Thomas Frank: The New Republic, the torture report, and the TED talks geniuses who gutted journalism

Zillionaire new media barons think themselves geniuses, not say, really lucky to've been Mark Zuckerberg's roommate


Thomas Frank
December 14, 2014 5:00PM (UTC)

Between the crumbling of a landmark Rolling Stone story and the dynamiting of The New Republic, these have been a bad couple of weeks for journalism. But with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program on Tuesday, the whole doleful parade took a turn toward the comical.

Chapter IV of that report describes the CIA’s efforts to twist public perceptions of its torture program by revealing certain classified information to journalists—information that was wrong, per the report, because its object was to claim great successes for the torture program where few really existed. But said information, regardless of its truth value, was still classified. That, in turn, set up an awkward dilemma for all parties: certain CIA officials wondered whether to do something about the journalists in question for reporting these great dollops of bogusness; other spooks gently suggested that they shouldn’t, since, er, the Agency leaked that stuff to them.

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Behind this Keystone Cops farce was something deadly serious: Writers from some of the most reputable institutions in America were being conned into propagandizing for torture. One of the journalists named in the Senate Committee report, David Johnston of The New York Times, told the International Business Times how it worked: “Another way of saying it is they basically lied to journalists and the journalists didn’t have a lot of alternatives but to reflect their point of view in stories.”

Tis ever thus with journalistic scandals. The thing of value that we writers possess is our independence, our trustworthiness; those with power, meanwhile, scheme endlessly to utilize these things for their own ends. David Johnston implies that he was led astray by the impulse to let each side say its piece. On other occasions, straight-up financial considerations do the trick, as in the case of the op-ed writers who did favors for Jack Abramoff. Sometimes the journalists’ motives are more complicated, as in the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who used information provided by a Bush Administration favorite in order to persuade the world that Saddam Hussein possessed scads of WMDs.

Another journalist named in the Senate Committee report is Ronald Kessler, a former star reporter for the Washington Post who has written a string of best-selling books about the adventures of our secret police agencies. According to the Senate report, the CIA objected to one of Kessler’s proposed accounts of a certain episode in the War on Terror, because it gave the agency “short shrift” and heaped plaudits instead on its rival in interrogation, the FBI. So, according to the report, the Agency met with the author and tried to persuade him to change his book manuscript in order to acknowledge the value of what it calls “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

One of the “substantive changes” Kessler made to his manuscript, if the Senate Committee report is to be believed, was to a passage in which he assailed journalists and politicians who “have made careers for themselves by belittling and undercutting the efforts of the heroic men and women who are trying to protect us.”

Kessler has objected strongly to the Senate’s version of the story, insisting that he alone was responsible for the passage quoted above, not the CIA. “I came up with my own opinion,” he told a reporter for Bloomberg News.  “It’s not because I was being bamboozled by the CIA.” And it is true that the familiar stereotype of liberal journalists tearing down the nation’s defenders occurs throughout the Kessler book in question, not merely in the handful of passages identified by the Senate report.

Whether it was CIA sources or the calling of his own heart that informed Kessler’s comments on the CIA’s “coercive interrogation” techniques is probably unknowable. What is remarkable is that as he did so, he chose to accuse his fellow journalists of something pretty close to what the Senate torture report describes him as doing. Two paragraphs after the above-quoted line appears in his 2008 book The Terrorist Watch, he writes as follows:

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“In their quest to undermine the war on terror, the media have used the propaganda and censorship techniques of the old Soviet Union to misinform the public. Without winning the war being waged by the media against our own government, we are going to lose the war on terror because the tools that are needed will be taken away by a Congress swayed by a misinformed public and by other countries unwilling to cooperate with the CIA or FBI because they fear mindless exposure by the press.”

Thus the script is flipped. In Kessler's telling, it’s the media that’s using KGB-style propaganda. And it’s the CIA and FBI who will be the casualties of it all.

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Meanwhile, in another corner of Washington, a different kind of journalism has been coming apart. The new owner of The New Republic, a Facebook multimillionaire named Chris Hughes, had announced plans to bring all manner of disruptive innovations to the century-old magazine, which was not to be a magazine any longer but instead—in the much-mocked words of Hughes’ chosen CEO—a “vertically integrated digital media company.” It was going to be profitable. It was going to “embrace innovation, experimentation, and cross-functional collaboration.” Best of all, it was going to have an investment fund to buy chunks of relevant tech companies.

As always, journalistic integrity was the main issue. Hughes reportedly ordered TNR employees to go easy on the towering figures of Silicon Valley. His appointed CEO outlined plans for the publication in deranged management jargon. Hughes hired a new editor but neglected to tell the old one, Frank Foer. When it all became clear, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s legendary literary editor, quit in solidarity with Foer, and so did a large, frustrated chunk of the magazine’s staff. In the face of the mutiny, publication was suspended until February.

