The Military’s Media Whores: On Ethics, Power, Rapport and Responsibility

Posted on 1 July 2010 by


First, my thanks to Erik Davis (colleague, long time friend of this blog) for directing my attention to this brilliant piece by Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone: Lara Logan, You Suck, from which I will quote extensively in the extracts that follow. This is a “notes and quotes” feature of this blog, apart from this commentary.

Second, we have encountered some of these issues before, on this blog, and about the writing on this blog. The intense scorn, dismissal, and ad hominem attacks by those who fancy themselves professional, serious and credible journalists, against our co-blogger and independent journalist, John Stanton–scorn coming from those who failed to ever expose the Human Terrain System for what it is, who failed to ever contradict Stanton with different facts, who served as embeds, and who have offered nothing beyond their credentials as a means of disputing Stanton.

Third, and very much related to the last: It hurts to get scooped off the face of the earth. This is especially true for members of a credentialed elite, upstaged by someone who does not observe the same rules of respect for power. The Logan-Hastings conflict should be a sobering reminder to those who replace journalism with boosterism, in the name (of all things) of “balance”–which in practice is code for prostituting oneself to power, much like “nuance” has degenerated into “don’t tell me anything negative, about our side.”

Fourth, we are back to the media as a form of militainment, of collaborating with the military’s preferred version of itself in order to gain access to it (as if it were a private resource). It turns out that Lara Logan is married to a private defense contractor. Now, where have seen the military-supportive professional married to a contractor before? Oh yeah, right here. Of course CBS is itself owned by a defense contractor, and the Pentagon has a PR wing with a staff larger than the whole State Department, and a budget in the billions. “Freedom of the press” has degenerated into freedom to buy the press, a free market for the truth: whoever has the most money, makes their version of the truth stick. As for the hordes of bloggers and twitterers–we likely would not be here if we actually felt we had a say, and saw the truth, in this neo-totalitarian hybrid of commercialized and militarized production of orthodoxy.

Fifth, let’s not lose sight of some of the biggest issues involved here. As a senior adviser to General Stanley McChrystal said, “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.” That should surely be the most important standard by which to judge this affair–we are dealing with a publicly funded war after all, and not the bruised feelings and career of some general. Lara Logan’s retort, below, is quite alarming and revealing. Let’s not forget the words of that vile, subversive, radical, revolutionary rabble-rouser, President (and General) Dwight D. Eisenhower:

“The total influence [of the military-industrial complex]–economic, political, even spiritual–is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government….we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower also said, “together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose,” and, “we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow” — but I gather that reading Eisenhower has become, for many Americans, something that is just not done, like reading Marx. Where is the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” in the hands of a Lara Logan?

Sixth, on ethics and social responsibility, and the question of building rapport. On the one hand, Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings, is “guilty” of doing what most anthropologists have done, ever since they started doing ethnographic fieldwork: building rapport, and creating an illusion of amicability, in order to gain the native point of view. Nobody, otherwise, has suggested that his material is empirically wrong. He is guilty of our same duplicity (Johannes Fabian’s term). When we lack such duplicity, our right wing calls us “advocates” and “activists” — because these are supposedly bad things, as they undermine our credibility. Yet, the same right wing cannot be heard attacking the credibility of journalists who collaborate with the military, whose ethical standards are little more than a rendition of the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact. I say, without apology, that where my work is concerned, politics comes first, and ethics second–not quite right, but what is intended is that one cannot divorce ethics from the social and political conditions of their production and evaluation. Do no harm: even to those who do the most harm? If you can successfully disentangle ethics from politics in that one, then post your solution below. The ultimate question here is about ethics and power, whether we owe the same ethical respect to those in the highest positions of power, and which constituency we ultimately serve: power, or the people.

NOTES & QUOTES on the MILITARY AND THE MEDIA

Lara Logan, You Suck — Matt Taibbi — Rolling Stone, 28 June 2010:

…now we get CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan slamming our own Michael Hastings on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program, agreeing that the Rolling Stone reporter violated an “unspoken agreement” that journalists are not supposed to “embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter.”

Here’s CBS’s chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that’s killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.

And the part that really gets me is Logan bitching about how Hastings was dishonest to use human warmth and charm to build up enough of a rapport with his sources that they felt comfortable running their mouths off in front of him. According to Logan, that’s sneaky — and journalists aren’t supposed to be sneaky:

“What I find is the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he’s laid out there what his game is… That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do, who don’t — I don’t go around in my personal life pretending to be one thing and then being something else. I mean, I find it egregious that anyone would do that in their professional life.”

…according to Logan, not only are reporters not supposed to disclose their agendas to sources at all times, but in the case of covering the military, one isn’t even supposed to have an agenda that might upset the brass! Why? Because there is an “element of trust” that you’re supposed to have when you hang around the likes of a McChrystal.

True, the Pentagon does have perhaps the single largest public relations apparatus on earth – spending $4.7 billion on P.R. in 2009 alone and employing 27,000 people, a staff nearly as large as the 30,000-person State Department – but is that really enough to ensure positive coverage in a society with armed with a constitutionally-guaranteed free press?

And true, most of the major TV outlets are completely in the bag for the Pentagon, with two of them (NBC/GE and Logan’s own CBS, until recently owned by Westinghouse, one of the world’s largest nuclear weapons manufacturers) having operated for years as leaders in both the broadcast media and weapons-making businesses. But is that enough to guarantee a level playing field [for the military?

