The new gatekeepers


I’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with both the news and my own life these days. We’ve had “Fire and Fury”, Steve Bannon’s firing, Fusion GPS’s Congressional testimony, the government shutdown, the Women’s March, Shithole-gate, Stormy Daniels, Joe Arpaio running for Senate, the false alarm nuclear attack in Hawaii, #releasethememo (still not sure what that actually is)…and we’re only 3 weeks into January.

It has traditionally been the role of the press to decide what qualifies as news, to separate the trivial from the important. Salacious stories like the Stormy Daniels affair would likely have been suppressed by journalists of 50 years ago. Here’s author Ross Benes discussing the cozy and protective relationship between journalists and exalted presidents like JFK and FDR:

With the uncertainty brought on by the Great Depression and World War II, journalists decided to help conceal Roosevelt’s personal life. Millions of Americans didn’t realize he was paralyzed until after his death. Today, few photos exist of Roosevelt in a wheelchair.

Journalists also concealed Roosevelt’s sexual relationships. Many Americans still are unaware that Roosevelt had numerous affairs. According to Joseph Persico’s “Franklin and Lucy: Mrs. Rutherford and the Other Remarkable Women in Roosevelt’s Life,” which details Roosevelt’s affairs, journalists who supported Roosevelt prevented other reporters from photographing the president in his wheelchair.

Journalists blocked or knocked aside photographers who tried to shoot images of the president’s disability. In newspapers, cartoonists portrayed Roosevelt as a superhero. If ever cameras began rolling when he was lifted out of his wheelchair, Roosevelt said things like, “No movies of me getting out of the machine, boys.” Journalists often respected the request.

Like Roosevelt, President Kennedy benefitted from a comfortable relationship with the press. Despite all that we now know about Kennedy’s numerous affairs, he never had a public sex scandal while in office, in large part because of the press.

“Before Watergate, reporters just didn’t go into that sort of thing,” said a Hollywood Associated Press writer who helped keep Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe out of the press. “I’d have to have been under the bed in order to put it on the wire for the AP.”

Now, of course, such stories are only suppressed if there is partisan advantage to be gained.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the era where gatekeepers like Walter Cronkite and the AP decided what was newsworthy. If journalists today abided by the same principles, perhaps we would spend less time being outraged over Trump’s rhetoric and more time being outraged over his (or, more accurately, the Republican Party’s) policies. We would pay more attention to Stephen Miller and Ryan Zinke and less to Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway. And we might foster a populace that was not only better informed but psychologically healthier — the cost of obsessing over the “news”, of being tuned into CNN and Twitter 24 hours a day, of being in a constant froth and state of vigilance and anxiety, is that it comes at the expense of being a normal person with normal interests and a healthy equanimity about life.

The unfortunate truth, though, is that such nostalgia would be misplaced. There is a false dichotomy between gatekeepers in journalism and the lack thereof. In reality, there are almost always gatekeepers. We don’t have the time to keep track of congressional testimony or to read the latest gossip or to follow Trump’s twitter account. Secondary sources exist because keeping up with the primary ones is too arduous. Perhaps a better distinction is between the incentives of various gatekeepers. People have rightly been furious at Twitter and Facebook for sealing us into our ideological echo chambers and for foisting clickbait upon us. But clicks and likes and views are the metrics by which these companies measure success. If the alternative is to disintermediate, to replace these aggregators with news organizations themselves, then we should remember what their incentives are. The choice is not between a black-box algorithm and “the New York Times”. It’s between a model that has been trained to learn what gets clicks and an organization with similarly perverse incentives, one that makes money off both advertisements and subscribers, and one where editorial decisions are made by a select few individuals, greedy and fearful and self-serving and ambitious (just as we all are). So it’s not clear, to me at least, that what we gain when we make that switch is more than what we lose.

That’s my long and circuitous way of saying that we should not unduly exalt the old way of doing journalism. (Atrios put it more succinctly than I could: “I am so sick of this shitty newspaper [the NYT] destroying our politics. From Whitewater to Iraq to Clinton Cash to Emails to Maggie when will people learn. It is a bad newspaper.”) Perhaps the best example is this remarkable article from James Risen in the Intercept. It’s a tremendous, fascinating, infuriating read, and well worth your time. Risen was a national security reporter at the New York Times. He was best known for breaking the story of the massive NSA domestic surveillance program authorized by the Bush Administration and countenanced by senior Republican and Democratic leadership (like Jane Harmon). Risen believed in adversarial, investigative journalism. He sought to break stories that the public deserved to know but the government would have liked to suppress. But what struck me was that his bosses usually didn’t share his mindset. The relationship between the NYT brass and the government occupied a middle ground between adversarial and cooperative. Risen quotes a CIA official as saying, “His rule of thumb for whether a covert operation should be approved was, “How will this look on the front page of the New York Times?”. Arguably, the same was true of the NYT, except in reverse. It feared pissing off the government, who might attack it for threatening national security, almost more than the CIA feared doing something illegal.

