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.

Monday, July 05, 2010

It's Just a Leak

One of the great things about being a novelist is that the form enables me to dramatize the way the government and establishment media collude to manipulate public opinion. The phenomenon of the mainstream media laundering government talking points into news in exchange for access to even more such talking points has been ruthlessly documented by many outstanding bloggers such as Glenn Greenwald, Dan Froomkin, Charles Kaiser, Jay Rosen, and Matt Taibbi. I hope to draw more attention to their work by my fictional -- or not so fictional -- representations of the actual process at work.

And so, here's what I imagine took place during a hastily convened April 20th late-night White House meeting of panicked BP executives, incompetent Mineral Management Service officials, and one very slick West Wing PR flack.

Flack: Calm down, everyone, calm down. I need to get the facts from you and if everyone's yelling, I can't. So simmer down, please.

[The room quiets down, the attendees grateful for someone giving them direction, any direction.]

Flack [pointing at the most senior BP executive]: Okay. What happened?

BP Exec [taking a deep breath and visibly attempting to calm himself]: We're not sure exactly. One of our Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, the Deepwater Horizon, blew up.

Flack: Don't say that. It didn't "blow up." That's not helpful.

BP Exec: What?

Flack: It... collapsed. You say it collapsed. If you say it blew up, you create scary images -- bombs, terrorists, 9/11. Collapse is better. Small things collapse, and when they do its discrete. You know, grandma passed out and collapsed. There isn't any fire or smoke. Better imagery for us.

BP Exec [not really getting it, but shellshocked enough not to protest]: Okay... the rig collapsed. It collapsed, and the explosion--

[Stern look from the flack]

BP Exec: Right, the "collapse" tore a huge fucking gash in the seabed, and--

Flack: Stop. First, we don't swear. Swearing is unprofessional, and above all, we have to look professional. Public confidence depends on our appearance of professionalism.

BP Exec: Are you fucking kidding me?

[Stern look from the flack]

BP Exec: Okay, sure, whatever, the collapse tore a gash in the seabed.

Flack [nodding]: Better. I like the way you got rid of the adjective "huge." Adjectives like that aren't helpful to us. In fact, I don't want you using adjectives at all. They make it sound like you're trying too hard. We'll manage this story with well-chosen nouns. Much more effective way to create a proper narrative.

BP Exec: "Proper narrative"? Look, there's a giant hole--

Flack: Stop. Giant is like huge. You need to stop describing things and just give me the facts.

BP Exec [raising his voice]: But I am giving--

Flack: There's no gash. There's no hole. What we have here, people, is an oil leak.

MMS Official: Leak? Have you seen the underwater video footage? That's no leak, it looks like a fucking... it looks like Mount Vesuvius erupting oil out of the seabed!

Flack [expression understanding and patient]: This is good, this is the place for you to get these mistaken words out of your system so you'll know never to use them again. "Erupt" is a very loaded word and as you correctly note, it immediately conjures up unhelpful images of volcanoes spewing lava. Speaking of which, "spew" is also an unhelpful word. Likewise, all forms of "gush" and "geyser." From now on, you will use two words, and two words only, preferably in their drier, noun form, to describe this incident: "spill" and "leak."

[The room is silent as the executives and officials try to understand the flack's point]

Flack: Spills are small and finite. If I accidentally knock over this glass of water, we'll have a spill. And the moment it's happened, it'll already be over. It'll just be a matter of cleaning it up. We've been using the phrase "oil spill" for decades for just this reason and it's been exceptionally effective at calming the public. We want people to understand that what's happening in the Gulf is far from unprecedented; it's just another oil spill, a significant one, certainly, but not qualitatively different from the many that have come before it. Leak is also fine because it conjures images of a ceiling dripping water that's being neatly contained in a pan on the floor. Leaks are small, slow, and containable, and we have to position those notions in the public mind with regard to this latest oil spill, too. The words we employ to do so will be crucial. Trust me, people, I'm far from new at this form of damage control, and you can believe me when I tell you that the nomenclature we deploy starting now will be our most powerful weapon in shaping public consciousness and opinion regarding the incident itself. Don't believe me? Note how I've deliberately referred to what happened as an "incident" -- a small, dry word that conjures no unhelpful imagery. "Event" would be too weighty a word, and I'm sure I needn't mention that words like "disaster," "catastrophe," or "calamity" would be extremely unhelpful.

