Monday, August 06, 2012

You Will Be Assimilated

Recently, Glenn Greenwald interviewed Chris Hayes about Hayes's new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.  I have the audiobook cued up in the car, and will start it as soon as I'm done with the one I'm listening to now (Charles Ferguson's Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America, which is superb and might become the subject of a subsequent post here).

For me, the most thought-provoking part of the interview came at the end, when Greenwald asked Hayes about Hayes's assertion that even the most well-intentioned people will inevitably be corrupted -- what Hayes calls "cognitive capture" -- by entry into the American elite (aka the One Percent, aka the American Oligarchy).  Given that Hayes, who started out writing for The Nation, is now an establishment TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations (Hayes hosts his own talk show, Up with Chris Hayes, on MSNBC), Greenwald wanted to know what steps Hayes is taking to prevent his own cognitive capture.

As someone who deals extensively with questions of subornment in fiction (and who once had some training on the subject, courtesy of Uncle Sam), I found the question itself extremely interesting.  I was also interested -- and, as admirer of Hayes and his work, concerned -- that Hayes really had no answer.  He said he would try to protect himself by continuing to practice what he recognized as good journalism, which he said consists at least in part of ensuring that a wide variety of voices are heard on his show.  But countless people have gone astray before Hayes, and surely all of them -- at least the ones who weren't corrupt to begin with -- promised themselves at least this much, that they would continue to practice good journalism.  And alas, the promise wasn't enough.

So I got to thinking.  What are the warning signs, the real metrics a well-intentioned and clear-eyed journalist should consider before her subornment begins, and by which she can judge whether her integrity is slowly being compromised, corroded, and lost?  It's important to think about these issues in advance.  Cops and soldiers, after all, use when/then thinking to prepare for physical danger.  The principles apply to the danger of subornment, too.

I've come up with a few general warning signs that I think represent a good start.  I hope Hayes, and others, will consider them, and I hope readers will add to them. 

1.  Probably the first compromise will take the form of a rationalization.  You'll be pressured to do something you know isn't quite right.  But you'll be scared not to do it -- if you don't, you'll alienate someone powerful, your career will suffer a setback, your ambitious goals will suddenly seem farther away.  At this point, your lesser self, driven by fear, greed, status-seeking, and other selfish emotions, will offer up a rationalization, and your greater self will grasp at it eagerly.  As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, "hypocrisy… is the tribute which morality pays to immorality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised."

For me, Hayes's first big test came after he said on his show that he was "uncomfortable" calling American war dead "heroes," and I wish Greenwald had asked about this specifically, as it was directly relevant to Greenwald's more general question.  There was a predictable Twitter and blogosphere outcry in response to Hayes comments, and Hayes quickly apologized.  I thought the apology was unfortunate.  Of course my heart goes out to every family that's ever lost a loved one in combat.  But whether it follows from this that every American soldier who dies in combat is automatically a hero is, at a minimum, not a topic that in a democracy should be taboo.

I don't know the extent to which Hayes's apology was heartfelt (personally, I find it incomprehensible).  But my guess is that he felt he had to make it -- perhaps because of pressure from corporate higher-ups; perhaps because he felt that his show wouldn't be properly heeded if he became a poster boy for rightist attacks.

The first compromise will likely be the hardest (and maybe this one was for Hayes), because you've never made one before, or at least not one of this magnitude, and the contrast with your relative purity will be strong. But they'll get easier over time, just as impurities are harder to notice when added to water that's already turbid.  The danger of this increasing ease is part of the reason I blurb so few books.  I won't claim absolute purity when it comes to the abysmally corrupt practice of blurbing; I've found myself (rarely, for what that's worth) in situations where I felt the cost of a no was too high, and I tried to square the circle by saying good things about a book that, while not exactly untrue, weren't exactly from the heart, either.  But I've also said no many times where the no was uncomfortable and a yes would have done me a lot of good.  From the beginning, I've sensed that once you start saying positive things about books you didn't really enjoy (or that you haven't even read), it gets easier and easier, and that the increased commercial success you might enjoy as a result of all those increasingly easy blurbs will be purchased with your own integrity.  The best way out of that trap is not to get into it in the first place.

