The Avengers: Journalists of the Right Rejoice

A happy new year to you, and now let’s lend an ear to some of our more prominent national commentators who have in the last few weeks or days proposed:

• The mining of Iranian harbors;
• The threatened mining of Cuban ports;
• The theorem that opposition to General Haig’s appoint­ment is tantamount to appeasement of the Soviet Union;
• The resurrection of the House and Senate Internal Security committees;
• The appointment of Henry Kissinger as secretary of state;
• The notion that Ronald Reagan has confirmed the view of 19th century German philosophers that “if we could but pierce the veil of appearances we would see that History is intelligible, logical and progressive.”
• The … but let us pause for a moment, doff our hats, and listen to the words of James Reston, vintage ’45:

“The principle that governs the press, or should govern it, is that the selling of news is a public trust. When the reporter writes a story that affects the interests of the people and the newspaper sells it, they in effect say to the reader: here is the truth to the best of our knowledge; these are the true facts; you can base your judgement on them, in the full knowledge that in this country the judgements of the people de­termine our actions as a na­tion.

“The same kind of rela­tionship exists between a doc­tor and his patients. The doc­tor affects the physical well-being of his patients; the reporter affects the men­tal well-being of his readers; unlike the doctor, the reporter is neither asked nor permitted to prescribe what his readers need to make them ‘well.’ But, like the doctor, he has the opportunity to poison them, and the main difference, it seems to me, is merely that the reporter can poison more of them quicker than the doctor.

“The reporter is thus performing a social and public service of the highest possible value …”

It’s a little unclear, actually, whether Reston was talking about the provision of truth or poison when he invoked “service of the highest possible value.” That was back in 1945. Today, certainly, it’s just a matter of citing poison of choice.

Every age gets the journalism it de­mands and the journalism it deserves. Right now, ankle-deep in the Reagan era, the situation looks pretty grim.

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A Straight Line
The proposals quoted at the start of this article stem from William Safire, Nor­man Podhoretz, Patrick Buchanan, James Reston, and (the one about History) George Will. These propagandists and their colleagues on publications from The Wall Street Journal to The New Republic — a shorter distance than you might sup­pose — are the paramount cantsmen of our time, our ranking opinion molders, hegemonic, as poor old Gramsci used to say.

Once in a while newspapers and news magazines take an interest in facts and encourage reporters to go out and discover them. Probably the last time this occurred was in the “investigative era” of Water­gate. Facts everywhere you looked back in 1974, and the readers couldn’t get enough of them. Investigative journalism was the dominant idiom. But it all dragged to a halt in the late ’70s and our friends the cantsmen took over as the dominant force.

By way of illustration, consider the coverage given of Richard Allen. All through the campaign of 1980 Allen was Reagan’s chief foreign-policy adviser. The Voice, in early summer, raised the possi­bility of a million-dollar bribe request from Allen when he was in the Nixon White House. No commotion ensued, which was not particularly surprising. On the eve of the Republican convention Mother Jones displayed the slimier aspects of Allen’s record in considerable detail. In the brave old days of full-tilt investigative journalism Allen would have been denying on the first day, unavailable the next, and over the side of the Good Ship Reagan by cock-crow on the third. Not in 1980. Then, on the eve of the election, Jonathan Kwitny of The Wall Street Journal gave Allen’s record a heavy dose of carpet-bombing. This time Allen did take himself out of the Reagan com­paign. Not for long. Here he is, back again as national-security adviser to President-­elect Reagan and not much the worse for his experience.

It isn’t that investigative journalists did not do their best, it’s more that nobody particularly cared. Same thing with Haig. When news of his impending appointment as secretary of state began to circulate, The Washington Post dutifully stamped on his fingers, reciting infamies of the (bad old days of) Watergate. Anthony Lewis uproared in The New York Times. Reagan smiled, went to the barbershop (“Get me the president!” “He’s under the drier.”) and the nomination of Haig proceeded apace. The Washington Post stamped on his fingers a little harder, displaying at length his record as an accomplice in crimes and misdemeanors, and all reliable sources agreed that his confirmation is virtually assured.

