The corruption of the cocoon

Many politicians, journalists and pundits simply ignore all criticisms and avoid critics -- because there is no real price to pay from doing so.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 27, 2009 1:13PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

Get Out Of Your D$*#( Shells

Here's a simple way to increase intellectual cross-pollination on the web: honest bloggers of the left and the right should try to interview at least one author/historian/politician from the other side of the aisle at least one a month.  So -- Media Matters shouldn't just criticize Bernard Goldberg; they should interview him.  Glenn Greenwald should, I don't know, see if Jack Goldsmith from Harvard would chat with him online.  Bill Kristol should interview Jane Mayer.  Pajamas Media needs to interview Democrats and Democratic experts, and not just each other, or Joe the Plumber, or Sen. Jim DeMint. Righties interviewing righties has gotten so boring and repetitive; lefties fawning over lefties is lazy.  Who's going to be brave enough to reach out to an ideological or intellectual opponent, promote their new book, or interview them?

I agree with this almost entirely, but there's an assumption here that isn't quite accurate:  the lack of such interviews and debates isn't evidence that there are no such attempts being made.  To the contrary:  not only politicians, but a huge portion of pundits and journalists, simply refuse to acknowledge any criticisms, let alone engage critics. 

Our political discourse is so stratified that politicians and pundits can get all the exposure they want while confining themselves to hospitable venues and only speaking to sympathetic journalists.  That, as but one example, is what fuels "access journalism" -- the willingness of politicians to speak only to deferential reporters, who stay deferential in order to ensure that those politicians continue to speak with them, a process that perpetuates itself ad infnitum.  That has created a virtually complete -- and quite destructive -- accountability-free zone where politicians and pundits alike can simply avoid any form of adversarial questioning or challenges to their claims [in fact, ironically enough, one of my criticisms of Ambinder during the recent State Secrets controversy was that, when defending the Obama administration's position as conveyed by anonymous DOJ officials (whose anonymity prevented them from being questioned or otherwise engaged), he failed to speak with or even cite anyone who had an opposing view].

Last week, Rachel Maddow interviewed GOP Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty rather aggressively about what she perceived to be the contradiction between his opposition to the stimulus bill and his willingness to accept the monies appropriated by that bill on behalf of his state.  Unlike Keith Olbermann, Maddow clearly has a desire to conduct adversarial interviews with those with whom she disagrees (as many Democratic politicians who do her show, likely expecting a friendly venue but receiving the opposite, can attest).  But this is what she said at the end of the Pawlenty interview:

Governor Pawlenty represents Minnesota and I will just say -- we ask a lot of Republicans to be on the show and they almost always say no.  So, I am particularly grateful whenever anybody says yes.  And to any Republicans out there who we ask -- see -- I'm not so bad.

With very few exceptions, Republicans simply won't talk to her.  Identically, in 2007, when Bill Moyers produced the first major television report about the media's failures and deceit in the run-up to the Iraq War, he attempted to interview most of the key figures whose actions he intended to highlight and critique -- such as Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, Tom Friedman and Roger Ailes.  But here's what happened when he tried:

MOYERS:  We wanted to talk to some others in the media about their role in the run up to the war. . . . . Judith Miller, who left the Times after becoming embroiled in a White House leak scandal, declined our request on legal grounds.

The Times liberal hawk Thomas Friedman also said no.  So did Bill Safire, who had predicted Iraq would now be leading the Arab World to democracy. . . .

The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer also turned us down.  So did Roger Ailes, the man in charge of Fox News.  He declined, an assistant told us, because he's writing ab ook on how Fox has changed the face of American broadcasting and doesn't want to scoop himself.

William Kristol led the march to Baghdad behind a battery of Washington microphones.  He has not responded to any of our requests for an interview, but he still shows up on TV as an expert, most often on Fox News.

The only targets of Moyers' critique willing to speak with him and address criticisms of their pre-war behavior were (to their credit) Tim Russert and Peter Beinart, who sat and rather uncomfortably addressed Moyers' probing, adversarial examination.  But most of the super tough-guy civilization-warriors refused to answer for what they said, instead cowardly hiding behind their challenge-free monologue-columns and/or friendly colleagues at Fox News.

The original impetus for the creation of my Salon Radio show last July was that I wanted to have a forum to question and hear from any political figures, journalists and pundits who were the target of criticisms here.  As I wrote when announcing the debut of that show:

Although the podcast show will function as a stand-alone entity, my intent is that it will supplement much of what I write about by enabling me to interview, debate or otherwise engage with people on issues that relate to what I write about. I intend to make it a regular practice to invite onto the show anyone who is criticized here -- journalists, political figures or anyone else -- in order to discuss and debate those critiques.

What I quickly found, however, is that such offers were almost always rebuffed or ignored, to the point where I mostly stopped trying, assuming that it would be futile.  Having accountability-free discourse means that many political figures and journalists perceive no benefit -- and certainly no obligation -- to acknowledge critics or confront criticisms.

* * * * *

People who want to opine politically or otherwise have an influence on the political process have -- in my view -- an obligation to engage criticisms.   That's the reason I do things such as spend 45 minutes on the Hugh Hewitt Show defending my views on Israel-Gaza and foreign policy generally, going on Fox News to explain objections to John Brennan, debating someone like Cass Sunstein on his excreable opposition to investigations of Bush officials or someone like David Rivkin on his defense of warrantless eavesdropping, or engaging in online discussions with people (such as Megan McArdle, Ben Smith and Ana Marie Cox) with whom I've had sharp disagreements.  That's why I virtually always post complaints and responses from those whom I criticize.  Speakers at Cato Institute events, as a matter of policy, almost always have someone included in the event to criticize the speaker's views [as I did when I presented Tragic Legacy there, after which former Reagan DOJ official Lee Casey rather harshly critiqued my book, and will have again at an upcoming (soon-to-be-announced) Cato presentation I'm making in early April].  

