Barry Eisler

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Ministry of Truth

Recently, I had the good fortune to be invited by NPR to submit an essay on a favorite thriller of mine. I decided to write about George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is both an excellent thriller and an increasingly powerful and relevant political warning -- a combination readers of my latest novel, Inside Out, will know I find appealing.

Though I'm of course pleased that NPR decided to run the essay (which you can find here, along with an unrelated radio interview I did with Michelle Norris on All Things Considered), I'm also disappointed that NPR insisted on watering down the essay through successive drafts. The NPR editor I was in touch with, Miriam Krule, found the first three drafts "too political" (my response -- that an essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four that's too political is like an essay about the Bible that's too much about God -- was unpersuasive), and though Ms. Krule didn't articulate the precise nature of her objections, the parts of the essay that had to go nicely demonstrate what in this context "too political" really means. Here are two versions of the offending penultimate paragraph, neither of which NPR deemed acceptable:

As prescient as Orwell was about events, though, I believe his purpose wasn't so much to forecast the future, which might take many forms, as it was to describe human nature, which is immutable. So no, we don't have quite the kind of organized Two Minutes' Hate depicted in the novel, but it's impossible to recall the populace turning on our NATO ally France before our misadventure in Iraq, or more recently on our NATO ally Turkey over the Gaza flotilla incident, and not remember the scene in the book where a crowd instantly and obediently redirects its hostility from Eurasia to Eastasia. It's impossible to watch pundits like Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol—who were wrong about everything in Iraq—still being taken seriously as this time they agitate for war with Iran, and not imagine the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Truth sending the historical record down the memory hole for incineration. And it's impossible to look at people who can't see the obvious parallels I just described and not see Party members vigorously practicing their doublethink, by which they have "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

Most of all, we have the language—the "newspeak"—Orwell predicted. No, there's no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word "torture" to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape "unilateral physical intimacy"). Even NPR, alas, has banned "torture" from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a "spill" or "leak." As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn't warned against it.


NPR wasn't objecting to my argument (Nineteen Eighty-Four's political warning is relevant today); they were objecting to my evidence (Tom Friedman et al's mistakes are disposed of as though via a memory hole; NPR and other named organizations are using government-approved Orwellian language). This matters not only because an argument's persuasiveness depends (at least to a rational audience) on what evidence is offered in support. It matters too because preferences like the ones Ms. Krule expressed tend to reveal an otherwise hidden media ideology, one more important and insidious than the left/right labels that are the dominant -- and distracting -- prism by which we generally classify people's politics. If you want to understand the politics of NPR and other such organizations, forget for a moment left/right, and focus instead on what might loosely be called an establishment ideology, for NPR is an establishment media player following establishment media norms.

What do I mean by "establishment media"? Newsweek's Evan Thomas, in the course of declaring himself an establishment journalist, put it well:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring.


At the government's urging, NPR has adopted Orwellian speech. It prefers to suppress this decision rather than debate it. It extends its injunction to similar decisions of peer organizations -- specifically, the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. No matter how outlandishly wrong and destructive a pundit's predictions have been subsequently proven, NPR believes it unacceptably indecorous for the pundit in question to be held accountable by name. Generally speaking, NPR is okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as "what," while being not at all okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as "who." I can't think of any media behaviors more revealing than these of an establishment ideology and bias.

Before the rise of the blogosphere, a writer had no real means of rejoinder to editorial decisions like NPR's, and even now, relatively few readers will come across the larger context within which my NPR essay was edited. Still, there's no question that the Internet, by democratically distributing a megaphone previously held exclusively by an establishment media which behind the left/right facade marches in ideological lockstep, is permitting unprecedented means of media accountability. Speaking of which: I just finished an advance reading copy of a superb critique of media bloviators: Barrett Brown's Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America's Chattering Class, which, by coincidence, includes chapters about some of the stunningly failed pundits whose mention in an essay NPR found "too political." I highly recommend this horrifying, hilarious, devastatingly persuasive book, which as Brown notes in his epilogue could not have been written in the absence of the Internet. And for another example of the increasing power of the Internet to foster media accountability, here's a video challenge from Brown to TNR's National Review's Rich Lowry, who could easily have provided the basis for an additional chapter in Brown's book:



Now, I don't mean to be too hard on NPR. First, as an establishment media organ following establishment media rules, NPR is hardly unique, as I hope the many other examples NPR edited out of my essay will demonstrate. Second, NPR has a lot of good and sometimes eclectic coverage, including their current "Vote for the 100 Best Thrillers Ever" campaign, in which, hint, hint, you can find my novels Rain Fall and Fault Line among the nominees, and vote accordingly.