Time was when the announcement that the prospective secretary of labor was in the construction business in northern New Jersey would have sent the investigative teams surging forth high in heart and appetite. In fact someone did surge forth, and duly reported that there was this little matter of a payment to a political slush fund and so forth, and next thing you knew everyone was talking about the Times Sunday magazine story on the de la Rentas. (“In the rarefied atmosphere of New York society, Francoise and Oscar de la Renta have created a latter-day salon for le nouveau grand monde — the very rich, very powerful and very gifted.” Hard to know where that leaves the magazine’s editor, Ed Klein, but that’s another story.)

So far has the pendulum swung that when Ronald Reagan came out from under the drier to suggest that it was really enormously big-hearted of these big busi­nessmen to momentarily abandon their huge salaries and sink their teeth into big government — a step down, I think he said­ — no one got too exercised at this particular way of commending a cabinet to the coun­try.

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Opinion in Disguise
Outrage has become a sort of hiccup: Reagan appoints his personal attorney; Reagan appoints noted phone-tapper; Reagan appoints pre-eminent environ­mental rape & pillage man to run Interior; Reagan … Oh well. Then he calls the Iranians “barbarians” and vanishes under the drier again.

What has happened is investigative journalism — conducted from the liberal end of the journalistic end of the spectrum — was the appropriate mode to deal with Watergate. In its period of baroque decline which followed, it became the weapon with which William Safire harried the Carter administration. Bad luck for Bert Lance, but it didn’t do much, long-term, for investigative journalism.

Amid the ebb of investigative journal­ism, opinion mongering became the pre­ferred mode, in reconsolidating consensus post-Vietnam and in battering flat the fringe of progressive or liberal ideas that accompanied Jimmy Carter into office in 1976. The opinion-mongers sometimes came in semi-disguise.

Consider the post of what we may call the national security correspondent of The New York Times. Once upon a time this slot was filled by Leslie Gelb. In this particular firmament, pre-Carter, he could be described as a liberal in matters of defense, arms sales, and so forth. He later joined Cyrus Vance’s State Depart­ment. Gelb’s place was taken by Richard Burt, formerly of the Institute of Strategic Studies in London, who vastly impressed A. M. Rosenthal as the person best suited to bring some hawkish snap back into the Times‘s defense-cum-national security coverage in the Carter era.

For four years Burt banged the Brzezinski/Brown drum in The New York Times. Now paralleling the elevation of Gelb, he is accompanying Haig into the State Department. This job at the Times is becoming so politicized that Rosenthal should properly hold confirmation hear­ings for his successor.

There is, then, the Richard Burt type of opinion-mongering, dressed up in the cloak and whiskers of “high sources,” “high of­ficials,” and “intelligence analysts.” In­sidious and highly effective. People stopped talking about Pentagon boondog­gles and cost overruns (old days of in­vestigative-journalism) and began to worry about the encryption menace to SALT II.

With that treaty now trodden safely underfoot, maybe the trend will swing back to boondoggles. Grumman made the enormous mistake of allowing the civilian sector (New York City) to examine one of its products at close quarters. Perhaps someone will ask why we should believe that a corporation which cannot get a bus to the next corner can get a plane to the next war.

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Role Call
But nowadays, Burt aside, most opin­ion comes dressed nakedly, as opinion. The day of the conservative columnist, editorialist, even “news analyst” has come round again: The tasks are simple enough: restoration of confidence in conservative ideas, business ideals, and imperial verve. The executives are familiar, in the shape of Safire, George Will, Buckley, the Com­mentary gang, the editorials of The Wall Street Journal, Peretz’s slice of The New Republic, the Georgetown mob, the Kissinger claque (overlapping), and the ideo­logical imperatives more or less summed up in the thoughts of Norman Podhoretz and the Mobil commentaries.

The executive-level columnists operate in differing tempi of malignity. There are the traditional courtiers: a Hugh Sidey in Time, a Reston in The New York Times, for whom the essential project is to crook the pregnant hinges of the knee and gobble cock. Whether Nixon’s, Rockefeller’s, Ford’s, Carter’s, or now Reagan’s is almost irrelevant. Form here dominates content.