Here’s one example.

[A]s the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began, I called the CIA for comment on a story about a harebrained CIA operation to turn over nuclear blueprints to Iran. The idea was that the CIA would give the Iranians flawed blueprints, and Tehran would use them to build a bomb that would turn out to be a dud.

The problem was with the execution of the secret plan. The CIA had taken Russian nuclear blueprints it had obtained from a defector and then had American scientists riddle them with flaws. The CIA then asked another Russian to approach the Iranians. He was supposed to pretend to be trying to sell the documents to the highest bidder.

But the design flaws in the blueprints were obvious. The Russian who was supposed to hand them over feared that the Iranians would quickly recognize the errors, and that he would be in trouble. To protect himself when he dropped off the documents at an Iranian mission in Vienna, he included a letter warning that the designs had problems. So the Iranians received the nuclear blueprints and were also warned to look for the embedded flaws.

Several CIA officials believed that the operation had either been mismanaged or at least failed to achieve its goals. By May 2003, I confirmed the story through a number of sources, wrote up a draft, and called the CIA public affairs office for comment.

Instead of responding to me, the White House immediately called Washington Bureau Chief Jill Abramson and demanded a meeting.

The next day, Abramson and I went to the West Wing of the White House to meet with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. In her office, just down the hall from the Oval Office, we sat across from Rice and George Tenet, the CIA director, along with two of their aides.

Rice stared straight at me. I had received information so sensitive that I had an obligation to forget about the story, destroy my notes, and never make another phone call to discuss the matter with anyone, she said. She told Abramson and me that the New York Times should never publish the story.

I tried to turn the tables. I asked Tenet a few questions about the Iranian program and got him to confirm the story, and also provide some details I hadn’t heard before. The only point he disputed was that the operation had been mismanaged.

Rice argued that the operation was an alternative to a full-scale invasion of Iran, like the war that President George W. Bush had just launched in Iraq. “You criticize us for going to war for weapons of mass destruction,” I recall her saying. “Well, this is what we can do instead.”

Abramson recalls that after our meeting with Rice, she took the Iran story to both Raines and then-Managing Editor Gerald Boyd. “They gave me a swift no” about publishing the story, Abramson told me recently. She said that she told Raines and Boyd that Rice was willing to discuss the story with them on a secure phone line that they could use from a facility on Manhattan’s East Side, but she says they never asked to take that step, and she didn’t push them to do so.

In Risen’s account, the same names keep popping up: Gerald Boyd, Howell Raines (later felled by the Jayson Blair scandal), and Bill Keller. These men (all high-level editors at the Times) had the veto power over any story, and they exercised that ability not infrequently. They promoted Judith Miller’s bullshit scoops about WMDs, and relegated Risen’s mildly skeptical stories about pre-Iraq War intelligence to the back pages. They held off publishing the NSA domestic surveillance story for more than a year because of Bush administration pressure and worries about the “political climate” (“Keller now also says that the overall climate in the country in 2004 provides important context for his decision not to run the story. In a 2013 interview with then-Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, he expanded on that, saying that “three years after 9/11, we, as a country, were still under the influence of that trauma, and we, as a newspaper, were not immune. It was not a kind of patriotic rapture. It was an acute sense that the world was a dangerous place.”) They treated the Bush administration’s illegality with the same level of discretion and care as the AP treated JFK’s affairs or FDR’s handicap. In fact, had Risen not threatened to publish the NSA spying story separately in his own book, State of War, we might not have ever heard about it.

I find it amusing the level of umbrage taken by traditional journalists when they feel their “craft” is under assault. Maggie Haberman attacked Michael Wolff for “getting basic details wrong” in Fire and Fury. Chuck Todd rebuked Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith for publishing the Steele Dossier even though it was unverified. Getting the facts right is important. But it’s also important to remember that the relationship between these journalists and the people in power is as murky and conflict-ridden as that between Bill Keller and George W. Bush. Donald Trump echoed Chuck Todd, saying that Buzzfeed was a “failing pile of garbage”. And Haberman relies on friendly relationships with the Trump administration to keep her brand of access journalism/court gossip going. It seems difficult, even impossible, to separate Haberman and Todd’s idealism from her self-concern (although, if I had to guess, I’d say there’s very little idealism there at all).

In short, there is much — so much — to be disappointed about in the new world of journalism. But I’m not at all disappointed that people like Maggie Haberman and Chuck Todd and Bill Keller and Howell Raines are no longer running the show.


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