More on the media's Pentagon-subservient WikiLeaks coverage

The self-defense from the NYT's John Burns to criticisms over his hit piece reveals much about the media mind

Published October 27, 2010 8:28AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

The New York Times' John Burns yesterday responded to (and complained about) criticisms -- voiced by me, Julian Assange and others -- over his gossipy, People Magazine-style "profile" of Assange, which his newspaper centrally featured as part of its coverage of the WikiLeaks document release.  In a self-justifying interview with Yahoo! News' Michael Calderone, Burns makes several comments worth examining:

Burns said he doesn't "recall ever having been the subject of such absolutely, relentless vituperation" following a story in his 35 years at the Times. He said his email inbox has been full of denunciations from readers and a number of academics at top-tier schools such as Harvard, Yale, and MIT.  Some, he said, used "language that I don't think they would use at their own dinner table." 

This is really good to hear:  quite encouraging.  Apparently, many people become quite angry when the newspaper which did more to enable the attack on Iraq than any other media outlet in the world covered one of the most significant war leaks in American history -- documents detailing the deaths of more than 100,000 human beings in that war and the heinous abuse of thousands of others -- by assigning its most celebrated war correspondent and London Bureau Chief to studiously examine and malign the totally irrelevant personality quirks, alleged mental health, and various personal relationships of Julian Assange.  Imagine that.  Then we have this from Burns:

Such heated reactions to the profile, Burns said, shows "just how embittered the American discourse on these two wars has become."

Oh my, how upsetting.  People are so very "embittered," and over what?  Just a couple of decade-long wars that have spilled enormous amounts of innocent blood, devastated two countries for no good reason, and spawned a worldwide American regime of torture, lawless imprisonment, and brutal occupation.  It's nothing to get upset over.  People really need to lighten up.  And stop being so mean to John Burns.  That's what really matters.   

After all -- as he himself told you just a couple of months ago -- there was just no way that he and his war-supporting media colleagues -- holding themselves out as preeminent, not-to-be-questioned experts on that country -- could possibly have known that an attack on Iraq would have led to such devastating violence and humanitarian catastrophe (except by listening to, rather than systematically ignoring, the huge numbers of people around the world loudly warning that exactly that could happen).  The last thing he should have to endure are insulting emails from people who seem to think that such episodes warrant anger and recrimination.  And that's to say nothing of the obvious irony of a reporter complaining about our "embittered discourse" after he just wrote one of the sleaziest, most vicious hit pieces seen in The New York Times in quite some time.

Then there's this:

The profile, Burns said, is "an absolutely standard journalistic endeavor that we would use with any story of similar importance in the United States" . . . . Burns added that the Times is "not in the business of hagiography" but in the "business of giving our readers the fullest context for these documents" and the Assange's motivations. "To suggest that doing that is some kind of grotesque journalistic sin, and makes me a sociopath," Burns said, "strikes me as pretty odd."

This is the heart of the matter.  What Burns did to Julian Assange is most certainly not a "standard journalistic endeavor" for The New York Times.  If anyone doubts that, please show me any article that paper has published which trashed the mental health, psyche and personality of a high-ranking American political or military official -- a Senator or a General or a President or a cabinet secretary or even a prominent lobbyist -- based on quotes from disgruntled associates of theirs.  That is not done, and it never would be. 

This kind of character smear ("he's not in his right mind," pronounced a 25-year-old who sort of knows him) is reserved for people who don't matter in the world of establishment journalists -- i.e., people without power or standing in Washington and, especially, those whom American Government authorities scorn.  In official Washington, Assange is a contemptible loser -- the Pentagon hates him and wants him destroyed, and therefore the "reporters" who rely on,  admire and identify with Pentagon officials immediately adopt that perspective -- and that's why he was the target of this type of attack.  After I wrote my criticism of this article on Monday, I was contacted by Burns' co-writer, Ravi Somaiya, who defended this article from my criticisms.  I agreed to keep the exchange off-the-record at his insistence -- and I will do so -- but that was the question I kept asking:  point to any instance where the NYT ever subjected Someone Who Matters in Washington to this kind of personality and mental health trashing based on the gossip and condemnation of associates.  It does not exist.