Such courtiers aside, you can take your pick in almost any paper from here to Los Angeles: the manly parafascism of a Bu­chanan or a Buckley, whose recent trip to Latin America produced a rich trove for his fans, as in this magnanimous report on the Pinochet regime: “But no American can say, with any sense of historical au­thority, what liberty he would now be enjoying if he had had a bout with Salvador Allende. Certainly those Ameri­cans who wrote the laws governing licit political activity in Germany after Hitler understand what some people consider to be the imperatives of political re-educa­tion.”

For those who find these two a little raw, there is the high-toned approach of George Will, who preferred Baker to Bush and Bush to Reagan until, the victor clear­ly in view, he discovered that the Califor­nian had realized the views of the German philosophers quoted here. Since he quotes dead people a lot, Will is commonly re­garded as a man of culture and refine­ment. And as befits such a gentleman, you sometimes have to read him twice to dis­cover what he is actually saying. For ex­ample: “In the 1970s the nation deferred investment in productive capacity, de­ferred investment in defense, even de­ferred having babies. I do not think it is fanciful to see a connection between the conservative tide from the polling booths and the bustle of activity in maternity wards. The decade of deferment is over. The nation now says what the philosopher says (Waylon Jennings, philosophizing in song about Luckenbach, Texas): ‘It’s time we got back to the basics of life.’ ”

The notion here seems to be that the Democratic way of life is sterile, that “the basics” amount to having babies and then wars to get rid of the results. This is like the recent endorsement of the American insurance companies for fat— that Ameri­cans should be fatter, and thus more able to tolerate chemotherapy in old age. Given Reagan’s plans for the environment (cancer), this may not be such a bad plan.

For those who find Will a shade pom­pous there is Emmett Tyrrell Jr., pasticheur in sub-Menckenese, for Meg Greenfield, high priestess of The Washing­ton Post ed and op ed, representative of neo-conservatism with a human face. The prose is cute but not the sentiments, at least au fond as we say in the restaurant business.

I could ramble on down the broad high­ways of mainline journalistic con­servatism: and sometimes it is almost comical to spend a morning’s newspaper reading trudging through the familiar ter­rain, from Kraft to Evans & Novak to the incoherent hysteria of the New York Post‘s editorial columns.

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Safire’s Passive Bombs
Liberals often confess to a frisson of pleasure in reading an artful dodger like Safire. And his views are indeed sometimes diverting, as in, “The idea [Safire’s, or Nixon’s, not always clear whose] is to threaten to mine Cuba’s four main ports. Mines are a passive weapon; no ships are sunk unless they choose to detonate the mines …” In the same way, we must assume that bombs are passive, in the sense that no one is killed unless he stands underneath one.

There are even enthusiasts for Norman Podhoretz, living illustration of the fact that structural paranoia is no impediment to success in public life.

But these pleasures should be dis­missed as nostalgia for a way of life that has gone, when Podhoretz was merely Making It, and Safire the distraught apologist for Nixon in his early pundit days. They are now both swimming securely in the mainstream, one giving ideas to Reagan, the other getting them from Nixon, both secure in public esteem. From Podhoretz to Moynihan to Kirkpatrick to Peretz to Jackson to Safire … Bipartisan consensus, ready to march to the ports of Cuba, the harbors of Iran, the domino of EI Salvador. Throw in a brisk bout of witch-hunting, as in the treatment of the Institute for Policy Studies, and you will see how far the clock has moved on — and back — from the high days of Watergate. The mainline press is, more firmly than ever, under the thumb and padlock of the powers that be.

