2 November 2007:

Jim Holt and Matthew Scully on the American Press - Indirectly, in the London Review of Books and The Atlantic.

Sitting quietly in my apartment, I know only what they print in the Times, The New Yorker, and a handful (or two) of other publications. I wouldn't be caught dead watching television news, and I rarely listen to NPR anymore. I don't think that I'm the poorer for it. I may be a little late where breaking news is concerned, but then "breaking news" is less often truly newsworthy than it ought to be. Yet the stuff that I do read keeps hammering away at an ever more starkly chiseled message: the American press has completely lost its way. Now, tell me this: where do the Times, The New Yorker, et al stand with respect to "the American press"? Am I in the middle of what Spalding Gray might have called a "Cretan Liar type of situation"? ("Cretin"?) Or has the American press actually split into two distinct components, one feeding pasteurized news-food product to the masses, the other passing vaguely paranoid commentary on to me? This second half would also be split, into Left and Right.

When Jim Holt, in his brief but conspiracy-oriented piece in the London Review of Books, "It's the Oil, Stupid," predicts that we Americans will continue to control Iraqi oil long after we recede from Iraqi politics, and that we'll do so with the muscle provided by troops stationed at five "self-sufficient 'super-bases'" that, according to Mr Holt, haven't gotten a lot of American coverage, what conclusions ought I to draw?    

    1. Mr Holt is crazy. If there really were any "super-bases", they'd be in the news.
    2. Mr Holt will be lucky to live long enough to write his next assignment.
    3. The "super-bases" have not received much coverage because nothing much happens at them (see below).
    4. The "super-bases" have not received much attention because America's corporate press barons have no interest in publicizing a story about the corporate take-over of American affairs.
    5. So what? We need the oil.

Here is what Mr Holt has to say about the bases. What do you think the overall reaction to this story would be (if one might speak of an "overall reaction") were Larry King or Anderson Cooper, say, to recite it as if he believed it?

How will the US maintain hegemony over Iraqi oil? By establishing permanent military bases in Iraq. Five self-sufficient ‘super-bases’ are in various stages of completion. All are well away from the urban areas where most casualties have occurred. There has been precious little reporting on these bases in the American press, whose dwindling corps of correspondents in Iraq cannot move around freely because of the dangerous conditions. (It takes a brave reporter to leave the Green Zone without a military escort.) In February last year, the Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks described one such facility, the Balad Air Base, forty miles north of Baghdad. A piece of (well-fortified) American suburbia in the middle of the Iraqi desert, Balad has fast-food joints, a miniature golf course, a football field, a cinema and distinct neighbourhoods – among them, ‘KBR-land’, named after the Halliburton subsidiary that has done most of the construction work at the base. Although few of the 20,000 American troops stationed there have ever had any contact with an Iraqi, the runway at the base is one of the world’s busiest. ‘We are behind only Heathrow right now,’ an air force commander told Ricks.

I'm afraid that the reaction might be any one of the first four options on my list, but invariably including the fifth. Come to think of it, building a few bases far out of harm's way, where no GIs will be hit, is probably what we ought to have done in the first place. Let the insurgents duke it out on their own!

It seems to me that even Mr Holt is a little carried away by the boldness of his alleged US plan. I would certainly alter the first sentence to read, "How does the US plan to maintain hegemony over Iraqi oil?" Whether this plan would prove to be affordable in the real world - that is, whether Iraqis and other Muslims would tolerate it - doesn't seem to have bothered anybody much, not even Mr Holt. Nevertheless, he writes as though the broader publication of the "super-base" story would cause widespread indignation. I don't agree. If most Americans aren't hearing about super-bases, that's because they don't want to, and if I'm reading about them, it's because I'm already inclined to do so. Everyone is doing his job very nicely. 