As for Burns' pronouncement that "the Times is 'not in the business of hagiography'," he should probably remind himself of what he himself wrote about the Right Honorable Gen. Stanely McChrystal, after Burns had attacked Michael Hastings for daring to publish the General's own statements that reflected badly on him.  Here's what Burns wrote while falling all over himself in reverence of this Great American Warrior:

[A]ll that I know about General McChrystal suggests that he is, just as the Rolling Stone article suggested, a maverick of high self-belief and intensity, uncautioned in his disregard for the conventional, but for all that a soldier with a deep belief in the military's ideals of "duty, honor, country." Though handed what many would regard as a poisoned chalice in the Afghanistan command, he had worked relentlessly to rescue America’s fortunes there. . . . grave misfortune it is, considering what is lost to America in a commander as smart, resolute and as fit for purpose as General McChrystal . . . . 

General George S. Patton Jr. . . .  a man who was regarded at the time, like General McChrystal in Afghanistan, as the best, and the toughest, of America's war-fighting generals. . . . In Iraq, we barely glimpsed General McChrystal, then running the super-secret special operations missions that were crucial in turning the tide against Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency under General Petraeus’s command; but he, too, continued the pattern of access after he took command in Afghanistan in June 2009. . . .

Reporters, of course, do best when they keep their views to themselves, to retain their impartiality. But it's safe to say that many of the men and women who have covered General McChrystal as commander if Afghanistan, or in his previous role as the top United States special forces commander, admired him, and felt at least some unease about the elements in the Rolling Stone article that ended his career.

It seems Burns wrote that while standing and saluting in front of a large wall photograph of the General, or perhaps kneeling in front of it.  The only hint of a criticism was quite backhanded: that McCrystal  "blundered catastrophically" by failing to exercise sufficient caution when speaking to an Unestablished, Unaccepted, reckless, low-level loser like Michael Hastings, who simply did not know -- or refused to abide by -- the General-protecting rules that Real Reporters use when venerating covering for covering top military officials.  And despite writing 2,700 praise-filled words about McChrystal, Burns never once mentioned little things like his central involvement in the Pat Tillman fraud or the widespread detainee abuse in Iraq under his command, until a reader asked about it, and only then, he mentioned it in passing to dismiss it. Burns' view of McChrystal is the very definition of journalistic hagiography.

Or consider this NYT profile of Gen. McChrystal by Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Mazzetti, after he was named to run the war in Afghanistan, that was more creepily worshipful than any Us Weekly profile of a movie star whose baby pictures they are desperate to publish.  It goes on and on with drooling praise, but this is how it begins:

Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the ascetic who is set to become the new top American commander in Afghanistan, usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness.

He is known for operating on a few hours’ sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod. In Iraq, where he oversaw secret commando operations for five years, former intelligence officials say that he had an encyclopedic, even obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists, and that he pushed his ranks aggressively to kill as many of them as possible.

But General McChrystal has also moved easily from the dark world to the light. Fellow officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he is director, and former colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations describe him as a warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians and the military man who would help promote him to his new job.

"He's lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier," said Maj. Gen. William Nash, a retired officer. "He’s got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect."

That article also never mentioned the issue of detainee abuse -- no need to bother NYT readers with such unpleasantries about the Lanky Smart Tough Warrior who will win Afghanistan -- while the Tillman incident was buried in a paragraph near the end and dismissed as the "one blot on his otherwise impressive military record."  Remember, though:  "the Times is 'not in the business of hagiography'."  Upon McChrystal's firing, the Hillman Foundation's Charles Kaiser wrote a comprehensive piece documenting how the "unspoken rules" cited by Burns to attack Hastings were what led to widespread media protection and veneration of McChrystal, as embodied by the highly revealing though pernicious comments from CBS News' Lara Logan ("Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has").