It hasn’t taken long to get the political culture under control again after Vietnam and Watergate: the academics are quiet, the public-interest movement reeling, the poor subdued, and the broad acres of newsprint relatively undisturbed by dis­commoding ideas with only the occasional white tail of a liberal rabbit scuttling across the pastures. So far as ideological consensus is concerned, amid the hosan­nas and homilies of the cantspeople, the stage is set. ❖


Watch your mouth: Friggin’ book digs up the inside shit

Ruth Wajnryb may be the Australian version of William Safire, but she’s a lot less stuffy. In Expletive Deleted, she positively flaunts her foul language as a badge of courage while charging that her academic counterparts in linguistics “have allowed themselves to be affected by the taboo to the point that its exploration has been underresearched.” Wajnryb notes that even as
fuck and bitch lose their power to shock and offend, the puritanical American press still recoils from printing them and the debate about banning swears from the airwaves rages on. Reading this history of catharsis and repression, I suddenly wondered why I get so angry at my son for using “bad words.”

The casual reader looking to get a cheap thrill may be discouraged by the more rigorous aspects of this book, like the glossary that distinguishes profanity from obscenity and garden-variety cussing. Expletive Deleted is mostly reader friendly and entertaining, though. Tracing the journey of these expressions over the centuries turns up some great forgotten twists on old favorites, like shitten (found in a 1386 text) or frigmarole, a mutation of fucking via frigging, defined as “a rigmarole, only more so.” There’s a certain obviousness to some of the material, but in general Wajnryb does a smart job of decoding the cultural role of cursing. Her book is a testament to the sheer inventiveness of our forefathers, who wrung so much power out of such little words.


Fit to Post

Aside from the usual imprecations, my e-mail has been bristling with messages urging me to investigate the circumstances of Nicholas Berg’s beheading. I’m told to consider the white plastic chair he was sitting on and the orange prison suit he wore—not the usual Al Qaeda gear. Then there’s the lack of visible blood, and the soundtrack that records his screams before he was attacked. Are these the signs of a U.S. psy-op?

Sometimes a conspiracy theory is just an easy way to organize the ambiguities of life. But sometimes it’s a plausible answer to the old forensic question: Cui bono (who benefits)? Bush’s spinners certainly tried to use the beheading to undercut the prisoner-abuse scandal. But if that was the plan, it didn’t work. And why assume that Iraqi insurgents are incapable of getting American prison uniforms and patio furniture?

Still, it’s hard to reject anything out of hand about Iraq, since dirty tricks actually exist and the U.S. government really lies. That’s why, when rumors like this one surface on the Internet, the press should check them out. Why don’t they? Because online allegations are rarely regarded as newsworthy.

The Drudge Report is a guilty pleasure for journos—and the occasional Drudge scoop impels reporters to check out his hotter contentions. Not so when it comes to the political sites of all stripes proliferating on the Web. If only because these outlets have no assets to protect from libel claims, it’s assumed that they have no interest in telling the truth.

The best political sites digest and interpret information from elsewhere. That’s not rumor mongering; it’s reflective journalism. Though the line between the two is sometimes porous, you can usually tell the difference. Besides, gossip that compels millions to take notice demands to be dispelled or affirmed. When a conspiracy theory is officially ignored, its mystique only grows. Then the whoppers spread until they seem like an alternative reality. Paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Conspiracy theorists are right to claim that there are things the media don’t want us to know. But censorship is not the primary reason why. Even the issue of reliability is less important than the desire to maintain a hierarchy. In this pecking order, print publications are the gold standard, followed by broadcast networks, CNN, and the rest of cable. Then come “respectable” websites like Salon and Slate. (Though the former is more adept at breaking news, the latter is more prestigious because it features writing by veterans of the printed page.) This logo-centric bias means that a supermarket tab has a better chance of getting a story picked up than does an independent Web investigator. What’s fit to post is seldom fit to print.

The American press was set up as an amateur institution. It was meant to be—and was, for much of its history—an estate without boundaries, except for those set by the readers who plunk down their change. The Internet fits well within these Jeffersonian guidelines. So there’s no reason why its claims shouldn’t be checked out when the buzz warrants. Yes, covering rumors would empower lies. But you can’t quash juicy stuff by ignoring it. And after all, the “real” media are quite capable of twisting the facts.

The Smoking Sarin

Does this sin apply to the sarin story? Ferrsure, if you believe former Reagan apparatchik Linda Chavez. “You would have thought that the discovery of an actual weapon of mass destruction in Iraq would be big news . . . but apparently not in the eyes of most newspaper editors and network television producers,” Chavez wrote on May 21 in the conservative weekly Human Events. Instead, she claims, the media “chose largely to ignore one of the major stories coming out of Iraq.”

