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June 20, 2007

Good Piece On The Romanticization of The Journalistic Ankle-Biter

When the very smart "Jeff Larkin," late of Football Fans and Beyond, tells me this is a "brilliant, must-read piece" from James Bowman of the New Criterion, I take notice.

It's wide-ranging and hard to simplify into a slugline, but the article's subhed, "David Halberstam and the media's ethos of irresponsibility" is a good enough tag. Basically it traces the rise of agenda journalism from David Halberstam to the present.

After noting how, since Halberstam, it has become part of the romance of being a reporter to question the bona fides of America's leaders, Ambassador Holbrooke added: "But everything depended on David getting it right, and he did." This strikes me as being equally revealing. "Getting it right" is of course an admirable ambition for a journalist, but it is an exercise that has little in common with what generals and politicians must do, which is to lead others through situations of mortal peril with appallingly incomplete and inaccurate information to guide them. Getting it wrong is a given. That's what the romance of the Halberstamian example has made journalists--and not only journalists!--forget when they try to apply his lesson from Vietnam to the Iraq war. For the man who must act and not just observe, the only question that matters is how quickly he can recognize and recover from his mistakes and how strong is his will to keep fighting in spite of them and the inevitable setbacks they cause. On the first of these tests, the Bush administration has done rather badly, I think; on the second it has done rather well. But part of the reason for its failures has been that the mind of the media remains obsessed with the question only of its prescience--as if "getting it right" were the only thing that mattered and getting it wrong a fatal disqualification for leadership.

This odd prejudice may be partly owing to the huge social premium we put on intelligence in the era of the cognitive elite. People who have no idea on earth what to do about the war or any of the problems we face as a nation think it is some kind of program to ridicule the intelligence of the President. Even the political opposition has fallen into this trap by making mere perspicacity in the anticipation of evils rather than the determined effort to combat them its test of political success. Thus in Sen. Jim Webb's reply to the president's State of the Union Address in January, he had no alternative to suggest to the measures for dealing with Iraq that had been proposed, but he was full of indignation on the grounds that the mistakes of the administration had been foreseeable. He knew that they were foreseeable because he himself had foreseen them. The implication was that he was much cleverer than President Bush--as if that was all that need be said to the credit of the former and the discredit of the latter.

The fact that the opposition and the media frame the debate in this way means that much of the administration's energies have to be expended in defending itself against endless second-guessing, which in turn means that it is even less inclined to recognize and correct mistakes. This is infantile politics. Meanwhile, on the question of what is now to be done about the mistakes, no one seems to know any better than Sen. Webb, whose policy amounts to saying that we ought not to have made them in the first place. This is also the view of much of the Democratic Party, and almost all of the media, who repeat mechanically that we need a "change of course" in Iraq but never get around to telling us what they would change--short of surrendering, which is now becoming the default option. In April, Sen. Harry Reid finally bowed to the logic of his own position by acknowledging that the war was already lost. At any rate it had better be, if he wants to preserve the reputation for shrewdness and sagacity that he, like so many others, have cultivated by being wise after the event.

Meanwhile, of course, American soldiers are actually doing right in Iraq. But they're no longer romanticized; who cares about their physical and moral courage, after all, which pales in comparison to the intellectual courage of Truth-Tellers like Stephen Colbert?


More Ankle-Biting: The AP whines that war is hard.


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posted by Ace at 09:00 PM

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