Pavlov's Journalists (And Obama's)

Today’s must-read is by Glenn Greenwald, writing for the Guardian on the Obama administration’s ruthless use of access journalism by providing anonymous leaks to reporters who will tell the story to their liking and subpoenas for those who don’t. “In sum, these anonymous leaks are classic political propaganda: devoted to glorifying the leader and his policies for political gain.”

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • not 🙁 He should prosecute himself under his version of the whistle blower laws.

    Always keep an open mind and a compassionate heart. ~ Phil Jackson

  • …by those two US attorneys who will be rolling up his sources. Funny how that goes unmentioned here. Simple rule of polemic “journalism” – when the datapoint doesn’t fit the narrative, discard it.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

  • see if these attorneys do anything. the attorneys did so well for Bush 😉

    Always keep an open mind and a compassionate heart. ~ Phil Jackson

  • …d’ya think I should hold my breath for Greenwald to acknowledge it? Methinks I like oxygen a wee bit too much for that…

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

  • I remember Bush and his Press Spox saying there was no way anyone in the WH leaked Plame’s ID – then the investigation found they had. Now Carney’s saying “Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible,” but Sanger’s pieces referenced an anon presidential aide and other WH insiders. Pass the popcorn.

    P.S.: Glenn’s been a friend of mine for several years, JPD, and I’ve found him to be a scrupulously honest guy. If they go after Sanger, of course Glenn will acknowledge it. I find your suggestion that he’d do otherwise an offensive one. His wider point about stenography in return for access isn’t exactly a new problem, nor one confined to the Obama White House, but still deserves to be written about.

  • …but he makes a living covering the new and serially presenting outrage. That means what is currently bleeding heaviest leads and it doesn’t fill me with confidence that he’s even going to realize to come back and mention it.

    You’re the editor in chief of a site that focuses primarily on discussion of news and media. Greenwald is a key media player and my views on him are frankly fair ball as a contributor to the discussion. You may not agree and he may be a friend of yours, but that doesn’t make my personal view out of bounds. I don’t know if you quite realize this, but you’ve set up a dynamic where you are deciding who one can cite [over the years I’ve watched you serially savage folks that I know to actually be pretty decent journalists] and who one can criticize. One goes too down that road, what one gets is junk as the analytical product.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

  • “over the years I’ve watched you serially savage folks that I know to actually be pretty decent journalists”.

    I don’t recall ever serially savaging anyone, let alone a pretty decent journalist. Care to name names?

    Fair enough on your personal views of Glenn not being out of bounds, btw, even if I know him as a constitutional lawyer who is genuinely concerned about civil liberties.

  • was the passage about Obama not wanting to kill civilians. Since that’s not possible with drones, the targeted individuals, and their environs, the staff redefined civilians to make it appear that the “collateral” damage was minimal.

    Here we are with a real unemployment rate of 22% (if you count the unemployed), 12 million jobs lost with only 4 million recovered, and bankers who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time and what is the president spending a fair amount of time on daily? Killing people who haven’t the slightest chance of attacking this country.

    That’s the meta perspective that is also devastating. LBJ used to spend time on bombing targets. Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, and Ashcroft spend time regularly “choreographing” interrogations.

    But Obama was supposed to be better than that (something I never believed). He isn’t. He’s just another terribly flawed individual sucked into “kill lists” and sucking up to a military leadership that can’t produce while the economy falters, heading toward a cliff.

    It would be dark humor in a Stanley Kubrick sort of way were it not for the deaths and the absolutely negligent handling of the vital aspects of the future of this nation.
    The Money Party RSS

  • …on “steve hynd” + stenographer turns up something just under 4,000 hits. I don’t know how many prime movers that tracks back to, but at a minimum that’s a pronounced stylistic tic! 😉

    When you go after these guys, it’s not “hey, this is access journalism so caveat emptor while we figure out what we can learn” it’s more “these guys are mouthpieces and there is nothing to learn from them – trust my alternative set of facts instead”. I like you and everything and I even agree with the root of much of what you say, but that sort of approach is really dangerous. Good analysis draws from as broad a set of facts as is practical given real world constraints – consciously necking things down to a small sub-set makes it easier from a workload perspective, but it entails tremendous risk in that the selected alternative facts had damned sure better be right. Having watched the adventure that is Internet mediated news commentary for some time now, I gotta say that a lot of the time they’re not, and that’s something that needs to be consciously hedged against.

    I wouldn’t begin to say that Greenwald doesn’t care about civil liberties. That’s not my beef. My beef is that the guys that he ceaselessly criticizes also care about civil liberties, they just don’t have the luxury of sitting far outside just offering commentary. Saying that everyone is a villain implicitly sets oneself up as the hero and frankly I find that more than a little wearing – it’s easy to be a hero in a vacuum. You show me someone who’s absolutely certain about things and I’ll show you someone who’s never had to get neck deep in the shit sandwich that is policy reality. Those of us who work policy files do the best we can – if the commentators don’t like it, there’s lots of opportunity for them to come at in their own way, all they have to do is put in the work (as an example, you wanna make a submission to a Parliamentary committee, all you have to do is put your name on the list – we see private citizens up on the hill all the time).

