Saturday, June 26, 2010

Journalists & Stenographers

Since, sadly, I'm not a graduate of what Jeremy Scahill calls the "Joe Klein/David Brooks/Peggy Noonan School for Caviar Correspondents," I've only met Brooks, the special subject of Scahill's contempt for his recent NYT column declaring that the duty of journalists is to keep the secrets of their fellow members of the ruling class. (The dereliction of this duty that provoked Brooks to re-swear his allegiance to the Beltway was Michael Hastings' exposure of General McChrystal in Rolling Stone.) My brief meeting with Brooks was at a junket in Key West sponsored by a conservative think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Since EPPC had gathered its flock (besides Brooks, Christopher Hitchens, Elisabeth Bumiller, and reporters and editors from all the other usual suspects) with money from the Pew Trust, and I was also on the Pew teat at the time through the NYU Center for Religion and Media, I got an invite to "observe." That meant a chair against the wall, in which I was to sit quietly. All the better to marvel at caviar correspondents new, old, and converted -- the last of these being Christopher Hitchens, who proposed loyalty oaths for American Muslims, a position that allowed Brooks to play his favorite position: Liberal. Not that he is liberal. His specialty is in moving the spectrum so far rightward that he looks broadminded by comparison.

But "Hitch," as those who claim to know Hitchens call him (I don't) was, apparently, determined to test Brooks' liberalism. My memory is shaky here, because while I wasn't allowed to talk with the VIPs during session was I encouraged to drink, heavily, with them afterwards, but as I recall Brooks' wife was there and some journalist for some wonk magazine -- I don't remember who -- wove over to Brooks, holding forth on "respectability," or "the vital center" or some such -- to warn him that Hitchens was over by the rail of the dock with Brooks' wife, seemingly determined to seduce her or tumble into the water.

What is the point of this story beyond gossip about the mandarins? Nothing other than that it's a fine example of what Brooks says journalists shouldn't do: Tell tales about people more important than them. To be honest, I tried not to at the time; I thought this short report for my Pew-funded project was very respectful. I did say host EPPC and its leader, Michael Cromartie had created an amiable forum -- Brooks' wife, as far I know, went back to the Brooks' room, and Hitchens went back to his bottle.

But Cromartie didn't think so. Maybe that's because he plays a significant part in the archives of the Family, a group which had decided I was no good after I'd first published on them in Harper's. At the time, Cromartie told me I'd gotten it right -- that their theology was sort of a vapid, perverted Buddhism. But later he popped up in a "review" -- the sort that invites the subjects of a book to talk back -- by yet another attendee of that Key West junket, Jay Tolson. Cromartie said nasty things about my book, but that's not breaking the rules, since I'm not important in Washington. (Or anywhere, really, except maybe my apartment when my daughter wants to go to the park.) But I knew we were on the outs long before that -- I never got invited back to Key West, and he wouldn't return my phone calls. That's saying something for a man who makes his living trying to influence journalists. I'm not even worth influencing. Thank God.

But David Brooks is. "So much of what is wrong with journalism today can be gleaned from a simple RSS subscription to David Brooks's columns," writes Scahill, author of the investigative bestseller Blackwater.

In his world, those who have access to the powerful guard their darkest secrets--not their affairs or infidelities or alcohol problems [those, too, actually; journos love trading naughty tales they'll never print lest they lose access to the sources of their copy], but the kinds of views McChrystal and his aides expressed in Hastings' article, the kind of conduct they condone and order in US wars. In a responsible society, one with a vibrant and independent press, the job of journalists should be to hold those in power accountable. Part of the job of journalists is to do precisely what Hastings did--catch powerful figures in their true element, not simply portray their crafted public personas and loyally transcribe their prepared public statements. "McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched," Brooks writes. "And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter."
To Brooks, Hastings's conduct was a part of the decay of the private, sacred relationship between the press and the powerful.