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The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents (Democrats only, of course)

19 February 2009

Lewis Laptham wrote a ““Elegy for a rubber stamp“ (Harper’s Magazine, September 2008).  Recent events suggest that he was correct, as the the first two articles below show the DC journalists rolling over and begging for the Obama Administration.  

But the embers still burn for the profession of journalism, as seen in the last two articles, calling team Obama to account for its failure to live up to its promises.  Let’s hope that they can re-kindle the flame. 

  1. Access Journalism – Business As Usual?“, Jane Hamsher, Fire Dog Lake, 11 February 2009
  2.  “Marc Ambinder grants anonymity to “officials” to defend the Obama DOJ“, Glen Greenwald, Salon, 11 February 2009
  3. Continuity of the Wrong Kind“, Editorial in the New York Times, 10 February 2009
  4. Pressing On State Secrets“, Clint Hendler, Columbia Journalism Review, 11 February 2009

As always, I recommend that you read these articles in full.  Below are excerpts.  At the end are links to other articles about the mainstream media.

Excerpts

(1)  Access Journalism – Business As Usual?“, Jane Hamsher, Fire Dog Lake, 11 February 2009 — Except:

But what is going on right now in the world of DC journalism finds its most naked expression in Ambinder’s piece, though I’ve seen other glaring examples of late — journalists are scrambling for who gets “access” to the White House. So there’s no end to the bullshit they’ll write to ingratiate themselves to potential sources, or the inconvenient facts they’ll edit out in order to be the new Bob Woodward.

(2)   “Marc Ambinder grants anonymity to “officials” to defend the Obama DOJ“, Glen Greenwald, Salon, 11 February 2009 — Except:

Despite all of this, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder continues to defend the Obama administration’s conduct here, and does so in a way that so helpfully and vividly illustrates how Beltway “reporting” works and what Beltway journalists mean by that term.

On the day of the hearing, Ambinder wrote a misleading, knee-jerk defenseof the Obama administration based on random thoughts that had popped into his head and which reflected a total lack of understanding even of the basic issues. After being criticized for that, he announced yesterday thathe was “going to spend some more time on the phone this afternoon attempting to figure out why the Obama Administration ratified the invocation of the state secrets’ privilege yesterday.” Then, a few hours later, he wrote a post once again defending the Obama administration, this time based largely on what anonymous Obama officials told him. I’m going to address the “substance” of those claims in a minute, but first, consider what Ambinder actually did to “report” on this story:

He called up “administration officials,” granted them full anonymity to defend their position (without bothering to explain why anonymity was warranted here), did not offer a single identifying fact about who these “officials” are, and then faithfully wrote down what they said, without a word of questioning or skepticism. He then found two independent sources who also praised Obama’s decision. He did not cite or quote a single source critical of any of these claims — including even the ACLU’s Wizner, who he never bothered to call to ask for comment. It was a completely one-sided act of uncritical administration-amplifying stenography — “anonymous administration officials say X and I’m going to write that down and pass it on uncritically and then praise it” — which is exactly what many Beltway reporters have long meant when they praise themselves for doing “original reporting.”

Ambinder’s Atlantic colleague, Andrew Sullivan, quickly praised Ambinder for his “reporting” and — after arguing just two days agothat Obama was becoming retroactively complicit in Bush’s torture program as a result of shielding it from scrutiny — changed his mind and has now decided that Obama’s embrace of Bush’s state secrets theory shows how wonderfully “pragmatic” (the all-purpose Obama-justifying term) and thoughtful and sober Obama’s governing style is.

… Beltway reporters establish their access and favored status by serving as mindless, uncritical conduits for government claims. They prove their Seriousness bona fidesby demonstrating their willingness/eagerness to mock and criticize unserious, “Far Left” groups such as the ACLU. That’s all Ambinder is doing here, and he’s not even pretending to exercise an iota of critical thought. Traditionally, that’s how reporters secure a place squarely within “the grid in front of the President.”