It’s true that the military found a detonated shell in Iraq that may have contained sarin. But this has yet to be confirmed, and even Reckless Rummy has cautioned against premature cognitive ejaculation. That hasn’t stopped the right-wing press from coming to its own conclusion.

“WMD,” screamed the New York Post, its front-page lead announcing that “a bomb loaded with the deadly nerve gas sarin” had exploded in Baghdad, and that “two GIs were contaminated.” (Never mind that the soldiers were unharmed.) The white-shoe New York Sun was a bit more cautious. It put the onus on “Republicans on Capitol Hill” for “touting preliminary tests,” but its front-page banner definitively stated that a “Sarin-Laced” bomb had been found.

In The New York Times, William Safire was similarly pseudo-circumspect. “The apparent weapon was sarin gas,” Safire wrote on May 19, before launching into a rantrum much like Chavez’s. “You never saw such a rush to dismiss this as not news,” he wrote, blasting skeptical weapons inspectors and USA Today for its “Page 10 brushoff” of the story. Safire neglected to note that the Times had put its own brief sarin piece on page 11. The first rule of punditry is: Don’t dis where you eat.

Still more revealing was the editorial that appeared on the page facing Safire. Even if lab tests confirm the presence of sarin, it declared, “that finding may not tell us much about whether Saddam Hussein retained a hidden chemical arsenal after supposedly destroying it.” Was this a necessary corrective or a rush of color to the cheeks Safire had slapped? I report, you decide.

Of course, the snap judgment on sarin is highly political. If the Bushies can prove Hussein had WMDs—even a few—they can put enough flesh on the bones of their case for war to make it taste like a Happy Meal. But as the Times points out, we won’t really know whether the bomb was a stray or part of an arsenal. For that matter, who put the nerve gas in the shell in the first place? That’s a question only the Internet would ask.

Rudy’s Crew

When Rudy Giuliani took the stand at last week’s 9-11 hearings, he faced chiffon questions. But the panel wasn’t so gentle with his police and fire commissioners. A remark about the city’s response being unworthy of a Boy Scout set the Post to screaming “INSULT!” Ostensibly, the tab was defending the heroes of 9-11, but actually it was fending off intimations that the Giuliani administration had botched the rescue operation. You might consider this payback for the role Rudy played in getting Fox News on Time Warner Cable.

Still, from the Post‘s hysterical reaction I suspected that something more basic than back-scratching was involved. After all, Rudy is the alpha of alphas to macho guys. Reading Steve Dunleavy’s column confirmed my hunch. The 9-11 commission wasn’t “talking to just any old mayor or some political hack,” he fumed. “They were talking to a man. A real man.”

With brass balls like Rudy’s, who needs the facts?

Research assistance: Matthew Phillp



Gay Marriage: The Gender Gap

To my surprise and delight, some prominent neocons have broken ranks with their right-wing peers over gay marriage. New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that conservatives should not only support it but insist on it. (What a novel way to stop public sex: Force any two homos caught in the act to wed!) Meanwhile Brooks’s conservative colleague William Safire has concluded that, as a libertarian, he has no objection to the state licensing same-sex couples. But like many people who can’t find a logical reason for opposing gay unions, Safire worries about the potential of this issue to spark religious schism. Call it the dogma demurral.

Religious beliefs and biblical teachings are the most common reasons people give for opposing same-sex marriage. As in so many matters, pleading one’s faith can be a cover for other anxieties—so my experience teaches me. Back in the day, segregationists made speeches in Congress about the Bible’s curse on blacks (the infamous Children of Ham routine), and don’t get me started on the Christ-killer pretext for anti-Semitism. In both cases, the real issue was maintaining the stigma that condemned blacks and Jews to pariah status. The entire social order seemed to rest on an arbitrarily defined difference between purity and pollution. After centuries of struggle, we’ve finally begun to question that system when it comes to race and religion—but not sexuality. Queers have taken on the role of the accursed. If you ask me, that’s what has freed Christian fundamentalists to see the virtue in their Hebrew brethren—at least for now.