"Hagiography" is exactly what the American establishment media does, when it comes to powerful American political and military leaders.  Slimy, personality-based hit pieces are reserved for those who are scorned by the powerful in Washington -- such as Julian Assange.  So subservient to the Pentagon's agenda was the media coverage of the WikiLeaked documents that even former high-level journalists are emphatically objecting, and naming names.  John Parker, former military reporter and fellow of the University of Maryland Knight Center for Specialized Journalism-Military Reporting, wrote an extraordinarily good letter yesterday:

The sad lack of coverage ("Sunday talk shows largely ignore WikiLeaks' Iraq files") of the leak of unfiltered, publicly owned information from the latest WikiLeak is disturbing, but not historically out of the ordinary for major American media.

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe -- interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity -- and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it's personally humbling for reporters who've never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters' innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon – justifiably in their minds – their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically.

Too many military reporters in the online/broadcast field have simply given up their watchdog role for the illusion of being a part of power. Example No. 1 of late is Tom Gjelten of NPR. . . Interviewed by his colleague on Oct. 22 about the latest WikiLeaks documents, this exchange happened:


Robert Siegel: And reaction to the release today?

Gjelten: Well, the Pentagon is, understandably, very angry, as they were when the documents from Afghanistan were released. They said this decision to release them was made cavalierly. They do point out - and I can't say I disagree (emphasis Parker's) - that the period in Iraq that these documents covered was already very well chronicled. They say it does not bring new understanding to those events.


There it is in black and white. Gjelten is lending his credibility to the Pentagon as "neutral" national journalist. . . . Gjelten, other Pentagon journalists and informed members of the public would benefit from watching "The Selling of the Pentagon," a 1971 documentary. It details how, in the height of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon sophisticatedly used taxpayer money against taxpayers in an effort to sway their opinions toward the Pentagon’s desires for unlimited war. Forty years later, the techniques of shaping public opinion via media has evolved exponentially. It has reached the point where flipping major journalists is a matter of painting in their personal numbers.

Precisely.  The Pentagon has long been devoted to destroying the credibility and reputation of WikiLeaks, and the military-revering John Burns and his war-enabling newspaper, as usual, lent its helping hand to the Government's agenda.  This is what NPR's Gjelten routinely does as well.  The Pulitzer-Prize-winning David Cay Johnston, formerly of the NYT, wrote his own letter yesterday supporting Parker, citing the media's Pentagon-parroting line (from Gjelten and others) that there is nothing new in the WikiLeaks documents, and wrote:  "If you want to ignore the facts or tell only the official version of events get a job as a flack."  That is the job they have, only they're employed by our major media outlets.  That's the principal problem.  They receive most of their benefits -- their access, their scoops, their sense of belonging, their money, their esteem -- from dutifully serving that role.

Of course, another major reason why these media figures are so eager to parrot the Government line -- to try to destroy Assange and insist that there's "nothing new" in these horrifying documents -- is because they cheered for these wars in the first place.  The Washington Post's Editorial Page Editor, Fred Hiatt, was one of the most vocal cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq, and so predictably, the Post (like NPR's Gjelten) ran an Editorial yesterday echoing the Pentagon and belittling the WikiLeaks documents as Nothing New Here.  If that's true, perhaps Hiatt can point to the article where the Post previously reported on the existence of Frago 242, the secret order which instructed American troops not to investigate Iraqi abuse, or perhaps he can explain why the Post's own Baghdad Bureau Chief for much of the war, Ellen Knickmeyer, finds plenty new in the WikiLeaks documents:  "Thanks to WikiLeaks, though, I now know the extent to which top American leaders lied, knowingly, to the American public, to American troops, and to the world, as the Iraq mission exploded."

