Saturday, June 26, 2010

Don't Say Anything Bad About the Magic Man!

Throughout recorded history there have been people who, whether self-declared or declared by others, are deemed indispensable - they're magic men, without whom a business, a nation, perhaps the world is doomed. Occasionally there's a kernel of truth to the claim, and a business can falter when a skilled leader quits or dies. But even then in most cases the business carries on and, when it doesn't, the fault is usually because the "magic man" neglects to engage in succession planning. Beyond that, death remains a constant. "Magic," indispensable men have always died, and yet the Earth continues to spin on its axis.

It's not particularly surprising that somebody like David Brooks romanticizes our nation's political leaders as various incarnations of magic men, and even less so that he does the same for military leaders. But I still found his argument in defense of media self-censorship to be surprising. Not that Brooks would believe in or endorse self-censorship in the name of protecting the rich and powerful, but that he would so readily admit that to be his estimation of what constitutes good, responsible journalism.
The reticent ethos [in which journalists didn't report facts harmful to the rich and powerful] had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

Another scalp is on the wall. Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.
David Brooks seems to personify what he views as a "good journalist" - eager to please those in power, and the first to censor out of his column anything that might embarrass or jeopardize future access to one of his sources. Never mind that he's putting himself in a category of journalist that is happy to repeat without attribution attacks and innuendo about others obtained from their carefully cultivated, flattered and protected stable of "insiders".

Brooks is also eager to brand General McChrystal as an irreplaceable magic man, never mind that he has already been replaced. The offense is not that the general displayed contempt for the civilian leaders working in Iraq and of the Vice President, and reportedly spoke poorly of the President while on the record with a reporter from Rolling Stone. That's forgivable as "kvetching" or "venting". The place to find offense is that a reporter, having observed military officers making unprofessional comments while on duty and on the record would dare to report the facts.
But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.

By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.
From what I have heard about General McChrystal, including his carefully calculated leaks to force the Obama Administration's hand on its Afghanistan war policy, it seems reasonable to infer that he's a very competent soldier and officer. The position of general is highly political, and for McChrystal to reach his rank despite his tendency toward the impolitic suggests that he must be good at his job - otherwise I suspect he would still be a colonel. But at the same time he's not a magic man, his policy has not been playing out as he had projected, and he is responsible for his lapses in judgment and for failing to squelch similar lapses of judgment by his staff.

Brooks appears to believe that the sin is on the part of the reporter - that it was perfectly reasonable for the general to assume that the reporter would act as Brooks would prefer, treating him as a magic man whose words should never see print lest they derail a glorious career (not to mention cutting off a high level source). Brooks admits that McChrystal would have to be blind to fifty years of history to have assumed that his remarks would not be reported, so as defenses go it's a weak one. But it comes through, loud and clear, that Brooks himself would prefer his romanticized era of media self-censorship and believes that he, personally, would have killed any part of the story that reflected badly on McChrystal.

Brooks isn't particularly careful with his facts. He claims, "[McChrystal] had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department and beyond," despite the fact that McChrystal's own comments suggest a poor working relationship with pretty much every civilian leader save for Hillary Clinton - and insofar as there is evidence, whether you call it "venting" or "kvetching", the facts suggest that McChyrstal's comments reflect reality. Brooks also accuses the reporter who broke the story of making "the kvetching the center of his magazine profile," suggesting at best that he hasn't read the article and at worst that he doesn't care about the facts when he's defending a powerful figure. The "kvetching" would better be described as the addition of colorful anecdotes to a long article with a much broader focus. It was not the Rolling Stone article that led to McChrystal's resignation, but the manner in which mainstream commentators and pundits responded to the "kvetching".

I haven't been following the commentary very closely, but I have yet to find commentary by a retired military officer who either defends McChrystal's conduct or dismisses it as "no big deal." Brooks may not be comfortable with the fact that the U.S. military has civilian leadership, but some people actually do regard respect for the constitutional role of the Commander in Chief to be relevant to both military discipline and our system of government. It was not a reporter who "took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him" - McChrystal is responsible for his own fate.

Going back in time to the period of journalism that Brooks romanticizes,
During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.
The culture of reticence, of course, worked to protect the rich and powerful. The not-so-rich and not-so-powerful did not enjoy similar immunity. A political figure might have a health problem that could cause many to question whether he could properly serve in elected office, and reporters would leave the story alone. But if a less powerful rival were to have a similar affliction, or were caught in a scandal, it was fair game. B-list actors were called out and blacklisted for drug use and affairs, while A-list actors largely enjoyed media immunity.

Brooks may believe that the politicians protected by that system were, for the most part, in government "because they sincerely want to do good", but there's no reason to think differently of the less powerful people who were regarded as fair game for the media. We're still not working on a level playing field - the mainstream media sat on inflammatory stories about GW's military service (or lack thereof), of Clinton's affairs, of Edwards' love child, and now we find of Al Gore's supposed mistreatment of a masseuse. There are reasons for that reticence, good and bad, but less public figures get a lot less benefit of the doubt, and a lot less media worry about fallout from the publication of possibly false, inflammatory stories to their careers.

No, nobody wants to be raked over the coals by the media. Yes, that's a factor that keeps some people out of public life - even if they don't have skeletons in their closets, some people are put off by the idea that the media will nonetheless be poking through their closets for skeletons, real and imagined. But sometimes the public really does have a right to know, and it's not better to go back to an era that was even more skewed in favor of the rich and powerful than what presently passes for media analysis. We may lose a magic man from time to time, but in hindsight the magic will usually be revealed as an illusion and the world will keep on turning.

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