If Mr Holt writes as an outside critic - very nearly as a Biblical prophet, shaking his fist at his backsliding neighbors, Matthew Scully, author of "Present at the Creation," in September's The Atlantic, is a consummate insider. First of all, he's not a journalist but a speechwriter. Second, he spent the years from 1999 to 2004 writing speeches for George W Bush, usually at a computer in the West Wing. Bear in mind, if you will, that The Atlantic, when you get down to it, is a mouthpiece for "realist" assessments of current affairs. That's to say that it is not so much conservative as anti-liberal: anti-idealistic. It is phobic about "hot air" and "big ideas." Because "realism" is by its nature anti-ideological, it's not easy to predict what sort of thing will appear in the magazine, and this keeps it interesting, despite an annoyingly insistent running attack on Baby Boomers, undertaken for the most part by writers, such as Caitlin Flanagan, whose parents were older (and, if not wiser, then certainly less self-indulgent) than Boomers.

It's not like The Atlantic to publish tittle-tattle, even when it's as engrossing as Matthew Scully's. Mr Scully and Michael Gerson used to work together - used to be part of what their employer, President Bash, called "The Team." It is symptomatic of the general collapse of Bushism that its principal virtue, ardent loyalty, is breaking down everywhere. Mr Scully's piece is an example. If Michael Gerson is the deceitful credit-hog that Mr Scully makes him out to be, then, by the old rules, Mr Scully ought to have been the last man on earth to talk about it. But talk he does.

In a rapture of self-congratulation following coverage of one or another campaign speech in 2000, he actually told us that Bush and the senior staff viewed his contributions, well, differently from ours: “I think they look at my writing as the fine china, to be taken out on special occasions.” What to say when a friend and colleague lays that one on you?

Maybe you have brushed up against such people in your own workplace. If so, you know that it is a peculiar vice, this kind of credit hounding. One is left almost disoriented by the gall of it. It was amazing that a friend could carry on like this in full view and still act as if nothing were out of order. The sheer pettiness of such conduct served to repel corrective action, because who wants to be drawn into little games of guile and manipulation? Mostly, though, I felt so embarrassed for Mike that it was just too unpleasant to bring up. Besides, for President Bush, we writers were always “the troika,” “the lads,” “the team,” and sometimes even “the A-team.” He knew how the work got done, and his good opinion was sufficient.

The problem did come up a few times in plain words, however, and Mike’s reactions could be even more jarring than his dreamy self-regard when left unchallenged. I think particularly of the 2000 convention address, the “crafting” of which became a staple of early Gerson profiles and, even before the speech was delivered, inspired an Associated Press piece titled “The Craftsman Behind George Bush’s Acceptance Speech.” For more than a week Mike was gone from our midst, working alone to compose the address (“with a rollerball pen on yellow legal pads,” as the AP described it) in the private apartment of the governor’s father at his presidential library, at Texas A&M University. After months of joint authorship, it was time to lay out the fine china, and convention delegates were going to see the complete set.

But the muse had somehow missed the appointment in College Station, and what Mike came back with was an outline—clever, ambitious, and usable, as always, but in the way of actual writing no more than a bundle of overwrought phrases and brittle loftyisms. Among the highlights were the “heat and hate and horror” of war and the “whisper of duty above the shout of fear.” America’s greatest generation was passing away, “and they left our country a ‘golden legend to her people.’” Now “the rising generations of this country have their own appointment with greatness,” and “after eight years in the wilderness, we can see the promised land.” “My generation has stumbled, but I believe we can soar.”

Of these lines—delicate pieces of the fine china—“appointment with greatness” actually made it into the final speech, having survived 18 drafts collaboratively written. I happened to be sitting at Mike’s laptop when it came time for us to send the very last draft to senior staff, and Mike, noticing that I had cc’d John and myself, stopped me: “Don’t do that! You can print copies from here!” I said, “Michael, why can’t I copy John and me?” This brought a frantic admission: “Because they don’t know you’re involved!” “And why is it a secret that we’re doing this together?” Because it was all very confidential, Mike explained as he rushed off—senior staff didn’t want anything leaking out. This performance was repeated at the White House, when Mike insisted that the usual author identifications not appear on drafts going to the president, or pouted when our department secretary put all three names there anyway. He seemed to think this was standard practice—just “the way it’s done” in Washington.

