Beltway culture, checks on journalists and secrecy obligations

Excessive secrecy is one of the prime afflictions of Beltway culture, for politicians and, especially, journalists.

Published September 1, 2009 11:02AM (EDT)

I'm ambivalent about whether even to acknowledge this obviously disturbed, Cheneyite rant from Joe Klein.  On the one hand, I don't want to be dragged down into what is, for him, quite clearly a deeply emotional and personal matter (having its roots in things like this, this and this); I don't think very many people care about petty feuds and engaging them isn't the purpose of what I do here.  Moreover, Klein's commenters (as usual) have done a thorough and masterful job of demolishing what he wrote, as have several others.  On the other hand, when someone like Klein -- first in a secret club composed of several hundred journalists, editors, bloggers and other peers and colleagues, and then using a megaphone like Time -- repeatedly calls you a military-hating, unpatriotic, ignorant, Limbaugh-like, "mean-spirited, dishonorable, graceless, bully" who doesn't care if America Stays Safe, and that then is "reported" in various places, it's probably prudent to say something.  So I'll just make a couple of general points illustrated by all of this that I think are worth making:

(1)   Establishment journalists have a very significant impact on the world.  They enthusiastically believe that to be true when it comes time to building their egos and establishing their own importance, but they instantly and emphatically deny it when it comes time to holding them accountable for what they do (don't you have anything better to do than criticize the media?).  Their influence, thankfully, has eroded and continues to erode by the minute, but it's still substantial.  That's why entire industries exist, and vast resources are expended by the powerful and wealthy, to manage, manipulate and control what they say.

What they do and how they think matters.  They're the filters through which the citizenry hears about and understands the actions of the government.  They can illuminate or deceive, disrupt or enable wrongdoing by the powerful, refute or amplify propaganda, expand or narrow the scope of accepted ideas.  They play a major role in whether we start wars, torture people, live under lawless leaders, maintain massive wealth disparities, allow a tiny group of corporations to own and control government.  They constantly go on TV.  Their claims are aired to millions.  They're given access to the most powerful people.  They're the public face and voice of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world.  They're paid a lot of money. 

It's every bit as legitimate -- and as vital -- to hold them accountable as it is political officials themselves.  Far more than they are "outsiders," they are now appendages of -- spokespeople for -- the political and financial establishment itself, as much as a Cabinet Secretary or White House Chief of Staff or an official in a large corporation.  I don't see "political officials" and "establishment journalists" as two separate groups; I view them as merged, with the latter being important facilitators of (servants to) the former (which is why they're able so easily to switch from one to the other).  That's why I write as much as I do about media behavior.  What I learned from the very first political controversy on which I worked intensely as a blogger (the warrantless eavesdropping scandal) -- when establishment pundits (including Klein) rushed forward virtually in unison to insist that Bush had done nothing wrong by breaking the law -- media behavior can't be extricated from any issue.  It shapes and determines all of them.

It's never personal for me; if, tomorrow, Joe Klein writes something commendable, I'll praise him (as I've done -- quite lavishly -- in the past when warranted).  But for way too long, these individuals were permitted to spout their received wisdom, enforce their orthodoxies, and fulfill their assigned functions with no checks, no scrutiny and no effective criticisms.  Even now, with the democratization of punditry brought about by the Internet, the rewards they can offer (to join their club, to have access, to be invited, to be given platforms, to be one of them) and the punishments they can dole out (to be denied all of that and be shunned) make many people who could hold them accountable reluctant to do so.  Even well-intentioned people who begin as outsiders can be deterred by those influences; it's human nature. 

Last year, after I wrote critically about a well-known journalist who frequently appears on the TV and is considered "liberal," he emailed me (after first asking me to agree that our conversation would be private) to warn that I should be more "careful" about attacking "allies" if I wanted to expand my platforms and get on television.  That's how the culture works.  Those are the weapons which politicians -- and journalists -- use to try to punish those who criticize them and reward those who refrain from doing that.  But for people who are indifferent to those "rewards" and affirmatively want to be without them, establishment journalists can't control or otherwise deter them from shining a negative light on what they do.  It's natural that they're angry about that and bitterly resent those who do it, but that's just the nature of accountability.