… But this is a case where the Obama DOJ is working actively to preserve one of the linchpins of those abuses: expansive secrecy and immunity from judicial proceedings in order to conceal government crimes. That conduct is directly contrary to Obama’s general commitment to restore transparency and, worse, his specific opposition to the Bush State Secrets privilege.

Whether someone thinks this is a good lawsuit or not is irrelevant, as is one’s view about whether it contains actual secrets. It’s the use of the State Secrets privilege as a means for evading all judicial accounability that the Obama DOJ is defending and, if they win, forever institutionalizing for themselves and future Presidents who want to break the law and then prevent courts of law from scrutinizing what they did.

Doing this is clearly designed to retain credibility with the CIA and avoid the political pressures that would come from a judicial adjudication of Bush’s torture and rendition policies. Whatever the motives, the Obama DOJ is embracing exactly that which they claimed to oppose — a dangerous weapon which is subject to very severe abuse — and there is no plausible excuse for it. …

Update III:  Marc Ambinder has yet another postdefending the Obama administration (in which he replies to my points here without explicitly acknowledging that he’s doing so), and this process has now become truly — genuinely — bizarre. This is what is happening:

Each time a criticism is voiced about the Obama DOJ, Ambinder runs to anonymous DOJ officials and asks them about the criticisms, and they — hiding behind the anonymity he gives them — then respond through Ambinder. Ambinder writes down everything they say, puts his name at the top, publishes it, and serves as their loyal spokesman.

Go read what he just wrote and see if he does anything different than that. Does anyone want to claim that this is the role of a journalist? And why can’t those DOJ officials just come forward, identify themselves, address these claims directly and explain what they’re doing? Why are they hiding behind Marc Ambinder and sending him to do their bidding?

Compare what Ambinder just wrote — the mindless, loyal parrot ing (yet again) of anonymous DOJ sources — to what Stephen Colbert said while mocking Beltway journalists to their face at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner:

But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

Isn’t that exactly what Ambinder is doing — and not even pretending to do anything else? And he’s writing things down that DOJ officials say and repeating them even when they make absolutely no sense…

In the Beltway royal court, there is no mark of prestige greater than proximity to presidential power (hence the reverence for Woodward). In the warped world of the Washington media, those who are chosen to be the obedient parrots for administration officials — the scribes to the Crown — are actually considered “good journalists,” and there is much jockeying going on among them to see who gets chosen for that subservient post in the new administration. Ambinder has helped himself greatly with his incomparably sycophantic “reporting” over the last three days.

(3)  Continuity of the Wrong Kind“, Editorial in the New York Times, 10 February 2009 — Except:

The Obama administration failed – miserably – the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law.

On Monday, a Justice Department lawyer dispatched by the new attorney general, Eric Holder, appeared before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The case before them involves serious allegations of torture by five victims of President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. The five were seized and transported to American facilities abroad or to countries known for torturing prisoners.

Incredibly, the federal lawyer advanced the same expansive state-secrets argument that was pressed by Mr. Bush’s lawyers to get a trial court to dismiss the case without any evidence being presented. It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred.

Voters have good reason to feel betrayed if they took Mr. Obama seriously on the campaign trail when he criticized the Bush administration’s tactic of stretching the state-secrets privilege to get lawsuits tossed out of court. Even judges on the panel seemed surprised by the administration’s decision to go forward instead of requesting a delay to reconsider the government’s position and, perhaps, file new briefs.

The argument is that the very subject matter of the suit is a state secret so sensitive that it cannot be discussed in court, and it is no more persuasive now than it was when the Bush team pioneered it. For one thing, there is ample public information available about the C.I.A.’s rendition, detention and coercive interrogation programs. The fact that some of the evidence might be legitimately excluded on national security grounds need not preclude the case from being tried, and allowing the judge to make that determination. More fundamentally, the Obama administration should not be invoking state secrets to cover up charges of rendition and torture

(4)  Pressing On State Secrets“, Clint Hendler, Columbia Journalism Review, 11 February 2009 — Except:

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has done solid work explaining what this means, but in some sense, it all started with a 1953 Supreme Court decision. As Gary Wills recounted in a recent New York Review of Books article, United States v. Reynolds began when a group of widows sued the Defense Department over the death of their husbands in a plane that crashed while testing secret avionics. When their lawyer sought the official accident investigation reports, the government claimed the files would reveal sensitive information about the experimental technology, and even refused to share them privately with the case’s judge. Eventually, the high court upheld the government’s right to do so. With key evidence unavailable, the widows settled out of court.