I’ve been examining a recent report from the prestigious Pew Research Center, about Christian beliefs and public attitudes toward homosexuality. It seems that the more frequently people go to church the more vehemently they oppose gay marriage—and the more likely they are to have an unfavorable attitude toward gay people. No scoop here. But there are interesting variations within this fold. White evangelical Protestants are twice as likely as similarly committed white Catholics to think homosexuals can change. That jibes with the teachings of their respective faiths. Race also plays a part in how people feel about the enigmatic question of sexual identity. Blacks are less likely than whites to think it’s mutable. But here’s an interesting paradox: Though they may be more realistic about homosexuality, blacks are even less likely than whites to favor gay marriage. Clearly, something deeper than doxy is involved.

There’s an even more striking contradiction in the Pew survey. In nearly every group, men are more likely than women to recoil from the idea of same-sex unions. If religion is the major motivating factor here, this gender gap shouldn’t exist, but it does. As the Pew researchers note, “Women tend to express more favorable opinions of both gay men and lesbians, and this is especially true among very young people.” Though youths are the group most likely to favor same-sex marriage, that sure wouldn’t be the case if it were only up to young men.

The libraries are filled with tomes explaining why guys are so threatened by male homosexuality. There’s the struggle of boys to separate from their powerful mothers. There’s the castration complex, which leads to an association between gay sex and ravishment by the father. There’s the theory that male hierarchies depend on the subordination of queer—or at least effeminate—men. I’m not about to deny the Freudian analysis or the feminist one. But there’s something else going on that makes gay marriage a formidable issue for men in general, young men in particular, and African Americans to an otherwise puzzling extent. The hidden factor I’m thinking of is social status.

America is a nation of endless identities—racial, religious, sexual, and affiliational (as in thugs, goths, bikers, and for that matter constructions like “the enforcement community”—i.e., cops). This proliferation reflects an economy that depends on ever more differentiated market niches. In order to stoke the need to consume, each segment must be made to see itself in a competitive relationship with everyone else. That’s not hard in a country where ethnic groups, geographical regions, and lately whole genders are constantly struggling over status.

Today it’s possible to speak of masculinity and even heterosexuality as insecure identities. Not that there’s a real threat to either, but the prestige they once automatically commanded can no longer be taken for granted. Submissive women and downcast gays were once living proof of straight-male supremacy. Now, both groups refuse to accept subordination, and it’s macho that stands to be stigmatized. Straight men still hold the lion’s share of wealth and power, but their prestige has definitely eroded. No wonder they have such strong feelings about gay marriage. It’s not a question of faith or preservation of the family. The real issue here is the “acceptance” of homosexuals, which, for many straight guys, represents yet another blow to their already fragile status.

Men who command respect through wealth or professional power are far less likely to feel threatened by gay marriage than those who earn little and have only one weapon in the fight for prestige: their masculinity. Young men are especially prone to this bind, and the rise of gay men makes them feel even more powerless. But no stigma is more implacable than race. African Americans are the most fragile group in America when it comes to social status, and the impact of racism weighs heavily on black masculinity. Hence, as gay men rise, a new theme has appeared in black youth culture: fag bashing. Its typical consumer is a young white male.

This is the uphill battle for gay-marriage activists—and for advocates of homosexuals serving in the military, another important signifier of civic status. We need to convince straight men that their prestige isn’t on the line if these things come to pass. It would be even better if we could persuade them that male supremacy isn’t necessary for a man to succeed. But these symbolic concepts have a special urgency in a society where no social position is permanent. In America, every group measures its status by stigmatizing others, and if you aren’t vigilant you may be the next one smacked down.

Religion can offer an alternative to this nasty social roil. Within its confines, the dignity of every person is a central dogma. How ironic that religion is so often used as a battering ram against human rights. But the dream of equality persists precisely because it’s built on a theological foundation. It’s sacred as well as secular. And in the end, hopefully, this root value will be our salvation.

Research: Matthew Phillp