Megan McArdle and Dan Drezner's defense of the media

There are people who believe the press should be covering Obama's bowling scores and Monica Lewinsky while ignoring torture, lawbreaking, and the suspension of the Fourth Amendment.

Published April 8, 2008 11:52AM (EDT)

(updated below)

Several days ago, I documented that the establishment media has virtually ignored new revelations of radical government behavior (the implementation of a torture regime at the highest levels of government, the suspension of the Fourth Amendment inside the U.S., patent falsehoods about the 9/11 attacks and surveillance laws from the Attorney General) while devoting extreme amounts of attention to matters so petty and juvenile that they defy derision (e.g., Barack Obama's bowling prowess and eating habits, gossip about Hillary and Monica Lewinsky, etc.).

I didn't expect that anyone would actually defend the media's conduct here because it's so self-evidently indefensible -- so ludicrous -- and because defending it would, by definition, require someone to spout rationale that is just inane. But yesterday, both Megan McArdle (of The Atlantic) and Dan Drezner (a Professor at Tufts) stepped up and showed that none of that would deter them. They both reject the idea that any of these facts demonstrate that there is something wrong with our political press.

The "points" they make along the way are just painfully self-refuting and outright false (self-evidently so), so I'm only going briefly to address a couple of those points for illustrative purposes. I want to focus, instead, on some substantive, broader points which their mentality demonstrates.

McArdle's principal point is that "Americans care more about [Obama] than John Yoo because, well, John Yoo isn't running for president" and that "most people don't care about minor government functionaries." Just think about that for a moment. Megan McCardle thinks that John Yoo is basically the DOJ version of Lynndie England -- just some low-level guy who went off on his own and did some isolated, unauthorized bad things in the past that our political leaders have now corrected.

She quite obviously has no idea that the memoranda John Yoo wrote -- legalizing government torture, declaring presidential omnipotence, and suspending the Fourth Amendment inside the U.S. -- are not merely his opinion, but became the official position of the entire Executive Branch of the U.S. Government. She also quite obviously has no idea that he did all of that in close association with the most powerful political officials in the White House, including David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and ultimately Donald Rumsfeld, nor does she have the slightest awareness that the torture-authorizing memoranda were used to brief Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of Guantanamo who then went to Iraq to train the commanders of American prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, nor that the theories of presidential omnipotence underlying it all remain firmly in place.

And that's the point. Because we have an establishment media that completely ignores these matters in favor of chattering endlessly about how Obama bowls and the cleavage that Hillary shows, the U.S. Government, at its highest levels, can literally create a torture regime -- war crimes by any measure -- and explicitly seize lawbreaking powers. And when they do, even people like Megan McArdle -- who writes on political matters for the The Atlantic -- will remain completely ignorant of even the most basic facts about what the Government did, ignorance which won't stop her from defending it all and dismissing its significance.

And she wants it that way, as she argues that the media should tell her more about Obama's bowling score than about these dreary, boring stories about DOJ memos. That's why the Government can and does continue to do what it does -- because our elite establishment opinion-makers aren't just profoundly ignorant, but happy about it, grateful for it even.

* * * * *

Then we have Dan Drezner. He lists several reasons why the media's coverage is fine here, but what he writes doesn't even make sense on its own terms. He argues, for example, that controversies where the target of the controversy comments on it will understandably get more media attention than where the target doesn't comment (yet, almost immediately, John Yoo did comment extensively about his memos, while Hillary has said nothing about Lewinksy for years and Obama hasn't commented on whether his bowling prowess means he's an effete and out-of-touch elitist).

Worse, Drezner's rationale would mean that high government officials who commit serious crimes will be able -- and ought to be able -- to keep the press coverage to a minimum simply by refusing to comment on what they've done, since all the press should do is report what each side says. If the wrong-doers say nothing, there doesn't need to be press coverage about it -- because, hey, what can reporters do?

Drezner also says that "the press appears to be more interested in events that determine the future . . . than in events that look back at the past" (without saying how Obama's bowling abilities determine our nation's future while ignoring the fact that the administration which implemented the Yoo Memos, and the Attorney General who lied about the 9/11 attack and spying laws, are still running the most powerful country on earth for another 7 months and the theories of presidential omnipotence they adopted are still in place).

At bottom, both McArdle and Drezner are defending media fixations on the pettiest and stupidest of matters while ignoring the weightiest. Rather obviously, the issue isn't that they're covering Barack Obama too much and John Yoo not enough. The issue is that because of the type of media behavior they defend, more Americans were aware of how much John Edwards paid for his haircut than were aware that Saddam Hussein didn't personally plan the 9/11 attacks -- far more. Does someone who defends that state of affairs -- who is incapable of recognizing why that's so destructive -- really merit any serious refutation?