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

  • Without getting involved in the personal issues here, would you admit that there is a whole lot of stenography going on in the US?

    I get that really sorting, discussing, etc. the policy issues is messy. And that’s the problem. Americans don’t generally do it. We’re certainly not prompted to do it by our major media (or really our minor media very often). We didn’t have in-depth policy discussions of running off to invade Afghanistan or Iraq. We don’t have them on serious domestic politics either.

    I have no idea what serious policy discussion at the decision making level in the US looks like. However, i suspect that it’s not too far removed from the professional wrestling level of discourse we see in the media.

    I, for one, have no faith that a guy like Obama is looking at issues in terms of the long-term and/or doing what’s best and right. He’s looking at everything through a political lens, and in the US at least the political lens is only about winning political fights.

    FTR, i find Greenwald sometimes shrill in his delivery and don’t trust him very deeply. On the other hand, he’s got a lot to be shrill about. in the last decade or so, the US has been burying all the things it claims make it great and doing so at an alarming rate. The reasons have mostly boiled down to fear and your statement above that means “us little people really wouldn’t understand.”

  • …notion that there is a considerable amount of access journalism going on. That goes with the territory and always has done – we always have to take what insiders say with a grain of salt and cross it against other views. What I find disturbing about the current way that this plays out is that most people (i.e., news consumers) aren’t seeking to cross and validate – it seems to me that they are in the main looking at access journalism, rejecting it completely and going on to seek out alternative collections of facts that better fit their particular world views. Those more pleasing sets of “facts” are then not extensively tested for completeness and accuracy because they, being more pleasing, are more likely to be viewed as “right”. There’s always been a trend this way, but it now seems extremely pronounced. With the tremendous lowering of the bar to publication that we’ve seen in the past decade, one can very readily find whatever set of views one would like – almost custom tailored to one’s conscious and unconscious biases – without leaving one’s living room. Seems to me that in the most vocal parts of the discourse we have a lot of folks with different sets of facts that don’t much overlap talking past each other – that doesn’t strike me as particularly productive given the magnitude of the changes I think we need to be looking at.

    I don’t have the greatest sense of what serious policy discussion behind closed doors looks like in the States, but I do know what it looks like up here and there is a difference between what happens in public and what happens behind closed doors. I do see worrying signs that things are starting to shift to the type of discourse you mention even behind closed doors – me, I think the prime enabler there is the “select your own facts” phenomenon mentioned above, crossed with a now dominant technical political class that tends to have little experience of life outside electoral politics.

    As to decision making in the Obama administration, I’ve seen enough coverage in a range of places as to how things work internally to think that the process is reasonably thoughtful. Whether I agree with it or not, that I don’t know – not least it’s not my country so I’m not sure that’s even of tangential relevance. What I do think is that this fragmented, shouting past one another with different sets of facts isn’t increasing the chances that any administration is going to look at things long-term, with an eye towards what’s best and right. There’s a place for shrill, but shrill itself isn’t enough. More to the point, a constant diet of shrill is actually very damaging in that folks stop doing anything and just sit there like lab rats shocked into learned helplessness.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

  • I’ve often cited journalists who practise access journalism as sources and springboards for my posts. Often admiringly when they produce work that’s truely not access journalism – something they are all capable of. I’ll name a few names off the top of my head: Jahn, Sanger, Risen, Roggio, Ackerman. I note that in my opinion they practise stenography in return for access when it suits them to do so caveat emptor while also noting that their work does inform as long as you don’t imbibe the imbedded message wholesale with the facts – which is exactly what you say I should do. Instead of relying on a Google search (after the fact of your accusation) you might want to read more deeply and see that there are multiple references to a very few posts that were widely syndicated or linked and then actually read those posts. Or perhaps you could contemplate what my Twitter follow and followers lists say about the breadth of my reading and my attempts to get as wide a range of analysis as possible.

    Still, what really eggs the pudding is that you say you won’t write diaries anymore because of the way people won’t do more research but just criticize from a small or assumed data set, and then you do exactly that to me. I respect the hell out of your intellect and knowledge but that’s just trolling. You can do better than that.

    If you and a few other Agonist regulars would just post a well-researched and informative diary once a week, it seems to me, I’d be able to stop some of the relentless grind of chasing for new content and throwing up short posts three to five times a day just to keep traffic flowing into the site. (Thank you Matt, Cheryl, Michael, Numerian – you are my happy thoughts.) I’d then be able to produce some longer-form stuff myself and we’d all gain from both the better quality of diaries all round and the greater traffic we’d garner from a reasonable quantity of that quality.

  • I doubt any administration is interested in looking at things long-term with an eye towards what’s best and right.