A number of people whose counsel I value urged me not to write this post, lest NPR blackball me from future coverage. Obviously, I decided to take that chance. If I keep these thoughts to myself because I know where my bread is buttered, then by my own standards I'm part of the problem rather than the solution. And besides, at heart, I'm an optimist. I want to believe that eventually, media institutions like NPR will come to understand that public discussion of their pro-establishment ideology and practices will benefit not just their journalism, but their bottom line. After all, in the long run, media organizations perceived as subservient to the powerful, unwilling to debate their practices, and devoted to concealing the shortcomings of other establishment players, will be eclipsed by the blogosphere, which today engages in debate and accountability to which the establishment media seems not yet to aspire.

* * * * *

If you're curious, here's the unedited Nineteen Eighty-Four piece:

A lone man hunted by faceless government spies. A doomed love affair, its urgent moments stolen against a backdrop of terror and war. Surveillance, capture, torture, betrayal. If this doesn't describe a thriller, the thriller doesn't exist.

I'm talking, of course, about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell's novel makes for such devastating political commentary that in spite of the classic elements I mention above it isn't usually recognized as a thriller. This is a shame, because in addition to its many other virtues, Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates the potential power of the form to deliver a dire warning in the guise of entertainment.

I first read the book in high school, and at the time thought of it almost as science fiction: commentary about events set in a remote future that hadn't come to be. There was no Big Brother. Certainly no one was staring back at me while I watched television. And relatively speaking, the country was at peace.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Now we have a civilian population eager to believe the president is "our" Commander-in-Chief, increasingly pervasive government surveillance, and a "long war" against a shifting global enemy so ill-defined it might as well be Eurasia and Eastasia.

Most of all, we have the language—the "newspeak"—Orwell predicted. No, there's no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word "torture" to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape "unilateral physical intimacy"). Even NPR, alas, has banned "torture" from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a "surge," prisoners are "detainees," assassinations are "targeted killings," and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a "spill" or "leak." As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn't warned against it.

It's interesting to consider that Orwell addressed the major themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four a few years earlier, in his essay Notes on Nationalism. And yet Notes, as excellent as it is, is read much less widely. Why? Because certain themes resonate more powerfully when presented within the structure of a thriller—when brought to life in the conflicts and confusion of characters on the page. For readers, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning. For thriller writers, it's something to aspire to.
Bookmark and Share

22 Comments:

Blogger Cora L. Foerstner said...

Barry, great job. It takes courage to speak the truth. So many people do not realize the extent the media, even NPR, "edits" the news/essays/articles. Keep up the good fight.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 4:45:00 PM  
Blogger Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

I like you article and I applaud your current stance.

While on the subject of thriller's and tangentially related to 1984, I wondered if you'd run across Cory Doctorow's Little Brother - similar themes and politics to that you covered in Fault Line but armed at a ten audience?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 9:12:00 PM  
Blogger Mr. Moose said...

Poor anemic NPR, too timid for the game. Oh well.

Could you please post a reading list of the books you're posing with in the interview's accompanying photo? I recognize some of the titles and I'd love to know what the others are.

Thanks

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 10:13:00 PM  
Blogger drlee said...

Yo Barry:

NPR has been infiltrated by bush2 and gives quite a few right wing people time now.

I would have liked it better if you had pulled your 1984 piece and put it someplace else. See Taibi in Rolling Stone for example.

Thanks

drlee

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 5:49:00 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Barry, enjoy your books - and now your blog. Keep up the good work,

Richard

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 11:47:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Konrath said...

Sweet. Nicely done.

Thursday, July 22, 2010 2:39:00 PM  
Blogger NeuroSplicer said...