In 2002, the once-secret documents came to light, revealing a cavalcade of equipment failures and piloting errors that led to the men’s deaths, and nothing important—and certainly nothing that couldn’t have been redacted—about the once-secret avionics. So the case that birthed the state secrets doctrine is itself an excellent illustration of one of the doctrine’s greatest dangers: that, on nothing but the government’s word, it can be used to shield information that should have its day in court.

But the Bush administration, in Mohamed v. Jeppesen DataPlan, didn’t merely claim that certain documents that the plaintiffs wanted would jeopardize security. Instead they claimed that the very rendition program at issue was a state secret, and therefore any trial on the matter would be impossible. It was a dangerous precedent to set, one that damages transparency and legal accountability—key tenets of our democracy that the press should hold dear.

… With the Justice Department’s actions on Monday, the Bush state secrets claim is, now, one and the same as Obama’s claim.

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance are:

Some posts about the media on the FM site:

  1. More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran”, 18 March 2008
  2. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  3. Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
  4. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  5. The myth of media pessimism about the economy, 13 June 2008
  6. Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting, 12 August 2008
  7. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008

Some posts on the FM site about disinformation and propaganda:

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. 4GW at work in a community near you, 19 October 2007
  3. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  4. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  5. “Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable”, 8 June 2008 – About Debkafile
  6. Does reading Debkafile make us smarter, or dumber?, 15 June 2008
  7. Psywar, a core skill of the US Military (used most often on us), 26 November 2008
  8. Concrete evidence of government info ops against us, but it’s OK because we are sheep, 2 December 2008
  9. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 February 2009
  10. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. DJF permalink
    19 February 2009 12:38 am

    Most of what is called journalism is just regurgitating press releases. Since the journalist does not want to take responsibility for what they write they favor press releases from “authoritative sources” which means someone with a title. So the press goes to the government, corporations, universities, foundations etc and finds someone with a title who will tell them what to write. The journalists are so desperate to get authoritative press releases that they will repeat the press releases even when the author won’t even let the journalist use their name, but instead use “high government source” or “industry executive” or whatever other name their source tells them to use

    Like

  2. 19 February 2009 1:32 pm

    This seems to have a bit of sour-grape-picking to it, in that the first week of this Presidency was about a lot of Inaugural celebration, which was not unreasonable given human nature and the somewhat surprising voluntary retirement of our own version of Caligula. The next two weeks were mostly Beltway Villager process trolling around how the Republicans were winning the stimulus by unified nihilism, and further nitpicking around the Geithner speech on the banking crisis.

    Greenwald and Hamsher have fairly consistently taken an extremely leftist and literalist line around war crimes, which may or may not be reasonable under the circumstances, but certainly sheds more heat than light on the situation. The fact is that the lower-downs will either have clear orders to cite, or be left to hang out by the higher-ups; the higher-ups, in turn, will have clear findings by the US Attorney General, in writing, that say everything they did was legal.

    And the Republicans will of course cite their ‘he kept us safe’ trope, omitting that brush-clearing period from Aug-Sept 2001 while Clarke and Tenet’s hair was on fire — with a depression, unsound banks, rising unemployment, a dying manufacturing sector, foreclosures and homes under water, and two wars, it is not unreasonable that Obama isn’t giving the highest priority to putting Rumsfeld in leg irons.

    The gap between what the Beltway Village media are concerned with, and that which is of interest and benefit to the citizenry, is partially due to the issues identified here, and partly due to their relative economic security and class distance from people with real jobs, real concerns, real mortgages and so forth.