2.  As the compromises accumulate, you'll need a larger, more all-purpose rationalization to explain them away.  I suspect the most common of these boils down to, "Okay, this isn't my proudest moment, but overall I do more good with my journalism than I do bad.  Plus, if I left this position, it would be filled by someone with (even) greater capacity for compromise, and less capacity for doing good.  So on balance, I have to do this small bad thing in the service of the larger good I do."

If you're especially adept with this rationalization, you should be a politician, where your talents can find their greatest expression.  As a journalist, you're just not being all you can be.

3.  As your career progresses, you can usefully ask yourself if you can name a compromise of which you're not proud.  If you can't… bad sign.

4.  And:  have you ever publicly copped to that compromise?  If not… bad sign (see: "You're only as sick as your secrets").

5.  Can you identify compromises you think have been made by any of your compatriots?  If not… bad sign.  It means you're not even capable of projection.  But if so, try to put yourself in that person's shoes and understand what led him to the compromise of which you're critical.  Are you sure you're so much stronger and virtuous than he is?

I'm sure Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, for example, started with the best of intentions, but is now attending the White House Correspondents Dinner, America's premier sleaze-fest celebration of government/media cooperation and collusion.  I'm sure Marshall tells himself that breaking bread and yucking it up with the powerful figures TPM purports to hold to account is necessary for "access" and will in no way affect his objectivity or his coverage.  I'm sure David Gregory tells himself the same.  And yet.

What's especially interesting is that Marshall and Talking Points Memo made merciless -- and deserved -- fun of journalists who went "swinging on the tire" at John McCain's Sedona estate during the last presidential election, and adopted the phrase as shorthand "to describe a reporter who has gotten way too cozy with a politician and has had their supposed objectivity affected."  I think this is an instance where a journalist is able to identify the flaws in the behavior of others without being able to apply the underlying principles to himself.  Because is there really a material difference between a barbecue at a politician's estate and a party at the White House?  Not if you think distance is critical to objectivity, but in all things it's easier to criticize the mote in another's eye than it is to come to grips with the beam in your own.

Actually, "Have you accepted an invitation to the White House Correspondents Dinner?" really deserves its own special category because when you get that invitation, and you start thinking about all the reasons you should accept it, warning klaxons should be sounding in your mind.  And I don't mean to single out Marshall.  Andrew Sullivan is another blogger who failed to lash himself sufficiently tightly to the masts of his integrity to resist this particular siren song.  I'm sure both these men are able to explain themselves, at least when they look in the mirror, but they really shouldn't be in a position where they have to do so.  If you purport to cover powerful figures, you can only -- at best -- impede your ability to do so by partying with your charges.  The notion that you have to cultivate these people in order to gain journalistic "access" is such a lie that it could be called out as its own distinct rationalization.

So an exercise:  Identify at least several journalists you once admired, or who you think once had integrity but who no longer do, and ask yourself what happened to them.  Accept that they didn't set out intending to become corrupt; in fact, you should accept that their ethics and intentions were, at the outset, as strong and noble as yours are right now.  To what did they succumb, and why will you be able to resist it when they couldn't?

6.  Do you find yourself identifying more with the public figures you're supposed to hold to account than with the readers and viewers you're supposed to serve?  This identification can take many forms.  Do you worry about whether they'll think you're a "good guy" or otherwise about their good opinion of you?  About whether they'll grant you various forms of access?  About whether they'll invite you to prestige events and speak well of you to their friends?

When Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings reported in his article The Runaway General on the kind of disrespect for the civilian chain of command he saw while spending time with General Stanley McChrystal and his entourage, he had to grapple with some of the questions raised in this post (he describes that process in his excellent book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan).  He made the right decision, and in so doing, exposed the true values and allegiances of many of his colleagues who think of themselves as journalists but in fact operate as government spokespeople.  The New York Times David Brooks, for example, criticized Hastings for being part of a "culture of exposure" (don't you hate when journalists expose things?).  Also, read CBS reporter's Lara Logan's complaints about Hastings and his article -- especially her obvious reverence for General McChrystal -- and again, you'll find a reporter who has come to identify with the powerful figures she should be holding to account.

And do you find yourself feeling special because of the kind of access you feel you have?  Do your government sources (who are playing you, and if you don't see that, that itself is a bad sign) share secret information with you on background that makes you feel you understand the real world better than do people who are not similarly in-the-know?  These are not good signs and you should watch out for them.  Here's NPR's national security reporter Dina Temple-Raston, who, irritated at a panel discussion at Greenwald's demand for evidence that Anwar al-Awlaki (an American citizen who President Obama had ordered executed) was guilty of the crimes the government accused him of, sought to win the argument by asking, "Isn't it possible that I've seen something you haven't seen?" and reminding Greenwald that "he doesn't do national security for a living."  This is a pristine example of the kind of "cognitive capture" Hayes warns about.

7.  Can you identify a personal or career cost to any of your decisions?  If not… bad sign.  Who will you be offending, and what retribution are you likely to suffer?  Who has the power to reward and punish you, and what are you willing to do to risk losing those rewards and incurring that punishment?

8.  Here's one you wouldn't think a journalist should even need to ask (but you'd be wrong):  are there any public figures you refuse to honestly, objectively, publicly criticize?  If yes… it's worse than bad.  You're already suborned.  You're not even a journalist.

9.  Can you identify any scenarios, any potential compromises, that you would not make under any circumstances, that you would resign over before ever embracing?  If not… bad sign.

10.  Can you put yourself in the shoes of the organization/establishment/oligarchy and imagine how you would go about suborning yourself to get past your defenses?  How would you obscure the true nature of those compromises to conceal them from the target's conscience, how would you package them to make them more easily swallowed and digested?  How would you, knowing yourself, attempt to suborn yourself if you were really determined to bring it off?  Because if you're not thinking like the opposition, you're surrounding yourself with talismans, not protecting yourself with real self defense.

I'm sure there are many more, of increasing specificity (do you print, without compelling reason, shit anonymous sources tell you?), but I think this is a good start.  And obviously, the principles we're dealing with here apply to professions and situations beyond just journalism.

I'm not a journalist, but I do know that when you enter an enormous, shifting system single-mindedly dedicated to beguiling you into surrendering your values and assimilating you, you have to do more than assure yourself you'll practice good journalism.  You have to take the threat seriously, consider how many people have succumbed to it before you, and armor up accordingly.  If you don't, you don't have a chance.  And if you don't think you need to take the threat seriously, you're even more vulnerable, and more likely doomed, than most.

Probably I've just spent more time thinking about these issues than most journalists.  From his response to Greenwald, I gather I've spent more time even than Hayes, who claims "cognitive capture" is a universal consequence to sufficiently prolonged exposure to temptation.  This isn't a good sign.  But I hope this article will prompt at least a few journalists to take more seriously the threat Hayes identifies, but has apparently not yet come to grips with.


limehelper said...

Dear Barry,
I'm a big fan of your books (I have most of them), and occasionally read your blog.
However, after reading this particular post, I will be sure to visit this site daily. It is difficult to be a person of the utmost integrity (as an assistant professor, I see it in spades in my profession as well), and I greatly admire your efforts in this regard. The part about blurbs was not something that I had given much thought to, before reading what you had to say.

I can honestly say that it requires some effort to continue to maintain honesty, and I'm very impressed with your efforts. Keep up the good work ! said...

Barry, you're a genius.

As a reporter who later started a small weekly newspaper, I can say you hit the nail on the head with much of this post.

And I think part of what happens is you begin your career with this sort of rage. A real desire to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted."