As much as I see George Orwel's dystopic vision materialise day by day Barry, I believe that it was Aldus Huxley who predicted how to better control the human population more accurately: amuse them.

Currently we are amusing ourselves to perpetual serf-hood.

Short attention spams filled with flashy new desires and little information; news-reports full of diluted factoids, blindly reproduced official claims and a bombardment of semi-educated opinions.

Saturday, July 24, 2010 8:37:00 AM  
Blogger biged said...

great article; echoes Greenwald and others. Enjoyed seeing 1984 characterized as thriller.
Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Dogo Barry Graham said...

A terrific, and important, essay. Thanks. I like your books too.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 10:56:00 PM  
Blogger larry said...

Great piece - I will miss your contributions to NPR. If you think you will be acceptable to them after this horrible breech of etiquette you are sadly mistaken.

You can be 100% wrong on everything, you can call any Dem a Nazi or a commie as long as you don't insult the beltway boys or Republicans. While better than 99% of the other traditional media NPR = Nice Polite Republicans.

Friday, July 30, 2010 1:13:00 PM  
Blogger 8ball79 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Monday, August 02, 2010 7:16:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Ott said...

A sure sign of the American Oligarchy:


President Clinton Visits Newsmax

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 9:25:00 AM  
OpenID jahlishong said...

Aren't you glad Obama closed Gitmo?


Well, at least he got us out of Iraq.


At least he stopped bombing villages in Afghanistan/Pakistan.


Well, at least he stopped using torture. I mean, it's not torture if the Egyptians do it for us, right?

Monday, January 24, 2011 10:33:00 AM  
OpenID decora said...

"A number of people whose counsel I value urged me not to write this post, lest NPR blackball me from future coverage"

i dont think 'book reviews' are properly places for opinions,,, however ..... the idea that they 'blackball' people who disagree with them... is disturbing.

where is the evidence for the blackballing? who was blackballed? when? how do they know it? that, right there, would make the whole "schiller gate" thing look like small peanuts.

do they have a list they keep somewhere? a database? is it part of their librarians job to keep track of the naughty and the nice? did Daniel Schorr know about this list, and since he has experience with such lists, what did he think of it?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 7:45:00 AM  
OpenID decora said...

i should say 'i dont think book reviews on NPRs book review section are places for opinion'... they are going for a certain neutral-type of voice in the writing there, its like the differenec between writing opinion articles and editorial articles. book review is in editorial on their site.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 7:54:00 AM  
Blogger Rowyn said...

I dunno, if I asked for a review of a work of fiction and got back an opinion piece -- the paragraph in question, which is almost entirely on contemporary politics, comprises what, a quarter of the article? -- I can see editing it down as a decision of fitting the genre. Similar to not wanting a fantasy story in a hard sf anthology. I am not sure I consider genre boundaries to be Orwellian. Rather stretching the definition.

OTOH, NPR deciding to complain about your post via your publisher *is* kind of Orwellian. :)

Thursday, March 24, 2011 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Bernard Golden said...

Nice piece. Wow, are you a good writer. Liked the perspective on Orwell (an incredible, perceptive, and prescient writer) as a thriller writer.

Will definitely check out your fiction now (on Kindle, of course).

Thanks.

Sunday, March 27, 2011 9:50:00 AM  
Blogger Abila said...

Just want to say what a great blog you got here!

cialis

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

It's also possible that NPR told you that the excised portion was 'too political' so they could avoid pointing out that it just makes you sound like a crank.

And if you're going to trash Rick Lowry, or quote someone who does, at least correctly identify that he works for National Review not TNR, which is the The New Republic. These would be two completely different magazines.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 6:48:00 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Robert, thanks for catching that -- now corrected.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 9:30:00 AM  
Blogger Jan Morse said...

I'm always taken aback when Chris Hedges trashes the net. He urges all to shut down their computers and read books. My husband and I get all our news from the net, increasingly more often from the blogs, aside from our small local events newspapers.

Saturday, October 22, 2011 6:11:00 PM  
Blogger TK Kenyon said...

This is a fantastic article, Barry. Loved the original 1984 essay, too.

You're going on my RSS feed.

TK Kenyon

Friday, October 28, 2011 8:43:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home