I admire Foer and Wieseltier, but still it is problematic for me to mourn the passing of the old New Republic. I find nothing attractive about its journalistic model, in which smart kids from the Ivy League would exercise the prerogatives of their class, sliding into a position of ready-made authority in Washington, where they would pantomime seriousness and demand wars on this country and that. The bigoted writings of the magazine’s owner in the pre-Hughes era were always a shocking thing to find among its delicately reasoned essays, a big turd rising up through the eggnog. And the magazine’s political project back in the days everyone thinks of as TNR’s golden age—trolling the left—was exactly the wrong way to answer the free-market turn of the 1980s and 1990s.

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So part of me wants to say that The New Republic’s spectacular self-destruction last week represented a kind of cosmic justice. The magazine spent years cheering for the political arrangements that made possible the rise of the self-righteous do-nothing zillionaires who so afflict us today, and lo and behold, one of these moneyed buffoons comes blundering along and succeeds in blowing the magazine up. By insisting on the profit motive. Right after a big black-tie party presided over by Bill Clinton himself. Does it get any more perfect than that?

But it’s not so simple. If you can put its dreadful former owner aside, the New Republic has actually been pretty damned good in the last few years. One of the very last issues to appear featured James Wolcott’s piece-by-piece dismantling of the Lena Dunham phenomenon. Just a few months ago, TNR editor Frank Foer said exactly what needs to be said about Amazon. Last year Alec MacGillis wrote one of the few really critical stories about Bill Clinton’s post-presidential operations. Back in 2010, John Judis offered one of the first and best accounts of President Obama’s failings—a critique that has been echoed today by just about everyone. I myself wrote a story I’m still proud of for TNR back in 2006 (can’t find a link to it, it was about lobbyists). Over the years they ran a whole bunch of essays by Tom Geoghegan, who is one of the most unfairly overlooked writers we have. And as long as I live I will never forget Henry Fairlie’s epic beatdown of George Will.

Besides, to see virtually the entire staff of a magazine—the entire staff of anything—down tools and pull their work is something rare these days, a gesture that was ennobled in this case by the fact that the walkout has no chance of getting the owner to change course. To sneer at such a spontaneous act of solidarity would be churlish in the extreme. To return to the words of Ronald Kessler, these people just unmade their own careers, and they did it out of loyalty to an idea of what journalism should be. That’s inspiring and completely hopeless at the same time.

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“Hopeless” because, as The New York Times noted in a story about the changes at TNR, “freelance writers are in abundant supply” these days. That hints at the real story here.

Once upon a time I wanted to be a magazine journalist, and in large part because of The New Republic. It was not so much the New Republic of Michael Kinsley and Charles Krauthammer that I admired, however, as the New Republic of Edmund Wilson, which I learned about from reading his memoirs. Joining it in my personal pantheon was The American Mercury of H. L. Mencken, the Harper’s magazine of Lewis Lapham, and the Spy magazine of the late 1980s, which my friends and I would devour as soon as it arrived at the tumbledown nineteenth-century shack where we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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To be a critic of ideas, a puncturer of pieties, a scoffer at the parade—surely that was the life.

Well, it ain’t any more. It has been obvious for some time that the great age of magazine journalism is coming to an end, and also that it is not just the Internet that is killing it.

So who is the culprit? Considering the various journalistic disasters before us today, it seems that we would do well to take our rapidly polarizing class system into account—the insane arrangements that allow tycoons to buy presidential campaigns while journalists and intellectuals become glorified temps.

Plutocrats have always been a self-regarding bunch, but it is obvious that the species of zillionaire that subsidizes magazine journalism today suffer from a form of upper-class delusion that was unknown just 50 years ago. This is because they now know that they are not merely people who got lucky; they are geniuses—everyone tells them so. Chris Hughes, breaker of the New Republic, earned his millions by being Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate, but nevertheless he was one of the most celebrated figures in publishing a short while ago. When he and his handpicked CEO lapse into indecipherable management talk, they apparently mean it. That’s not a Dilbert joke; that’s the language of genius. (According to a recent story by Chris Lehmann, the same sort of thing goes on at First Look, a troubled journalistic project launched by a different Internet mogul.)

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What’s more, unlike media barons of the recent past, our modern zillionaires don’t refrain from direct meddling in the production of ideas and opinions. Not only are the new press lords blithely steamrolling the old ethical wall that used to separate journalism’s owning elite from the newsgathering process; they are repurposing the act of reporting into something much closer to PR. If you are tempted to dismiss this as populist hyperbole, allow me to direct you to the vast sponsored content portal known as Vox Media.

The new press lord’s deeds are all made possible by the shrinking significance of everyone else. Compared to the patois of power, the language of journalism is but meaningless babble. Compared to once having been a friend of Zuckerberg, no form of literary genius matters any more. Compared to the puissance and majesty of the CIA, we amount to nothing. We are playthings of the powerful, churned out by the millions every year from the nation’s knowledge factories. We are zeroes to their ones, ready to rationalize monopoly or rectal hydration at a moment’s notice. Onto the hamster wheel, everyone. Let us heed the master’s voice.


Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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