But as time passes, you grow cynical. You see how hard change really is, you see past efforts which the public ignored, you see how stupid and blind the public often is.

And over time, this begins to wear you down. My point is that it's not always a desire to get in (or stay in) with those in charge. It's often just cynicism and lack of what you feel is deserved appreciation and compensation for your work.

You may not always hear praise or complaints from the public -- who often has no idea how nuanced many of your judgement calls are -- but you will hear them from those you've covering.

So between the former -- the cynicism -- and the latter -- the contact from those you cover -- it's very difficult to stay sharp and thorny.

saumacus said...

I probably read too much Barry Eisler. The first sign of this is, I thought about that unfortunate apology by Hayes as soon as I started reading this post ;)

Danielle Meitiv said...

Wow. Barry you have outlined the reasons why I no longer listen to or read "the news." Yes, I try to keep up with what's going on in the world but I no longer assume that the NY Times, Washington Post, NPR or other mainstream outlets will actually inform me of information I need to know.

Caveat emptor definitely applies.

dell said...

Some other warning signs: taking up golf; putting kids in private schools; wanting, back in the day, a Georgetown home--now, I understand, Fairfax County; wanting an invitation from _________ (establishment figure); wanting a favor (access, whatever) from a figure in power. Basically, not feeling or being free to say *F it* and going off and being the next Izzy Stone, which, in these days of blogging, can be realistic at a certain economic point.

Larry Nocella said...

Yo B-dawg this is some great stuff. I think part of being independent is making sure your livelihood doesn't rely on your work. That way, you can say what you like and you won't go hungry because of it. Imma hand tha mic to mah boy Gustave:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. - Gustave Flaubert

Glenn Dixon said...

This meshes well with what I learned when reading about the Propaganda Model (Chomsky and Herman). It also reminds me why I respect Robert Fisk so much...

0b78d4d2-e039-11e1-976b-000bcdcb471e said...

Thanks for this. i think your characterization of the Hayes "apology" was way too bland and charitable.
It had the aroma of the confessions made by hostages or at the Soviet trials of the 30s.

Not only the abject, humiliation. But the inability
to say something to the effect of..."at the same time.
I must reiterate my belief that indiscriminate glorifying of the military is dangerous and ill-advised." Nothing. Just, "I was insensitive etc etc"

When the stats came out that some large percentage of women military in Iraq had been raped, I was waiting to see whether the perpetrators of these crimes would be scrubbed from the heroes list...
Still waiting.

Anything about the Iraqi and Afghan heroes fighting American occupation?

Even worse. The next week, his show was wall-to-wall military carrying on about our heroes. The usual drivel from the usual military "experts." I would have liked to see someone from the War Resisters League on the show!

Hayes is already well on his way. He is fitting in to the MSNBC mold very well.

gcwall said...

I knew a military journalist. He showed a picture to me of a squadron of black Americans being led by a white Staff Sargeant. He said that he could not do a story on the picture, because it was taken in 1960.

He did not worry about access, because he knew that those in power wanted recognition for the good things they did. Of course they also wanted the embarrassing or bad things they did to be ignored.

The power he had over the top officers of the base was that he could ignore their accomplishments, down play their ideas or choose which officers should be recognized in the paper. Rather than the journalist being concerned with have access the officers were concerned with having his attention in a positive light.

I can't remember the number of times that someone in the public arena said something that was true, factual or realistic only to have them take it back the following day. When they did this it felt like a kick in the stomach. Why should anyone have to apologize for being honest? Unless it is honesty that is considered the crime by those with the loudest voice.

BP BP said...

Dear Barry,
Thank you very much for this article.
All good people on earth will find it a shot in the arm.
Sadly I know that will not include teachers in journalism schools such as at Harvard.
Best Wishes!
Bharani Padmanabhan MD PhD

Rich said...

Barry -- Outstanding. You've articulated the number one problem of our time -- the failure we have in this country to tell ourselves the truth.