How hideously embarrassing all of this is! And yet - or perhaps, "therefore" - how entertaining! But what's the real story? That Mike Gerson is a "credit-hound"? No. The story is that the American press not only bought but welcomed the Gospel According to Gerson. Fact-checkers at the Times and The New Yorker were apparently bamboozled by his misdirection of phone calls. If Mr Scully's story is to be believed, Mr Gerson was at least as interested in establishing his own brand as he was in validating the President's with high-toned language. Why didn't anyone suspect him of tooting his own horn at deafening volumes? Answer?

    5. Who cares? It's the fight against terrorism, stupid.

In a Slate story from early 2003, Timothy Noah breathlessly announced that the "authorship" of the notorious phrase from that year's State of the Union speech, "axis of evil," was "settled." The phrase hadn't been coined by David Frum, as previously announced (mostly by Mrs Frum, it seemed), but by - Michael Gerson. Except that it wasn't. Mr Scully:

It was the same story with “axis of evil”: assumptions casually made and casually left uncorrected. And the most absurd thing about the episode, the sole occasion when credit snatching ever came up for public discussion, was that our colleague David Frum took the rap. David is a highly conscientious person, a gentleman, and, as the most accomplished author on our staff, hardly in need of exaggerating his achievements. Yet during that whole business, as another writer’s name started appearing in newspapers, now suddenly it was our chief speechwriter who was alarmed by an unseemly display of self-publicizing. The studio makeup scarcely washed away from “Up Close: Michael Gerson,” he let it be known that he did not approve: “Senior White House staff,” reported The Daily Telegraph, “have sharply criticised Mr. Frum in private for taking the credit for crafting the phrase instead of allowing it to be attributed to President Bush. Mr. Gerson, in particular, is understood to have been annoyed by the disclosure.”

What actually happened is that David came up with the phrase “axis of hatred” and e-mailed it, along with some other lines, to John, Mike, and me. We copied the material into the jumble of onscreen notes we kept beneath our working texts. Mike thought we should use the phrase, and we added it to the text. I said, “I hate hatred”—which brought to mind the ineffectual “forces of hatred” favored by Clinton speechwriters—and proposed going with evil instead, since we were already confronting evildoers, wickedness, and the like. It was agreed—“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world”—and we moved on.

For a time, I congratulated myself on at least preventing the even more melodramatic “axis of hatred” from marching into history—though, looking back, I suppose “axis of evil” was a case of how the very intensity of these speeches could sometimes give events a false momentum and fill the air with needless drama. Good phrase or bad, however, that’s how it got in there. It was not added by Mike—though he assured The New Yorker, “Evil exists, and it has to be confronted.”

The simple truth is that Michael Gerson has the Washington gift for brazenly indirect self-promotion. I said before that he toots his own horn, but actually it's more a case of arranging things so that his horn toots itself and is seen to be tooting. Mr Scully and the other member of "The Team," John McConnell, come off as naive chumps, and one can hardly blame Mr Scully for the sore feelings that must have motivated this tell-all piece. (The air of naiveté is fixed by Mr Scully's rather Boy-Scoutish admiration for the President.)

In this age of market niches, we all get the news that we want, and isn't that great. We, the consumers, win, just as free-market economics always assured us that we would. But there's a nagging problem with the business model of news, one that doesn't seem to have troubled anybody during the centuries in which the profession of journalism was formed: in an established democracy, where the consumers of journalism are the voters ultimately responsible for putting officials in office, newsmen face the same quandary that besets the Wicked Queen's mirror, in the story of Snow White. They remind me of another fairy tale as well: like Cinderella's step-sisters, unhappy readers are willing to cut down their feet to spite the truth. It could be that the American press has broken down, or at least broken up, precisely because it has achieved its mission: putting John Q Everyman in charge. If the gist of important stories coming out of Washington or Baghdad is that Mr Everyman has been complicit in some pretty lousy decisions, then perhaps silence is indeed golden.

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