too much self-righteous astonishment that anyone anywhere could have possibly contemplated running such an obviously untrue, unfounded story based on the word of one measly government source. (This is, after all, the same administration that swore Saddam Hussein had a bioweapons program based on the word of a single Iraqi defector, nicknamed Curveball, whom the CIA had been warned was crazy and most likely a liar. So if the Bushies really want to have a debate about poor sourcing and inaccurate claims that have contributed to massive bloodshed, I”d say Newsweek still holds the high ground.)

Too much high-mindedness and self-restraint must have addled her brain, for otherwise she could hardly have been unaware that “poor sourcing” is not a concept which has any meaning when applied to intelligence matters. All the spy’s sources are poor, by the journalist’s standards. If he had good sources, sources that came up to the standard for publication rightly demanded by the media — at least before Miss Cottle’s championing of the standard of mere believability — he could just let the media do his sleuthing for him. But the journalist always thinks he knows better. Hence the outrage when President Bush revealed that he rarely read the newspapers. How dare he! Could any more proof be asked either of his stupidity or his remoteness from reality? Of course the information in newspapers — even insofar as it may be accurate, which as the Newsweek story reminds us is not always very far — is only what everybody knows by the next morning. Pretty obviously, I would have thought, that can only be the starting point in the dangerous world our governments always live in, where life-and-death decisions are routinely made on the basis of what most people don’t know, while the few people who do know it can never be sure of how accurate their information is. They have not that luxury.

It is therefore the cheapest of cheap shots for high-minded and self-restrained people like Michelle Cottle and Frank Rich to get on their high horses about their own superiority and that of their gentle and unassuming colleagues in the media to any politician who has the temerity to criticise them. Them!

Richard Boucher (writes Mr Rich) the State Department spokesman whose previous boss, Colin Powell, delivered a fictional recitation of Saddam Hussein”s weapon capabilities before the United Nations Security Council, said it’s “shocking” that Newsweek used “facts that have not been substantiated.” Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, attacked Newsweek for hiding “behind anonymous sources,” yet it was an anonymous source, an Iraqi defector known as Curveball, who fed the fictions that Mr. Powell spouted to gin up America for war. Psychological displacement of this magnitude might give even Freud pause.

And so we arrive, almost inevitably as it might seem, at the place where the high-minded and self-restrained media so often do arrive: namely, the point at which they must contemplate either the criminality or the insanity of those entrusted with the government of their country. To any intelligence less eaten-up with self-importance than that of your average White House reporter, that in itself would be a danger signal. Yet you couldn’t help feeling that, when Terry Moran of ABC snapped “Who made you the editor of Newsweek?” at the presidential spokesman Scott McClellan for suggesting that the magazine make an apology, that Mr Moran considered the editorship of that magazine a far more exalted position than that of any mere politician. At any rate the question seemed just a bit odd, considering how much free advice these arrogant Bozos routinely dump on President Bush about how to run the country. Mr McClellan should have answered: “And who made you the President of the United States?”

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