I grew up in the 1960's. I can remember asking my parents about the war in Vietnam. I couldn't understand why we were there, and why we kept doubling down on our commitment. My parents (FDR liberals) told me that President Johnson "had information we don't have" about the international Communist threat. That was nonsense, of course...but that narrative kept us there for years, and thousands of young men died for no reason.

Right now, CNN is trying to re-invent itself. What's striking to me is that the one answer that is "hiding in plain sight" is never, ever discussed. Why doesn't CNN become America's only ACTUAL NEWS network? Tell the absolute, unvarnished truth about what is going on in the world? Call politicians on the B.S.? Refuse to go to the Correspondents Dinners, refuse to go with "anonymous sources that have knowledge of the situation," refuse to buy into the beltway groupthink.

What's interesting about this is that its the one option that will never, ever be discussed or considered. They'll take the pieces of Fox and MSNBC, throw them up in the air and "re-brand" themselves with another (failed) version of what we've got now.

It's startling to read such a direct, clear-headed essay. Thanks.

Andrew Shields said...

This is an excellent piece. A question came up for me after I read the previous post, though: in this post, "compromise" is to be avoided, but the previous post about gun violence calls for "sensible compromise." Surely some of those GCPs or GOPs who don't want to compromise would feel that compromise would mean being "coopted."

Two different senses of compromise, of course, but close enough to each other (even just in the proximity of the two posts) to make me wonder how to tell the two apart (and also how the "coopted" journalist might see his compromises as being the kind of "sensible compromise" you call for in the gun post.

NoamSentMe said...

I enjoyed your piece though I fear I am much farther down the road to cynicism than you. As a former practicing daily newspaper journalist I saw how editors promoted and perpetuated the same elitism that journalists allegedly are supposed to fight: Ivy League graduates get the best posts, reporters without connections are denied the same voice in the newsroom; political correctness prevents serious inquiry into systemic problems within cultures; systemic cultural studies are discouraged for quick hits. Even phenomenal reporters produce work sympathetic to their subjects due to access; others granted access avoid challenging our political system whole cloth. 'Buzz' gets you promotions (see Jonah Lehrer and Lena Dunham for recent examples.) I also found out that big media isn't interested in outing corruption by those who move their products. Essentially I think we're all kidding ourselves if we believe that we can change anything. The only way the world will change is if we collectively promote the genetic breeding of altruists. But the government, which is the only entity that could encourage such breeding, relies much more on sociopaths to do its bidding at the highest levels of corporations and military.

Gkja said...

I'd add that welcoming criticism is a key ingredient. We're subject to blind-spots. Critical perspective from others provides a chance of not being co-opted

Mark Erickson said...

Caveat lector, that is.

Robert Green said...

don't forget any compromises made on behalf of getting your kid into st. albans. or a good table at The Palm. or an invite to the party on nantucket this summer. or a intro to the guy with the keys to whatever kingdom it is you are interested in.

and of course, there is nothing easier then making a compromise "for the kids".

albert said...

Very insightful! Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

burton said...

I hope this post goes viral in news rooms across the country and beyond. ( A special bronze Rebekah Brooks edition should be hung in News Corp and #10 Downy St)

The English novelist, scientist and British civil servant CP Snow once said: "More evil is done in the name of conformity, than in the name of rebellion.

sarkhead said...

I worked for one of the big 3 TV networks in the "news" division in NYC. I'm struck by the underlying assumption here that journalists begin with a motive to serve the public. I found that contempt for the public rife on all levels, and seemed to increase as one moved up. I says "seemed," because I didn't move up very far, in part because I began with some of the assumptions on display in this article. In television, at least, the top people indentify completely with the elite and they in fact are part of it, if only on the lower rungs. That attitude sets the tone. Another thing I noticed was that self-awareness almost non-existent. Not only do they not question themselves in the manner you describe, but they are actively engaged in absorbing and dispensing the conventional wisdom. They are simply doing a different job than the one you describe. And then there is the culture of self congratulation. And that's before I've taken into account the understandable need to succeed enough to support one's family. There is no percentage in being a real journalist in the Circus divison of Bread and Circuses Inc. I'd rather live in your world, but I've never seen it.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the thoughts, everyone.