    The shrill voices you hear are the sounds of desperation … a cry for a just world that seems to be falling on deaf ears.

    “OTP – Occupy The Patriarchy” ~ me

  • We do, as a whole, seek out news that fits our preconceived views and you’re right that the proliferation of sources makes that easier and easier. Not so long ago, you might have two dailies in a big city: one that leaned liberal and one that leaned conservative. Now, there’s a blog for just about every niche view and it’s become incredibly easy to shout right past each other.

    It would be nice if the major media outlets acted as a counterweight to this phenomena, but they’re on board … Fox pioneered the new news i suppose.

  • After all the shouting is done,
    all the energized right has to do is pull the lever.

    There is no path for the deenergised left,
    preoccupied with Obama’s betrayals,
    to follow except “let them have it all”

    The origin of the universe has not as yet been shown to be a conspiracy theory

  • What’s striking in all this is the sheer breadth of commentators on the mainstream left who would have gone ballistic over the drone story if it were the Bush gang, and now they have a sock in their mouth. As far as I can tell, Greenwald is not shilling for a certain network or another — he’s been way more consistent in nitpicking the hell out of a million sketchy things going on.

    I think I get what you mean about the learned helplessness problem – it seems kind of like you see Greenwald as a fear-porn peddler on the constitutional law level, sort of the thinking man’s Alex Jones if you will. Part of why people like that are needed in the ecosystem though, is to create enough handles for a broader set of people to have the details and organize against the crappy and evil policies leading us to the land of doom and epic fails.

    But seriously man, stenography and greasy access journalism is the name of the game these days, more now than ever. There just isn’t really hardly any good journalism which isn’t chummy access journalism at all – everything has drifted so far that good work is few and far between, and everything substantive has been getting shallower and shallower as resources and political will of publishers declines.

    Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has clearly gone LBJ in its drone games, they don’t get that this is the wrong level of detail for them to obsess on at every meeting because their job is not to shape a kill list, but to get us out of this damn stupid mess around Central Asia & the Mideast by executing some strategy that would take years. They are thoughtful about having some tactics but by spending all their time on the tactics, the decision loops are basically on the wrong level and they’ve screwed everything.

  • …to say. This isn’t me saying that you don’t read widely enough or me waving my wing wang saying I read more. What I’m saying is that treating sources this way causes readers to de-value valuable sources and limits their input in ways that I don’t think we should – particularly on a site that has the business model of collaborative news commentary and interpretation. Saying that Ackerman has his head up his ass once outweighs a whole lot of attaboys. I’m telling you as a reader that this is more than a sparing use of terms like “stenographer” balanced out by a lot of also positive attention – I’ve read a lot of your stuff over the years and this is more pervasive maybe even than you realize. Go back and look at the lede on your piece on Nuremberg and cyberwar. Sanger does the prime mover reporting that is cited approvingly, but he nets a “Judy in Drag” in passing. Yeah, you can find positive views of the guys you cite, but the negatives are what sticks. What I worry about is that even when both perspectives get out there, the “one two” punch is basically setting up the well known Internet meme of “I read X, so you don’t have to”.

    Bottom line: There are ways of pointing up the caveat emptor that involve less informational collateral damage and we should pursue them.

    As to writing some longer pieces, I will see what I can squeeze into my schedule – I’m sure “A Framework for Thought about the State of Play in Syria” will be a barn burner! 😉 As to this being a disservice, sorry it’s not. It may not be nice or pleasant or polite or even fair, but giving you feedback as to why some types of rhetorical devices make it harder for the type of community you desire to flourish (and hopefully provoking some broader thought by the community) is not a disservice. If I didn’t give a damn about the community and what I think your goal for it is, I would have voted with my feet many, many years ago – lots of folks did.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

  • Although I think you’re not giving your fellow readers enough credit for intelligence, I’m willing to try other rhetorical tools. You write: “There are ways of pointing up the caveat emptor that involve less informational collateral damage and we should pursue them.” Can you give something more concrete?

  • When Sanger gets labelled uncritically as stenographer, any time someone wants to draw on a piece of his to question ambient consensus, all someone else has to do to kill debate is simply repeat the label. When one is consciously parsimonious and specific about the instances (i.e., citing specific examples when applicable to a specific discussion rather than slapping a sweeping label as a shorthand) it makes it less likely that this will occur.

    As an example, I remember the foofera back when folks were trying to make sense of EFPs – as soon as one mentioned an article sourced to Michael Gordon, debate over. Done. Didn’t matter that most folks wouldn’t know an EFP if it bit them in the ‘nads or what a passive IR sensor was, what it could do and what it meant analytically – that one association was enough for folks to completely ignore whatever data the article contained. That’s frankly not good – my read is that the public resistance to Iranian involvement caused them to over-estimate the degree of plausible deniability they had and they came close to eating ordnance over it.

    Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” ~ Steve Jobs

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