July 21 2005
WHAT WOULD MICHAEL KELLY SAY?: Michael Kelly was one
of the best writers of his generation and an extraordinarily gifted
observer of politics and culture. Despite having grown up in Washington
to become a member of the media elite, Kelly was also one of the
few writers willing to turn a scathingly critical eye at the press
wondered what Kelly's reaction would be to the atmosphere in Washington
these days; what he might have written about the coverage of the
war and, more recently, how he would have viewed the flap over
Karl Rove and the CIA leak investigation. As it turns out, we
don't have to wonder too much about the latter.
In 1993 Kelly
wrote a lengthy essay for the New York Times Magazine
titled "Master of the Game." The piece focuses somewhat
unflatteringly on David Gergen's pioneering role in developing
what we've come to know as the art of political spin: the sound-bytes,
the photo ops, the leaks, message discipline, war rooms, etc.
But Kelly's true lament was over a Washington press corps that
had grown insular, lazy and enamored with spin - and he included
himself among this group.
how relevant Kelly's words - now twelve years since they were
printed on the page - are today:
has become a strange and debased place, the true heart of a
national culture in which the distinction between reality and
fantasy has been lost, a culture that has produced Oliver Stone
as a historian, Joe McGinniss as a biographer, Geraldo Rivera
as a journalist, Leonard Jeffries as a geneticist, and Barbara
Streisand as an authority on national policy. The rare governmental
privilege of speaking under the cloak of anonymity, traditionally
granted only to presidents, secretaries of state and generals
in time of war, has become an accepted practice for midlevel
White House aides explaining routine policy matters to large
roomfuls of reporters. Movie stars show up with their press
agents and their bodyguards to "testify" before Congress.
Politicians and reporters make cameo appearances as movie stars,
playing themselves in fictional scenes about politics and reporting.
Political operatives call themselves journalists
and journalists behave like political operatives, giving private
advice to their politician friends - and this practice is so
widely accepted as to be uncommented on....
The press pack has become both obese and
incestuous. There are 1,700 accredited White House reporters,
and most of them keep in promiscuous electronic touch - through
Nexis and the Federal News Service and the Associated Press
and Reuters and CNN and PBs and C-Span - with one another's
work and with the vast bloviation of words and pictures that
Washington produces every day. Overwhelmed by size and undermined
by excessive intimacy, the pack has lost its howling way. It
has become as faddish as a teenager, vacillating in its attitudes
toward the powers that be, going from bubbling enthusiasm to
hysterical anger, from cheering all that the president says
to denouncing all that the president does. It is so thoroughly
conformist that it celebrates group-think as (conventional)
with the appearances of things, the pack is perpetually susceptible
to the machinations of the image makers. It rewards, with glowing
praise, triumphs of form over content: medium-well-turned phrases,
smart photo ops, effective PR stunts.
aware that much of what government officials say and do in public
is a charade, unknowing of much that occurs behind closed doors
and unwilling to admit ignorance, reporters fashion reality
out of perceptions. A New York Times article in February reports
that the president's advisers are worried about "the perception
thus wrought" by his rocky beginning, and says the administration
is working "to refocus its image as a government of broad,
middle-class interests." A Times report in May finds "a
perception that the president," who won office as a political
centrist, "has come to look very much like the same old
- liberal - thing."
These bits of fatuousness are unexceptional
in contemporary Washington journalism; they stand out in my
mind only because I wrote them myself.
affair is the perfect embodiment of Kelly's criticisms of Washington;
the anonymous sources; the incestuous relationships of the players
involved (elite reporter Cooper married to Dem political operative
Grunwald, "covert" CIA operative married to active Dem
political supporter Wilson, etc); the lies, half-truths and misstatements
told behind the scenes and then on the op-ed page to try and damage
a president politically; and the subsequent sharing of information
between between the adminstration and the press in an effort to
knock down a damaging story and influence the shape of the news
- something that may or may not have resulted in a crime being
as Patrick Fitzgerald does his job, the rest of the press corps,
who are in Kelly's words "unknowing of much that occurs
behind closed doors and unwilling to admit ignorance,"
continue to bloviate and speculate endlessly to their own satisfaction
while the world outside the beltway churns on.
I don't know
what Michael Kelly might have written about this entire episode.
I only know that I miss having the chance to open up the paper
in the morning and find out.
FAIR?: Howard Kurtz runs an
arresting quote from New York Times editor Bill Keller
commenting on the promotion of Dean Baquet to editor of the Los
New York Times editor Bill Keller said:
"Dean's a prince -- a world-class investigator, an inspiring
editor and a barrel of fun." But Keller said he hoped Baquet
would start "fighting fair" in luring staffers: "He
has this habit of telling recruits there's something in the
New York water that makes your penis fall off."
is losing people to the LA Times over this pitch, he's in bigger
trouble than I thought.
- T. Bevan 9:55 am Link
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