* * * * *

Instead, I want to leave their specific claims behind and focus on what is actually important here. What really underlies the mentality of people like McArdle and Drezner are two pervasive though toxic afflictions -- a drooling, self-loving American exceptionalism, along with a self-interested refusal to acknowledge that there is anything truly wrong with our political and media establishment because they both support and are part of that establishment.

As for the first matter, people like McArdle and Drezner think it's fine that we spend so much time talking about Obama's bowling scores and Edwards' hair because things are basically going well in our country. Sure, there are some problems here and there. But it hardly rises to the level of a crisis or anything where we need to be so serious and act as though there are things that ought to distract from our constant entertainment.

Things like war crimes, torture, aggressive and illegal wars, and the destruction of the rule of law are things that, by definition, don't happen to or in the United States. Those are principles which only apply to the dark, dank, wicked places -- not here. Thus, the Yoo memoranda and what they spawned are not a big deal because they don't reflect anything fundamentally wrong and evil with our government, because, as America, we're immune from anything like that ever happening. So even when conclusive evidence of those things emerges, there's no reason to pay attention to it. They're just isolated matters from the boring past, no reason to act as though there's anything deeply wrong here and certainly no reason to distract us from the vapid, petty chatter in which they wallow.

And then there is the self-absorbed motivation to defend the establishment which they support. Both of them supported the Bush administration and advocated for the invasion of Iraq. Hence, the absolute last thing they want to face -- just as is true for most of our political and media establishment -- is that the things they cheered on have spawned grave atrocities and vast destruction.

It can never be the case that there is anything profoundly wrong -- fundamentally wrong -- with the American political establishment. Why not? Because the McArdles and Drezners both support it and are part of it, and they are Good and thus can't possibly be responsible for things like "war crimes" or "torture regimes" or illegal wars of aggression. That's why the political establishment is so desperate to stay in Iraq until we "win" and to convince everyone that the public supports them again. They are desperate to wash their hands of that which they enabled so they can pretend they never did.

As is frequently pointed out by historians and other scholars, the types of aggressive wars that McArdle, Drezner and their fellow establishment mavens support inevitably lead to exactly the sort of war crimes and pervasive government lawbreaking which they want to pretend doesn't matter. Here is what lead American prosecutor Robert Jackson said in his closing statement at the Nuremberg Trials:

We charge unlawful aggression but we are not trying the motives, hopes or frustrations which may have led Germany to resort to aggressive war as an instrument of policy . . . It merely requires that the status quo not be attacked by violent means and that policies be not advanced by war. . . .

The central crime in this pattern of crimes, the kingpin which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive wars. The chief reason for international cognizance of these crimes lies in this fact. Have we established the Plan or Conspiracy to make aggressive war?

Aggressive war is the linchpin of war crimes and tyranny and inevitably produces them. And that's precisely the evidence that is now emerging as a result of the endless, aggressive war people like McArdle and Drezner supported -- the systematic implementation of a regime of torture and lawless detention by the highest levels of our government, the assertion of the right to suspend even the most basic Constitutional liberties such as the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, the seizure of power even to break the law and to immunize the lawbreakers, and the ongoing willingness of our highest government officials to lie about terrorist attacks and the law in order to obtain still more unchecked power.

But the people who caused and enabled that to happen are -- understandably so -- desperate to avoid acknowledging what they've done. Hence, these are all just irrelevant matters of the dead and worthless past. They're just the totally unexpected by-products of isolated bad actors like Lynndie England and John Yoo -- "low-level functionaries" -- and it's all been fixed now anyway. There's no real reason to harp on it or have our media investigate it. We have a fun presidential election to watch on the TV and there's no reason to let dreary, partisan, overheated accusations get in the way of the unfolding soap opera.

Is Obama smoking again? Why can't he bowl? Did you see the way he nibbled on his chocolate like a girl? Let's watch those Jeremiah Wright videos again. Hillary was in the White House when Bill played with his cigars!!! "What's wrong with that?," ask the befuddled Megan McArdles and Dan Drezners of the world. That's what they want to focus on so that what they've done continues to be ignored, concealed and forgotten.

UPDATE: Regarding McArdle's patronizing justification that the media are simply feeding The Regular People what they want, and what "they" want is lowly trash rather than substantive reporting about their Government, I addressed that in my original post:

Needless to say, these serious and accomplished political journalists are only focusing on these stupid and trivial matters because this is what the Regular Folk care about. They speak for the Regular People, and what the Regular People care about is not Iraq or the looming recession or health care or lobbyist control of our government or anything that would strain the brain of these reporters. What those nice little Regular Folk care about is whether Obama is Regular Folk just like them, whether he can bowl and wants to gorge himself with junk food.

Our nation's coddled, insulated journalist class reaches these conclusions about what Regular Folk think using the most self-referential, self-absorbed thought process imaginable. The proof that the Regular People are interested in these things is that . . . the journalists themselves chatter about it endlessly.

I added more thoughts about that claim here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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