Richard Cohen fulfills the role of the American journalist

Nobody argues more enthusiastically for concealment of government secrets and protection of high-level lawbreakers than our country's media stars.

Published January 27, 2009 4:34PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

"Liberal" Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, celebrating the pardon of indicted former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, December 30, 1992:

Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me.”

"Liberal" Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, condemning the prosecution of Lewis Libby after he was convicted of multiple felonies, June 19, 2007:

With the sentencing of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Fitzgerald has apparently finished his work, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, to make a mountain out of a molehill. At the urging of the liberal press (especially the New York Times), he was appointed to look into a run-of-the-mill leak and wound up prosecuting not the leaker -- Richard Armitage of the State Department -- but Libby, convicted in the end of lying. This is not an entirely trivial matter since government officials should not lie to grand juries, but neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off.

"Liberal" Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, arguing against the prosecution of Bush officials for war crimes, today:

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." So goes an aphorism that needs to be applied to the current debate over whether those who authorized and used torture should be prosecuted. In the very different country called Sept. 11, 2001, the answer would be a resounding no.

Back then, a Post poll gave George W. Bush an approval rating of 92 percent, which meant that almost no one thought he was on the wrong course. At the same time, questions about the viability of torture were very much in the air. Alan Dershowitz was suggesting the creation of torture warrants -- permission from a court to, in effect, break some bones. . . In a similar vein, the thoughtful Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mulled the legality, the morality and the efficacy of torture. . . .

At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives -- and maybe were -- and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs -- not time-stampers who take no chances.

That's quite a long and consistent history of demanding that high-level GOP criminals be protected and scorning those who want accountability.  Abstractly speaking, that's odd behavior for a "liberal" journalist.  But he deserves immense credit, because Richard Cohen is (unintentionally) responsible for two of the greatest and most revealing lines of the last two decades, ones which really do represent the soul of our Beltway media:  (1) "Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me”; and (2) "As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off."  The only other statement that competes with those two in terms of illustrative value for the role our press actually plays is Tim Russert's pitch-perfect confession at the Libby trial:  "When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy -- our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission."

There is no longer room for debate that the prime function of our national media is to urge that wrongdoing on the part of our highest government officials be concealed rather than exposed ("it is often best to keep the lights off"), and, when that doesn't work, to demand that high-level government lawbreakers be protected ("Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks and that's all right with me").  What's most amazing about that is that it's the exact opposite function of the one they long pretended (and still claim) to perform:  to expose government secrets and hold government officials accountable for wrongdoing.  

Instead -- with some important, isolated exceptions -- they're now more akin to defense lawyers and PR representatives for the government officials they serve.  Hence:  keep the lights off; these are good people who don't deserve to be punished; leave them alone.  Indeed, Russert's approach -- "I only disclose what they give me permission to disclose" -- is exactly, literally, the rules which govern how a lawyer deals with a client, or how a P.R. hack deals with companies whose image he is hired to glorify.

Today's Cohen column features virtually every corrupt and intellectually manipulative pundit trick:  the assertions about what Americans wanted without reference to any polls ("Americans" were open to torture and the proof is that Jon Alter and Alan Dershowitz were); the claim that our Leaders broke the law with good motives (to protect us); the bizarre argument that we want our government officials to err on the side of breaking some laws (and some bones) rather than being all effete and soft (i.e., abiding by the laws the American people enact through their Congress).  

As always, is there a single syllable of these justifications that doesn't also apply to, say, the Serbian leaders and other Serbian military officials who were prosecuted as war criminals (to wit:  Serbian nationalists wanted aggressive action from their leaders, they were doing it to protect Serbs, they were following orders, they were in the middle of a brutal civil war and had to err on the side of self-defense, etc. etc)?

Reflecting the vast diversity of our national media, Richard Cohen now joins fellow Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius, David Broder and Fred Hiatt -- as well as virtually every other Beltway journalist -- in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies.  The only political leaders any of them ever want to see pay a price for wrongdoing are those who get caught in titillating sex scandals (Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer) or other fun and tawdry episodes that are easy and entertaining to report (Rod Blagojevich, Duke Cunningham).  Actual abuse of power and the commission of true felonies should be ignored and forgotten when committed by the Serious and powerful leaders of the royal court they serve.  As usual, the most striking aspect of all of it is how unapologetically eager "journalists" -- of all people -- are to argue on behalf of the powerful political leaders over whom they actually still claim to serve as "watchdogs."

When I've written before about the two-tiered system of justice created by these corrupted, self-absorbed elites ("criminal prosecution is only for the poor and filthy drug dealers on the far-away corners, not for the nice, powerful political officials I get to chat with at the Safeways and on the Sunday shows"), I typically focus on the disparity of treatment between ordinary Americans who commit crimes (and are imprisoned by our political system at astonishing rates and without a shred of mercy) and high political officials who commit crimes (and are continuously bestowed with immunity from any consequences).  