Media figures like Burns, Gjelten, Hiatt and the NYT want you to think there's nothing new in these documents, and to focus instead on Julian Assange's alleged personality flaws (or the prospects that he -- rather than the criminals he exposed -- should be prosecuted), because that way they hope you won't notice all the blood on their hands.  That's one major benefit.  The other is that they discharge their prime function of currying favor with and serving the interests of the powerful Washington figures whom they "cover."

* * * * *

There's one specific inaccuracy in Burns' response to me which I want to highlight.  The Yahoo! article states:  "Burns took issue with Greenwald's suggestion that he's 'a borderline-sociopath' who's now coping with the guilt of having 'enabled and cheered' on the Iraq war."  I didn't actually call Burns that.  What I wrote was that, in light of what these documents reveal, "even" a  borderline-sociopath would be awash with guilt over having supported this war and would be eager to distract attention away from that -- by belittling the importance of the documents and focusing instead on the messenger:  Julian Assange.  In other words, there's only one category of people who would not feel such guilt -- an absolute sociopath -- and I was generously assuming that Burns was not in that category, which is why I would expect (and hope) that he is driven by guilt over the war he supported.  That's the most generous explanation I can think of for why -- in the face of these startling, historic revelations -- his journalistic choice was to pass on personality chatter about Assange.


UPDATE:  The New York Times offered a feature today -- "Ask The New York Times" -- where readers can ask questions of the various reporters who worked on the WikiLeaks story.  The first two questions were about the criticisms I've voiced about that coverage over the last few days (or at least the first question was:  about my critique of the substance of the NYT's coverage); the second question was merely a general one about the reasons why the NYT published the "hit piece" on Julian Assange, and Burns answered and took that opportunity to "address" my criticisms specifically.

I don't have much to add to what either reporter said there, as I think my critiques stand on their own, and I've already addressed most of the excuses offered.  I will, however, note two points:  (1) one the cheapest, most slothful and most intellectually dishonest methods for refuting an argument is to mockingly slap the label of "conspiracy theory" on it, as though the argument then becomes self-refuting; that's virtually always a non-responsive strawman, and that's exactly what Burns does in purporting to address my criticisms even though, manifestly, nothing I said qualifies as such; and (2) it's a very significant -- and positive -- change even from a couple of years ago that these reporters are not only loudly exposed to criticisms of their work, but feel compelled to expend substantial efforts engaging them and responding.

As for John Burns' overarching mentality, consider what he said on PBS' News Hour in July, after Gen. McChrystal had been fired, about the lesson that should be learned from that episode:  "I think we in the press have to really look at cases like this and say, to what extent can we change the way we behave in such a way that this sort of thing doesn't happen again?"  If an Important and Great Man like Gen. McChrystal ends up negatively affected as a result of truths uncovered by a real journalist (Michael Hastings), then -- sayeth John Burns -- the media must change its behavior, for that is the opposite of what it ought to be doing.


UPDATE II:  I was just on a radio program with the long-time journalist and media critic Norman Solomon, who said:  "I was in Baghdad before the invasion and spoke with Burns, and he was seriously eager to have this invasion take place.  And throughout the war, he constantly denounced the behavior of Iraqi insurgents without ever applying the same human rights standards to the American forces in Iraq."  

Despite all that, Burns (of course) will be the first to insist that he's a "neutral journalist," because to American establishment journalists, "neutrality" means: "serving the interests of American political and military leaders and amplifying their perspective."  Think about it, though:  if you were John Burns and had this unrepentant pro-war record (or if you were the NYT and were saddled with its war-enabling history), wouldn't you also be eager -- in the face of these WikiLeaks revelations -- to urge everyone to look over there at Julian Assange's personality traits, or what Iran was doing in Iraq, or anything else you could think of to distract from the extraordinary human suffering and mass death you helped unleash?


UPDATE III:  The Columbia Journalism Review slams the NYT's WikiLeaks coverage for being "tame to a fault," "afraid," and "a bit of a whitewash."  

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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