25 Jun 2010

Beware: Journalists at Work

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David Brooks writes General Stanley McChrystal’s epitaph.

Who could possibly imagine that a military commander’s staff had unkind things to say about members of the president’s staff?

Rolling Stone sold a lot of copies, reporter Michael Hastings made a big splash, and General McChrystal had his career ruined, it was all just a day’s work for the news business.

Most people in government, I find, are there because they sincerely want to do good. But they’re also exhausted and frustrated much of the time. And at these moments they can’t help letting you know that things would be much better if only there weren’t so many morons all around.

So every few weeks I find myself on the receiving end of little burst of off-the-record trash talk. Senators privately moan about other senators. Administration officials gripe about other administration officials. People in the White House complain about the idiots in Congress, and the idiots in Congress complain about the idiots in the White House — especially if they’re in the same party. Washington floats on a river of aspersion.

The system is basically set up to maximize kvetching. Government is filled with superconfident, highly competitive people who are grouped into small bands. These bands usually have one queen bee at the center — a president, senator, cabinet secretary or general — and a squad of advisers all around. These bands are perpetually jostling, elbowing and shoving each other to get control over policy.

Amid all this friction, the members of each band develop their own private language. These people often spend 16 hours a day together, and they bond by moaning and about the idiots on the outside.

It feels good to vent in this way. You demonstrate your own importance by showing your buddies that you are un-awed by the majority leader, the vice president or some other big name. You get to take a break from the formal pressures of the job by playing the blasphemous bad-boy rebel over a beer at night.

Military people are especially prone to these sorts of outbursts. In public, they pay lavish deference to civilian masters who issue orders from the comfort of home. Among themselves, they blow off steam, sometimes in the crudest possible terms. …

McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.

By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.

The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

Another scalp is on the wall. Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.

The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see.

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