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August 22, 2005

A Funny Little Story About The Media

Some time ago, while witnessing the blathering about Valerie Plame, Karl Rove, Judith Miller, Matt Cooper, etc., Digby asked this: it normal that members of the press know the answer to a major mystery but they withhold it, as a group, from the public?

Based on my own experience, I'd say the answer to Digby's question is: yes.

I grew up in the Washington area and went to school with lots of children of government and media types. Then I went to Yale, which is also full of such offspring. What I saw was that the corporate media—places like the New York Times, Washington Post, the networks, etc.—and government figures are blatantly, brazenly in bed with each other. And not just metaphorically; it's often literally true. There's Andrea Mitchell & Alan Greenspan; James Rubin & Christiane Amanpour; Judith Miller & a cast of thousands; and so on.

In any case, whoever they're shtupping, they share a mindset: the government and corporate media self-consciously see themselves as a governing elite that runs things hand in hand. That's why Nicholas Kristof is anxious that if hoi polloi keep calling George Bush a liar, it may make America "increasingly difficult to govern." And it's why Katherine Graham famously said this, in a speech at the CIA to new recruits:

"There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets, and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."

William Greider explained the perspective of people like Graham and Kristof and their political cuddlebunnies in his book Who Will Tell the People:

In many private quarters of Washington, Alexander Hamilton's derisive dictum—"The People! The People is a great beast!"—has become an operating maxim. Survival in office requires a political strategy for herding "the beast" in harmless directions or deflecting it from serious matters it may not understand. Now and then, to the general dismay of political elites, Hamilton's "beast" breaks loose and tramples the civility of the regular order, though this usually occurs on inflammatory marginal issues that have little to do with the real substance of governing.

Weirdly, in fact, the media may be more invested in the status quo, and more concerned about "the people" going berserk, than actual politicians. Officeholders come and go, but the Washington Post is eternal.

So anyway, here's a funny little story illustrating all this:

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen came to talk at Yale in 1988, just after I arrived. Following schmancy Yale tradition, he had tea with a small group of students and then ate dinner with an even smaller group. I weaseled my way into attending.

Gary Hart had recently flamed out in the '88 presidential race because of Donna Rice. And at dinner Cohen told all us fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty youths this:

The Washington press corps had specifically tried to push Hart out of the race. It wasn't because Hart had had extramarital affairs—everyone knew this was the norm rather than the exception among politicians. So Hart wasn't at all unusual in this respect. Instead, Cohen said, it was because the press corps felt that Hart was "weird" and "flaky" and shouldn't be president. And when the Donna Rice stuff happened, they saw their opening and went after him.

(I wish I remembered more about what Cohen said about the specific gripe of the press corps with Hart, but I don't think he revealed many details.)

At the time, I remember thinking this:

1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it's appropriate.

2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America; ie, rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn't be trusted to make the correct evaluation.

3. How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.

Now, this doesn't mean Gary Hart wasn't weird and flaky. I assume he was. To me, the desire to be President of the United States in itself means you're a psychopath who should never be President of the United States. Unfortunately, of course, this desire is a job requirement. You have to be Catholic to be Pope, and you have to be dangerous and sick to be president.

But the point is the powerhouse media and their politician lovemates truly do feel there are things normal, grubby Americans simply can't handle. Moreover, it has nothing to do with political parties. Everything I've seen in my life confirms that, with few exceptions, they feel this way across the (extremely narrow) political spectrum.

If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America. They are Thomas Jefferson's aristocrats:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still, and pursue the same object. The last appellation of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.

Interestingly, in my endless years of school, this Jefferson quote was never once part of the assigned reading.

Posted at August 22, 2005 01:38 PM | TrackBack

Just like you have to be Catholic to be Pope, you have to be dangerous and sick to be president.

Good thing you're not running for office, Jon, or we'd have to quote the above line out of context to prove that you generally viewed Catholics as "dangerous and sick."

Hey, it would be easier than convincing the masses that you were a weird and flaky guy.

Posted by: Steve at August 22, 2005 04:37 PM

I actually tend to agree that most normal, grubby people can't handle most things, no matter what country they live in.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at August 22, 2005 06:38 PM

Which begs the question, when does the revolution begin.....again?

By my current experience, these f*$@ers are present at every venue including the military, hell, more likely in the military; the contemptuous few leading the servile masses while marginalizing, trivializing, demonizing or when necessary killing those brave souls who resist, protest and revolt. At present and in the near future, the source of the next revolution will not likely come from these United States because too many people today have too much money, a more addictive sedative than religion.

Posted by: rich at August 22, 2005 06:54 PM

Jo-on, you're barely older than I am! Here I thought you were a grown-up, like Harry! But you're one of us.

Posted by: BionOc at August 22, 2005 07:16 PM

The public are not necessarily grubby. Some of us just have better things to do than care. In the words of S.J. Perelman:

"Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

Posted by: at August 23, 2005 12:40 PM

...and speaking of the Pope, your post reminds me of that great poem by James Tate:

How The Pope Is Chosen

After a poodle dies
all the cardinals flock to the nearest 7-Eleven.
They drink Slurpies until one of them throws up
and then he's the new Pope.