[Silence in the room again, but several people are nodding their heads, comforted by the distraction of talking about the message, which the flack seems to know how to manage, rather than the substance of what happened, which they don't]

Flack: Now, how much oil is actually leaking?

BP Exec: God, we don't even know... our best guess at this point is, at least 60,000 barrel s a day.

Flack [shaking his head]: That's too much. We can't say that, at least not right away.

BP Exec: Well, it is what it is.

Flack: We don't know what it is. You just said yourself that you're guessing. We'll start with a low number -- let's make it a thousand barrels a day.

BP Exec: Look, you can't just say it and make it so. There's --

Flack: Isn't it true that the leak includes a thousand barrels a day?

BP Exec [snorts]: Yeah, and another 59,000 barrels on top of that.

Flack: We don't have to mention the second part. Not yet. In fact, doing so would be irresponsible because as you just pointed out, we don't really know. We're just guessing. So I want us to guess lower. We'll introduce the lower number into the public's mind to ease the entire incident into their consciousness. Once they realize there's a spill, we can gradually walk the number up without unduly shocking people. We'll be sure to use the word "estimate" in connection with all numbers to ensure we have the necessary flexibility to increase the number with the passage of time, as we gain more information.

MMS Official: I don't see what difference any of this makes. We're not the ones who are going to control the words that get used to describe this... this incident. The media will call it whatever they want.

Flack [chuckling at this display of incredible naivete]: Whatever gave you that notion?

MMS Official: Well, I mean, it's not like we can control the media...

Flack: "Control" isn't a good word. It sounds so totalitarian. "Persuasion" is much better.

MMS Official: Look, I don't care what you call it...

Flack: I called it "persuasion" when I got the media to describe our escalation in Iraq as the "surge." Strong, assertive word, don't you think? With such great inherent imagery of waves crashing powerfully against the beach, and then -- this is the best part -- receding! And with none of the unhelpful Vietnam associations of "escalation." And I called it persuasion when I got the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post to stop calling waterboarding "torture" and start referring to "enhanced interrogation techniques," instead. Who do you think got the media to call the people we've been holding at Guantanamo, Bagram, and the black sites for nearly a decade "detainees" rather than "prisoners"? Forgive me for boasting, but "detainee" was such a brilliant word... high school students get detained for failing to turn in their homework, so nothing but a big yawn from the public. And have you noticed that the media has dropped "assassination" and now uses the soothingly dry phrase "targeted killing," instead? Who do you think persuaded them to do that? And look at Israel's "Security Fence" -- my God, if you can get the media to refer to a double-lined, razor-wire-topped, 18-foot-tall concrete wall snaking for miles through the desert as just a "fence"... well, people, I submit to you that we can also get the media to refer to the Gulf incident as nothing but a spill or a leak, too. I guarantee you, two months from now, if you Google the phrase "Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill," you'll get 23 million hits, easy. The few instances you'll find of eruption, geyser, gusher and the like will be eclipsed and our job will be done.

[The room is silent. Attendees are nodding their heads in grudging respect at the flack's apparent mojo]

BP Exec: Okay, fine. But how do we stop the... leak?

Flack [shrugs]. My job is just to prevent public outrage and a meaningful discussion of the inevitable dangers -- sorry, "risks" -- of drilling for oil 5000 feet underwater and 18,000 feet below the seabed. It's up to you to stop the leak.

[Silence again. The attendees look at one another, their wide eyes moving from face to face]

Flack: You can stop it, can't you? I mean, it's just a leak, right?

For another depiction of the way the government and establishment media collaborate to launder government talking points, in this case regarding the missing CIA interrogation videos, here's the prologue of my latest thriller, Inside Out.