I was particularly honored to have this post mentioned on Twitter by Thomas Drake and Matthew Hoh, two men who have been tested and have walked the integrity walk.

Dell, Larry, Gkja, and Robert, thanks for adding some additional warning signs.

Rich, the answer to your question "Why doesn't CNN become America's only ACTUAL NEWS network?" is, CNN profits from, and therefore seeks to preserve, the system as it is. The same applies to Democrats or Republicans, whichever is the party of your choice: why would either adopt a stance that's a purer expression of its purported principles? As things stand, the two of them share a nice monopoly on power and the current system serves them well.

Andrew, yes, distinguishing between the two forms of compromise is hard, no doubt, and making the right call is critical. I don't have a good answer for how it's done, other than you have to practice and honestly evaluate.

Sarkhead, I agree, most name journalists serve the system more than they do the public. My piece was intended for those who are honest and serious about finding ways to remain that way.

Thanks again everyone and here's hoping the piece will do some good...

Brian Hanley said...

My experience says the problems are deeper than that Barry. I spent years in Central Asia, close to some major news stories like Beslan, assassinations, etc. Not a single story on any of those was worth a damn.

The Beslan coverage failed to mention the invasion of South Ossetia by Russia under PR cover of that story. The same PR cover strategy was used for the Georgian "Olympics War" of 2008, and what little coverage of that failed to mention that McCain's just-named Defense guy was the long-time lobbyist for the country of Georgia.

The assassination of the Minister of the Interior failed to mention that the man had two bullets of two different calibers in his head after his supposed suicide.

Why do these things happen? It is very simple. Very few journalists hold fellow journalists to account. It is also so much easier to just blap the garbage spewed by government spokespeople for developing world nations. After all, reporting inconveniences to people in power in such places could do more than worsen access.

But more than that, journalists with the label of region expert, or "the foreign affairs guy" need to keep up appearances in a profession prone to layoffs. Once an error is made there is powerful incentive to keep making it, in a modern twist on the tree falling in a forest meme, where the tree is reported to sprout wings and sing, but if nobody knows better - 'tis so.

Another problem is the sort of journalist who decides to become a foreign affairs guy, so he makes a 10 day sweep. I caught one of them, set him up with people who could answer real questions. He refused to discuss anything except the status of homosexuals there. When confronted, he said he already had the lay of the land because he had talked to some people living on the street in that country. He was quite serious.

Thus it is that complete rubbish has been installed in the historical record.

Charles P. Wallace said...

In addition to concern about narcissistic personality disorder (which of us doesn't display some of these characteristics at times?) you also need to be cognizant of paranoid personality disorder. Common symptoms:
Concern that other people have hidden motives
Expectation that they will be exploited by others
Reporters and editors run the gamut from great to awful, just like everybody else. They can be slothful and ignorant just like everyone else. I have been a journalist for 40 years and no one every told me that I couldn't do a story because it would adveresly affect profits. I did a story on a shyster businessman who was serving on the board of the media company I was writing for and the editor didn't flinch. I regretted the McCrystal incident because I thought he was paying a heavy price for being naive about how a journalist works. being a great general doesn't make you a master politician. Nonetheless, he deserved to get canned for being stupid about that, just as Patton deserved to get canned for not understanding that his image on the homefront was just as important as the front with the Germans, even though many people think, with the benefit of hindsight,that he was our best general. You see, Barry situations rarely exist in black and white, as you so ably demonstrate with John Rain's ambivalence at times. So reporters aren't perfect humans either.

hitman 13 said...

Dear Barry,
Thank you very much for this article.
All good people on earth will find it a shot in the arm. filme
Sadly I know that will not include teachers in journalism schools such as at Harvard.
Best Wishes!