But the disparity is just as stark when the establishment's protection of national government agents is compared to how local, faceless law enforcement officials are treated when they break the law.  That point was made quite poignantly today by Diana Powe, a 30-year, now-retired police officer from Texas (and periodic commenter here) who left this comment to Richard Cohen's column (and then e-mailed it to me):

Once again, we have the profoundly tired formulation of:

1) Pundit holds certain beliefs,

2) Pundit reads other pundits with similar beliefs, and

3) Pundit projects own beliefs, absent evidence, onto Americans as a whole [GG: see this as a typical example of how journalists do that].

I am a retired police officer of over 30 years experience and I am very weary of writers such as Richard Cohen attempting to utterly trivialize the professionalism of those who work to protect the public by assuming that they cannot act as moral agents.

Those persons who executed the form of torture known as waterboarding were apparently acting at the direction of high government officials. Assuming that they were not people recruited from abroad or simply pulled from the street, then they had taken some sort of oath shortly after coming into government service. That oath would have defined them as having a positive, not passive, duty to know the laws that they were working under and to uphold those laws. If they were ordered to break a law or laws then they also had a positive duty as independent moral agents to refuse to carry out an unlawful order. The failure to do that is what was the downfall of so many during the Nuremberg Trials.

I will say it plainly. This sentence is an insult, "It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury." If government agents must fear answering to those empowered to review their work, then we don't need such agents in the people's employ.

People who think the way Diana Powe does are dismissed as fringe and radical and then rendered invisible -- after all, what kind of unhinged, vengeful, hateful person would think that our top government leaders should be held to the same standards which they, during a 30-year career as a local police officer, had to meet?  Instead, our discourse is dominated by the Richard Cohens and Ruth Marcuses and David Ignatisues who parade around as "journalists" while demanding that their Safeway friends and powerful sources who whisper secret things in their ears that they then mindlessly write down be protected even when they break our nation's most serious laws and that their acts of wrongdoing be concealed.  And our country is exactly what one would expect a country to be that has star "journalists" who see their primary role as defending high level government lawbreakers and keeping the lights off.

* * * * *

A few notes about upcoming events in which I'll be participating:  On Saturday, February 7, 2009, in Boston, I'll be delivering the keynote address at the ACLU of Massachusetts Conference.  Immediately after that speech, I'll be on a panel discussion entitled Beyond the Politics of Fear, focusing on ways to ensure the Obama administration restores civil liberties and the rule of law.  For anyone in or near the Boston area:  the event is open to the public, and will include numerous panels on several other issues relating to civil rights and civil liberties.  Event information and registration is here.

The day before that, on Friday, February 6, 2009, I'll be on Bill Moyers' Journal, discussing media issues and other similar matters.  That same week -- most likely on the night of Wednesday, February 4, 2009 -- I'll be on The Rachel Maddow Show discussing yet-to-be-determined issues.  I'll post more details on these and other events as the dates approach.


UPDATE:  As sysprog notes in comments, the quote with which Cohen begins his column, and which serves as the centerpiece of his argument against prosecutions ("The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there") was first spoken by Leo Colston, a fictional character in the 1970 film (and novel), The Go-Between.  As sysprog puts it:

[Colston] was a fictional lower class character who naively worships and serves the upper class, and who tries to keep their secrets.

And who feels immensely guilty when he spills their secrets.

In other words, Colston is the perfect role model for today's modern American journalist, and it's no wonder Cohen finds such wisdom in his words.


UPDATE II:  As is virtually always true when pundits make claims about what "Americans believe" without offering any evidence, what they really mean is that it's what the pundits themselves believe, but just don't have the intellectual integrity to acknowledge it, so instead the pundit's beliefs get projected onto "most Americans."  When Cohen claims today that post-9/11 Americans were bloodthirsty and eager for bone-breaking, what he really means is that he, Cohen, was that way.  Here's what he wrote in March, 2008 in explaining why he supported the attack on Iraq:

In the following days, as the horror started to be airbrushed—no more bodies plummeting to the sidewalk—the anthrax letters started to come, some to people I knew. And I thought, No, I'm not going to sit here passively and wait for it to happen. I wanted to go to "them," whoever "they" were, grab them by the neck, and get them before they could get us.

Similarly, in November, 2006, Cohen spat out this admission (h/t spork):  "On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic."

As I wrote last week, media stars are all but forced to argue that Bush officials should be protected from the consequences of their extremism and lawbreaking because there were no more vigorous cheerleaders for all of it than these media stars themselves:

So when these media and political elites are defending Bush officials, mitigating their crimes, and arguing that they shouldn't be held accountable, they're actually defending themselves. Just as Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller can't possibly demand investigations for crimes in which they were complicit, media stars can't possibly condemn acts which they supported or, at the very best, towards which they turned a blissfully blind eye. They can't indict Bush officials for what they did because to do so would be to indict themselves. Bush officials need to be exonerated, or at least have their crimes forgotten (look to the future and ignore the past, they all chime in unison), so that their own involvement in it will also be cleansed and then forgotten. 

The role of the typical American pundit is to defend high government officials.  To be sure, that's what the Richard Cohens are doing when arguing against prosecutions for the crimes of the last eight years, but when arguing that, they are also defending themselves.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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