Posted by: krimur at August 23, 2005 09:49 PM

Jon, I meant this: do you think for example, they can tell the unwashed masses that their oil wars are justified because that if they don't do that, what happens is that our petroleum by-product based society would collapse?

Posted by: En Ming Hee at August 24, 2005 12:15 PM

Well, this is most interesting. And it means we've never really had a democratic republic at all. The closest we've come is an oligarchy.

Posted by: Delia at August 24, 2005 03:53 PM

En Ming Hee,

Well—I think that's the way THEY see it, but I don't think it's true. I believe the oil wars have to do with maintaining U.S. wealth and power rather than somehow protecting industrial society. I think we could have survived quite happily without the wars.


I agree to a point; we've certainly never been a model democracy. But everything's a matter of degrees, and there's no clear dividing line between republics and oligarchies. At times we've been more republican than now, and at times more oligarchical.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at August 25, 2005 10:03 AM

They are certainly not maintaining much of US wealth and power given even as Paul Craig Roberts, yes, that Paul Craig Roberts, has mentioned lately, most new job openings in the US are tertiary-sector service jobs in places like catering and construction. lol.

Anyway, to me petroleum and petroleum by-products do constitute so much of the basis of industrial society, that the wars were bound to happen sooner or later, the only way to me that they could have been avoided is either through not just alternative energy sources, but also for every single petroleum by-product we use from plastics to nylon to film.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at August 25, 2005 07:05 PM

I don't think the wars are started because they fear a collapse of the american economy unless they enforce a dollar hegemony. I am sure that the people behind American foreign policy have diversified investment portfolios and will not suffer regardless of the position of the dollar. The wealthiest corporations and people in the world are behind America's foreign policy. Whether the dollar or the euro is king, the reality will remain that the same group of people will be in control of the largest corporations, largest banks, Largest militaries, etc. Do the masters of the universe really care if the American economy slumps into freefall? I bet many would see it as a good thing. During the great depression the wealthiest people made out like bandits. While everything depreciated in value, the people controlling the depression bought up everything at rock bottom prices ending up with the wealthiest people become much more powerful and everyone else losing their property, business, etc to them. A similar thing may have been planned with the connivance of the European powers. After all the Bilderberg group is more then just a myth.

In my view the reason for the recent war machine is naked military aggression, wanton violence, which is the real point of American foreign policy. Just like during the Roman Empire in Judea; there would be people on crucifixes along the road for miles. It sends a very clear message to would be rabble rousers. The American and European Axis ( not just the Brits, also the Germans, French etc, they may pay lip service in denouncing Bush, but thats just to pacify their home audience. In reality who is in Afghanistan? Nato. Who destroyed Yugoslavia and changed it into a series of client states? Nato.) with American troops as the stick and the World Bank and International Monetary fund (bribes) as the carrot, is how the lords of darkness are playing their game.

Then again, maybe they're just all fighting amongst themselves. I dunno.

Posted by: kismet at August 26, 2005 02:40 AM

Democracy is aristocracy in disguise..never forget it.

Posted by: Quazi Moto at August 26, 2005 12:32 PM

So why don't we go after the media, then? Out them, so to speak...

Posted by: wudsteen at August 26, 2005 04:36 PM

there was a time Way Back When it seemed outrageous, i mean satire was declared dead, honey ~ that ACTORS should become POLITICAL LEADERS... that role, what the actors did was manage the press well. it got so that The Public would crucify a well-functioning politician; eg., Gary Condit for simply being a bad actor.

well that's all old hat now. What Happens Next is that "the press" and news-show "press pundits" will seek to become POLITICAL LEADERS.

and their rationale?

"Well, at least WE are not ACTING."


Posted by: MonsieurGonzo at August 26, 2005 08:09 PM

The second-most important reason I had for voting for John Kerry was the sense that he was fundamentally such a bad actor (in the theatrical, not the moral, sense) that he might be able to get away with less overall, and might even have to be useful to us for his own political survival.

Posted by: Dabney Braggart at August 28, 2005 03:49 PM

"(I wish I remembered more about what Cohen said about the specific gripe of the press corps with Hart, but I don't think he revealed many details.)"

As I recall, Hart was not particularly effusive in professing his allegiance to Israel (and indeed made some comments during the campaign which leaned towards an America-first Middle East policy). More than enough material for a gripe right there. (After all, remember what happened to Bush Sr. 4 years later.)

Posted by: trouvere at August 29, 2005 07:29 PM

"went to school with lots of children of government and media types"

Sidwell, Georgetown Prep, or St. Albans/NCS?

Posted by: vaara at October 13, 2005 12:35 PM

The *really* big problem with rule of a society by an "elite" is that. . . every single nation in history that no longer exists was run into the ground by that elite.

This usually happens when elements in the elite realize that buying politicians is cheaper than paying taxes, and that if the country's foundations can be broken up and sold, that they can make a whole lot of money. Then society crashes around their ears and they blame it on the common people.

Posted by: A.Lizard at August 18, 2007 07:09 PM