Apparently not, according to Lara Logan. Apparently in addition to all of this, reporters must also help out these poor public relations underdogs in the Pentagon by adhering to an "unspoken agreement" not to embarrass the brass, should they tilt back a few and jam their feet into their own mouths in front of a reporter holding a microphone in front of their faces.

...some would-be "reputable" journalist who's just been severely ass-whipped by a relative no-name freelancer on an enormous story fights back by going on television and, without any evidence at all, accusing the guy who beat him of cheating. That's happened to me so often, I've come to expect it. If there's a lower form of life on the planet earth than a "reputable" journalist protecting his territory, I haven't seen it.

Hey, assholes: you do not work for the people you're covering! Jesus, is this concept that fucking hard?

Meanwhile, the people who don't have the resources to find out the truth and get it out in front of the public's eyes, your readers/viewers, you're supposed to be working for them — and they're not getting your help....one so-called reputable journalist after another lines up to protest the leak and attack the reporter for doing his job. God, do you all suck!

Lara Logan Slams Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone Over McChrystal Article -- Danny Shea -- Huffington Post, 28 June 2010:

[CNN "Reliable Sources"] Host Howard Kurtz asked Logan if there is an “unspoken agreement that you’re not going to embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter.”

“Absolutely,” she said. “Yes… there is an element of trust.”

Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has,” she added.

“They Will Let You Back”: The Shame of Lara Logan — Geoffrey Dunn — Huffington Post, 29 June 2010:

What Logan is saying–in the shameful code of embedded journalism–is that she and her former colleagues in Afghanistan have been systemically engaged in a journalistic cover-up in their reporting on the longest war in U.S. history, one in which more than 30,000 human lives have been lost, including more than 1,000 Americans and an untold number of Afghani [sic] civilians.

Logan gave her pronouncement a faux moral gravitas by referencing an “element of trust.” What about the greater “element of trust” between the journalists and those of us who rely on their reporting? Apparently, that element has little currency with Logan.

And then Logan said something that would be downright laughable if it weren’t so reflective of a thoroughly corrupt mindset. “To be fair to the military,” she said–apparently oblivious to the dirty little secret she was about to reveal– “if they believe that a piece is balanced, they will let you back.”

She gave the game away with that one. “Balance”–as opposed to honesty or accuracy or a critical outlook–is the sine qua non of what passes for journalism today.

…what of Logan’s troubling conflict of interest in her capacity at CBS? She is now married to Joseph Burkett, described variously as “defense contractor” and “war contractor in Iraq.” No red flags there? Let’s get real.

In fact, Logan produced a piece for 60 Minutes last year that served as a shill for Air Force drones being deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two poles of journalism — Glenn Greenwald — Salon, 28 June 2010:

With his Rolling Stone article on Gen. McChrystal, Michael Hastings has become both the personification of, and spokesperson for, Real Journalism, and as a result, has provoked intense animosity from establishment-serving “reporters” everywhere. He apparently committed the gravest sin:  he exposed and embarrassed rather than flattered and protected a powerful government official, and in our upside-down media culture, doing that is a sign of irresponsibility rather than fulfillment of the basic journalistic function.

That’s why the passage in Politico which ended up being deleted — on how regular beat reporters would never have published these McChrystal quotes out of fear of losing favor with their subjects they cover and due to an oozing identification with the powerful — was so revealing.

The Culture of Exposure — David Brooks — The New York Times, 24 June 2010:

Those of us in the press corps have to figure out how to treat this torrent of private kvetching. During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important….The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see.

Brooks on McChrystal — Matt Taibbi — Rolling Stone, 26 June 2010:

…a load of crap. It’s bad even by Brooks standards.

Yeah, we have a press corps that goes after “impurities” these days, but you know what kind of impurities they’re after? They’re after Monica Lewinsky’s dress, they’re after gay blowjobs in train stations, they’re after governors who like high-priced escorts and televangelists who like to do meth with male escorts. And yes, they go after that stuff with an Inquisition-like intensity nowadays, but that has nothing to do with Watergate and Vietnam and everything to do with the media business turning into a nihilistic for-profit industry every bit as amoral and bloodless as oil or banking or big tobacco.

Where were they during the mortgage bubble? Why was it left to Jeremy Scahill and a few guys like Seymour Hersh to go after the insanity of the Iraq war? Answer: because it’s much easier to make money selling a war using fancy graphics and daily boosterish capsule reports (using wire footage shot by embedded journos, usually) than it is busting one open by sponsoring expensive, cranky investigative journalists who may not produce more than once story every few months or so.

McChrystal and Us — Matt Taibbi — Rolling Stone, 24 June 2010:

…it’s a reminder of what journalists are supposed to be doing. For quite a long time political journalism, particularly in Washington, has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability.

A third thing we get these days is outright prostitution, and unfortunately I can’t even tell all the stories I’ve heard about the kinds of things that go on in our business. I will say that in the world of business journalism in particular there are prominent news organizations that will openly promise favorable coverage in exchange for access to major business figures. This behavior is common enough that it’s not at all a surprise that the major business networks missed the signs leading to the financial crash; they were too busy lobbing softballs to bank CEOs as part of pre-arranged interview deals.

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