Sometimes these sorts of clashes are unpleasant.  Sometimes, due to the people involved or other factors, they are not constructive.  But often they are (as but one example, I unexpectedly found my discussion with Hewitt to be quite substantive and weirdly respectful).  And, in all events, doing these things is something which, if one wants to spout political opinions in public, one should feel compelled to do [and, to be meaningful, the obligation extends beyond pseudo-debates between such mutually admiring friends (and like-minded comrades) that the bubbly lovefest precludes any serious clashes].

More importantly, it's precisely the ability of politicians, journalists and pundits to avoid meaningful challenges to their views that, more than any other factor, degrades our political discourse.   The reason the Wall St. Journal Editors (and others like them) disseminate blatant falsehoods and then never bother to correct or even acknowledge those errors -- and the reason people like Karl Rove can spout the most intellecutally dishonest columns imaginable -- is precisely because they know they can just avoid any venues where they will be questioned or challenged about what they say.  Those who insulate themselves from critics and just ignore all criticisms, and who speak only to hospitable audiences, know that they can say anything without consequence or accountability (just compare the cowardly Bill Kristol's humiliating history of deceit and error-plagued punditry to his endless promotions within our media establishment).

In fact, it is this exact dynamic that makes the absence of adversarial journalism -- and the dominance of access journalism -- so destructive.  Bush officials were able to spend eight years spewing the most blatant falsehoods because they knew that most journalists wouldn't challenge them or even point out the falsity of their claims.  Bush spent eight years almost exclusively speaking to adoring, pre-screened audiences where he heard no challenges to what he asserted.  And, in general, it's hard to overstate how severely the cocooning process can distort reality (see here and here for a couple recent, typical examples).

Adversarial challenges to one's statements are a vital check on errors and deceit.  Clashes of ideas are an irreplaceable instrument for truth-finding.  Shielding oneself from such challenges (or just ignoring them) is not only irresponsible and cowardly, but ensures that one can opine without accountability.  That's why bloggers who have an active, smart and critical comment section with which they interact have a major advantage over journalists who hide from critical scrutiny.  In all of this, it's reasonable to exercise some discretion -- not all criticisms and/or critics merit attention -- but those who avoid any real challenges to their statements (whether politicians, journalists, or pundits) ought to be stigmatized for doing so, and it ought to be viewed as a powerful indictment against their credibility (Ambinder's post will prompt me to resume efforts to invite onto Salon Radio those who are criticized here and to make note of those who refuse).

* * * * *

What Ambinder describes as this self-imposed cocooning process is now so pervasive that it has actually become the norm, at least in many precincts.  During those few occasions when I have been able to interview those whose views I've criticized, my comment section and inbox were filled with warnings that aggressively adversarial interviews should be avoided because it will lead most potential interviewees to refuse future requests.  Criticisms of TV journalists who conduct painfully sycophantic, unchallenging interviews with powerful political figures will inevitably prompt defenses that the journalist can't be more adversarial because to do so will ensure that nobody will submit to future interviews.  Just as people have been trained to believe that there is something inherently illegitimate about primary challenges to incumbent politicians (it's an undemocratic purge!  a circular firing-squad!), so, too, have many people been trained to believe that the ability of politicians and other opinion-makers to shield themselves from any real critical examination is both understandable and even necessary.  And thus, there is no real price to pay for those who hide from it.

Until those who suffer a serious loss of credibility from speaking only in hospitable venues and to access-eager journalists -- and until there is a real price to pay for simply ignoring criticisms and even documentation of factual errors -- these practices will almost certainly continue.  Ambinder raised an important point here.  It's a good suggestion.  But it's likely to fall on deaf ears without there being some real incentive for people to change this cocooning behavior.


UPDATE:  A few illustrative examples underscore the point here.  During her tenure at Time, Ana Marie Cox, to her credit, normalized the idea that Time's reporters and columnists should not only blog, but also regularly engage blogger criticism and interact extensively with their commenters.  It's hard to dispute that their subjecting themselves to that sort of two-way interaction has expanded their perspectives and altered their journalistic behavior for the better (see this post from Joe Klein today as just one of many examples; this admission of error from Jay Carney was also a classic example).

By stark contrast, some of the absolute worst "journalists" plaguing the country -- Fred Hiatt, Tom Friedman, David Ignatius, Maureen Dowd, Nedra Pickler -- are also some of the most extensively criticized.  Despite their undoubtedly being well aware of that criticism (after all, it prominently appears right on the first and second pages of a Google search of their names), they simply ignore it, never deign even to acknowledge it, and thus just continue unmolested with their dishonest and pernicious behavior, too insular even to respond to widespread critiques of what they do.


UPDATE II:  Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote a column in 2007 relating to many of these themes that -- without my endorsing all of it -- is worth reading.

On an unrelated note, I spoke to the annual conference of the ACLU of Massachusetts last month regarding impediments to the restoration of civil liberties under the Obama administration.  That 30-minute speech, for those interested, can be heard on MP3 here.  It's also available on ITunes here (the video of the speech may or may not be posted at some point in the future).

Glenn Greenwald

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