Thursday July 21 2005
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 itself.

I've often 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.

Marvel at how relevant Kelly's words - now twelve years since they were printed on the page - are today:

Washington 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) wisdom.

Obsessed 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.

Unhappily 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.

The Rove 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 committed.

Meanwhile 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.

FIGHTING 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 Angeles Times:

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."

If Keller is losing people to the LA Times over this pitch, he's in bigger trouble than I thought. - T. Bevan 9:55 am Link | Email | Send To A Friend

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