(2) Klein's complaint that "twice in the past month, [his] private communications have been splashed about the internet" is revealing.  The first incident was when he went to a beach party, spat a slew of insults (I'm not only a "civil liberties absolutist" but also "evil") in front of a group of people, all while speaking with an individual he didn't know but who happened to be a prolific and excellent blog commenter, sometimes blogger and I.F. Stone's granddaughter.  She then wrote about what he said in a very widely-linked post.  That's who Klein, in yesterday's post, bizarrely called a "rather pathetic woman acolyte of Greenwald's."

The second incident happened yesterday.  Klein belongs to "Journolist," a secret online club where several hundred liberal journalists, pundits, bloggers, editors, policy experts and the like gather to discuss various matters, all organized by The Washington Post's Ezra Klein.  It includes some of the most influential people in the profession.  I'm not a member and never have been.  Yesterday morning, one of the participants (whose identity I don't know) emailed me to advise me that Joe Klein was sending out extremely insulting and derogatory emails to the entire group about me, and forwarded that email discussion to me, telling me he thought it was wrong that I was being repeatedly attacked by Klein in front of hundreds of people -- including many people who are my colleagues and peers -- without my knowledge and without being able to defend myself.  He told me I could do whatever I thought was best with what he sent.  I then posted some of those emails on a site I use to post documents, and briefly mentioned it on Twitter.  That -- a political rant in front of strangers on a beach and an insult fest sent to hundreds of journalists -- are the ostensibly "private communications" to which Klein is referring.

I don't think there's anything wrong at all with journalists emailing one another to discuss various political issues as they do on Journolist.  Journalists, like everyone else, are entitled to have private conversations, and privacy can facilitate more candid discussions.  But when hundreds of highly influential opinion-makers gather to talk about politics, that is a matter of public interest.  If participants in that discussion agree to keep the discussions confidential, they should abide by that.  But the rest of the world isn't bound to honor that secrecy.  That's what journalism and leaks are about:  disclosing and publishing other people's secrets that are a matter of public interest.  That's what journalists do all the time, or at least should do:  inform the public what powerful people are saying and doing in "private."  Unless you're Tim Russert, you don't need "permission" or "authorization" to publish what you learn.  Beyond that, the very idea that someone has the right to attack and insult someone who isn't present in front of hundreds of people -- and then demand that the entire world, including the target of the attacks, honor that discussion as secret and private, that the target has no right to publicize it or respond -- is ludicrous beyond words.

Excessive secrecy is one of the prime afflictions of Beltway culture -- among both politicians and, especially, journalists.  Secrecy is supposed to be anathema to journalism. The whole point of journalism is to uncover secrets, not to find new ways to preserve it.  But secrecy is the prime currency in Washington.  Your importance is determined by what you are allowed to know -- what you're allowed to access -- that the masses are blocked from knowing.   That was the most amazing part of the Plame scandal:  all of the Important People in Washington -- including journalists -- knew what happened, knew who the leakers were.  But none of them told, including the journalists.  It was their little Village secret.  And they loved having their private scandal that only they knew about but not the "public."  Whether someone had access to those secrets determined whether they mattered, and so the last thing they wanted was to have that secret exposed and have the masses know about it, because that would destroy their specialness.  And that dynamic repeats itself over and over, where the most powerful people in Washington get together with the most influential journalists and constantly agree to keep everything secret, away from the masses, reserved only for those who matter.  That's how Washington stays opaque and how it is able so easily to mislead.

When you write for 4 million people in a national political magazine and constantly go on TV to opine, outbursts that you have about politics at a beach party or in a club of a few hundred journalists aren't "private" and the entire world isn't obligated to honor the demand that it stay secret.  If, tomorrow, someone provides me with incriminating or otherwise revealing emails written by a government official about a matter of public interest, I'm going to publish them without first asking "permission" from the official who wrote it and regardless of whether it will anger them.  By definition, it's not "private" even if they want it to be.  There's no reason to treat high-profile establishment journalists any differently.  Other than things I expressly agree to keep confidential, I'm much more interested in revealing secrets to readers than I am in preserving secrets.  That's the nature of journalism and accountability.  We need far more transparency when it comes to the conduct and statements of influential people in Washington, not less.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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