Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Howler praises [gulp] David Brooks

Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby is still so hung up on his admiration for the Tea Party that his columns are still sounding that "I used to be a liberal, but ..." note. The Tea Party just knocked Somerby off the tracks. He's still fantasizing, in defiance of all available public evidence and polling data on Tea Party supporters, that these conservative, more-affluent-than-average Republican white folks can be won to some populist left-right coalition. (Maybe if you're willing to declare the Constitution Party a left-right coalition.) He scolds those bad, bad liberals who mocked Sarah Palin over the BP oil catastrophe.

In his 06/30/2010 Howler, he heaps praise on a column by David "Bobo" Brooks, The Culture of Exposure New York Times 06/24/2010. Bobo is a faithful reciter of the Republican Party line, specializing in giving the Party line of the day in a calm voice, to convey thoughtfulness and reasonableness. As usual, he worked in the theme of that column for the Friday Times into his PBS Newshour Political Wrap comments of 06/25/2010 with Sleepy Mark Shields.

Bobo's column was a defense of poor Gen. Stanley McChrystal against that bad, bad Michael Hastings who did that (to the Beltway Village) infamous Rolling Stone piece that got McChrystal fired for his and his staff's contemptuous talk about senior civilian officials. Hastings, you see, exposed something newsworthy, and "the culture of exposure" is bad, at least in BoboWorld last Thursday and Friday.

Clearly not haunted by the shades of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, Bobo saw nothing but ill-mannered exposure of harmless good-ole-boy chitchat in Hastings' article:


General McChrystal was excellent at his job. He had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department and beyond. He set up a superb decision-making apparatus that deftly used military and civilian expertise.

But 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 [which Bobo contends once prevailed] 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. [my emphasis]
Bobo's defense of McChrystal was disingenuous, at best. In fact, McChrystal's whiz-bang COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy hasn't produced nearly the results he claimed they would. As Hastings article pointed out for any reader who cared to notice, the Afghanistan War is going poorly.

And for lesser analysts than Bobo, McChrystal's "superb decision-making apparatus that deftly used military and civilian expertise" in Hastings' article comes off sounding like a bunch of overgrown frat boys enjoying their testosterone highs but reinforcing their own illusions. That image may be seriously flawed. But Bobo's silly commentary reduces the whole McChrystal firing incident to a disreputable action by a reporter who reported on harmless "kvetching".

Like his Village buddies and good press stalwarts like Lara Logan, Bobo tried to trash Hastings' for his sin of committing actual reporting. Something that, based on the Howler's past commentary, might have drawn scorn from Somerby instead of praise. But Somerby in his 06/28/2010 column, where he also praises Brooks, plays dumb about the content of Hastings' article and writes, "in the course of his column, Brooks offered a history of American journalism over the past (perhaps) sixty years. Here’s the shocker: His portrait of modern press culture is quite unflattering - and it’s quite accurate."

Say what? Somerby's praise of Bobo's column is a good example of how the quality of his media criticism has taken a dive since he decided last year that he needed to scold those naughty liberals for not appreciating how sympathetic those Real Americans in the Tea Party movement might be to liberal causes, if those liberals could just stop criticizing any manifestation of white racism anywhere.

Bobo's column does not make a general criticism of the mainstream media, but rather claims that journalists fell victim to a vague "ethos of exposure" that supposedly "swept the culture" back when all those crazy hippies and rioting Negroes were running wild in The Sixties. "The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see," he writes.

But he is specifically criticizing one reporter, Michael Hastings, who he doesn't stoop to name, referring to him just as the "reporter." Before he swooned for the Real Americans of the Tea Party, Somerby might have suggested that Bobo labels Hastings as the Reporter as a term of censure, as opposed to respectable journalists like himself and Lara Logan, who know they can't embarrass their sources but, you know, reporting newsworthy things they say on the record, if they want to maintain Access to do their celebrity reporting gig. Somerby used to scold former investigative journalists Bob Woodward for his hagiographical books on the Bush administration, waiting until Bush's approval rating were in the toilet and until the Village had gotten bored with Bush's heroic image before he did a more critical book. But Brooks frames his whole column around attacking the Reporter for doing actual critical-minded reporting and writing a substantive news article instead of an adoring puff piece.

And Somerby somehow takes this as an insightful attack by Bobo on his own Village crowd? Please. In any case, Bobo's argument makes no sense as it stands unless one accepts, as Somerby implicitly does, that the controversial comments from McChrystal and his staff were nothing but trivial "kvetching and inside baseball," as Bobo puts it. President Obama certainly thought they were more than trivial. Marcy Wheeler has a much better judgment of the significance of the reported words and behavior of McChrystal and his staff, as well as of Obama's response, in Win One for Democratic Institutions Emptywheel 06/23/2010.

I do think that Bobo is setting a framework here to use in the future. But it's not about making substantive criticisms of his fellow celebrity journalists. My guess is that he's thinking about prominent Republican candidates this year, like Constitution Party fans Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Sharron Angle (Nevada), who have left a long trail over the years of descriptions of their far-right political outlooks that won't sound so appealing to their states' voters in the general election. Bobo's concluding paragraphs can be cut and pasted into later columns this year defending candidates like Rand Paul who are being criticized for overly-frank descriptions of their own views:

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.
And we wouldn't want to drive "honest and freewheeling" sorts like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle out of public life, now would we?

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