    Like

  3. AMac permalink
    19 February 2009 4:24 pm

    Another instance of “roll over,” this one unrelated to National Security. I saw lots of chatter in the news about Obama’s trip to Arizona to announce his and Geithner’s mortgage bailout plan.

    Application of a calculator and some common sense to the facts as they exist would show that their scheme cannot significantly address the problem that Obama claims to be facing.

    The arithmetic that Steve Sailer works through here isn’t contested or challenged by the Administration and the mainstream media. It’s simply ignored. For now.

    Like

  4. seneca permalink
    19 February 2009 5:23 pm

    I recommend French writer Guy Debord’s writings on “Spectacle”. Spectacle is the totality of news, commentary, official propaganda, cultural imagery, advertising and entertainment that confronts us every day and keeps us in a state of dazed passivity or consumerism. It’s function is the maintenance of power, whether that power is royal, priestly, military, aristocratic/traditional, democratic or totalitarian.

    The myths of democracy, the two-party system, the adversarial approach to discovery, still important to a thin layer of intellectuals, require some show of skeptical questioning of government actions and statements from the media. But the complexity of life, the image of a distant, all-powerful government, and the ignorance and fearfulness of the general public mean that that questioning is often more symbolic than real, and at times even considered unpatriotic.

    Like

  5. 19 February 2009 8:10 pm

    It’s unavoidable that the mainstream media “take sides” on issues, but it’s quite another matter for it to claim to know something it really doesn’t understand. Namely, I cringe at almost every new article I come across on the subject of post-partisanship, the majority of which assert that it is some kind of new-age bipartisan politics. Nothing can be further from the truth! And yet the public is basically told to judge whether Obama is an “empty suit” on the basis of bipartisan support in Congress, a measure that I think profoundly misunderstands what POST-partisan politics is really about >_<

    Although I’m a rookie blogger, right now I’m attempting a three-part blog post on this subject. I would be honored if incisive FM readers could share their insights with me!

    Like

  6. 21 February 2009 5:10 am

    “The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Democratic Presidents”

    There, fixed it for ya. ’cause I don’t remember much of a media holiday for either of the Bushes.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus: Thanks, I have added that to the text. You’re right.

    Like

  7. atheist permalink
    23 February 2009 12:52 pm

    FM: “The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents (Democrats only, of course)

    Dude, are youkidding me?

    This first link is to the supposedly ‘liberal’ Maureen Dowd of the NY Times mocking Al Gore for being ‘so ecologically correct that he’s practically lactating’ in 1999. The second is to Dowd describing Obama as ‘Obambi’ (described in a blog, I can’t link to the recent column, it’s behind the Times Select wall). Maureen Dowd’s entire shtick is to continually and forever insinuate that Democratic men are feminized faggots, and Democratic women are ball-busting bull dykes, and Republican women are real women, and Republican men are real men. There is nothing else to Maureen Dowd. And that’s from the supposedly ‘liberal’ area of the corporate media.

    From a story about Dowd on Palin:

    Palinistas, as they are called, love Sarah’s spunky, relentlessly quirky “Northern Exposure” story from being a Miss Alaska runner-up, and winning Miss Congeniality, to being mayor and hockey mom in Wasilla, a rural Alaskan town of 6,715, to being governor for two years to being the first woman ever to run on a national Republican ticket. (Why do men only pick women as running mates when they need a Hail Mary pass? It’s a little insulting.)

    Sarah is a zealot, but she’s a fun zealot. She has a beehive and sexy shoes, and the day she’s named she goes shopping with McCain in Ohio for a cheerleader outfit for her daughter.

    For such a supposed ‘liberal’, Dowd’s preference for conservatives could not be more obvious. And she’s just a tiny part of the ‘mainstream’/corporate media.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have not read the NYT daily since the mid-1980′s (other than Krugman’s column). It looks like my data is outdated. (I’m still in shock over the long march of WaPo’s Op-Ed page from left to right.)

    Like

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