The Rise of Journo-Derp

Mark Bowden is unhappy with his story being dismissed:

Without a shred of evidence, without contradicting a word that I wrote, Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine this week suggests that the “irresistible story” that I told about the killing of Osama bin Laden in my 2012 book, The Finish (excerpted in Vanity Fair), might well have been a fabrication—“another example of American mythmaking.” He presents an alternative version of the story written by Seymour Hersh as, effectively, a rival account, one that raises serious doubts about mine, which is all but dubbed “the official version.” It’s not meant kindly.

The problem Bowden documents is something that has been growing in a segment of the journalism industry — an almost pathological inability to accept that a version of events might be true if it happens to not make the USG look villainous in some way. This mindset exists independent of facts, which show that sometimes the USG fucks up very badly but often it does something appropriate and competent, because it is not about facts.

Rather, this journo-derp seems to stem from a mistaken impression of Finley Peter Dunne’s character sketch of muckraking journalist Mr. Dooley. Many journalists (like the New York Timespublic editor) quote the phrase as “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” but this is wrong. Dunne’s full quote actually means something very different:

“Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward”.

Dunne meant this as a criticism of the self-importance and hypocrisy of newspapers in the muckraking era. He was mocking those who think that their job is to simply torment those in charge for the sake of tormenting them. Somehow, in the century since he wrote it, some journalists have turned it from a mockery and into a creed.

As it stands, we’re left with a whole segment of the industry that will reject verifiable, on-the-record facts (or ignore them during coverage) if it makes the “powerful,” however defined in that moment, look good or makes their actions appear defensible. While normal civilians might think journalism should be about revealing the truth of events, the journalists who subscribe to this view instead see their job as a form of social engineering by empowering those they feel need it and attacking those they think don’t deserve their station in life.

For the life of me, this seems like a throwback to the frenzied anti-American leftism that followed Vietnam, which is nothing if not nostalgic (many also think Hersh’s exposé of Mai Lai is the epitome of everything journalism should be while ignoring the invaluable record of the war normal, working journalists produced by simply cataloging the daily horror of combat). That’s fine as far as it goes, and we all love our myths (and Lord knows I have my own biases I try really hard not to hide and to examine critically), but it certainly is not a quest for the truth — which all journalists seem to say they want to reveal.

I’m not sure when exactly this 21st century radicalization began growing, but the movement among New York-based journalists accelerated during the Snowden revelations in 2013. It was like once the dam broke, everyone wanted to one-up themselves so as to avoid being called a “toadie” or a “stooge” or a “shill” for the government if they happened to accurately report something based on government sources. That was one of the brilliant moves Glenn Greenwald employed while promoting his stories — the moment another journalist would disagree with his viewpoint he was shriek and yell that they were shills for the state and bully them into silence.

It worked. So now, with Mark Bowden, we’re left with a journalist with a decades-long history of rigorous work on security issues, who conducted dozens of interviews with senior officials over many months being derided as a fake. And he is being contrasted to a modern-day conspiracy theorist who did something cool once in Vietnam and then one other thing a decade ago, who published unsourced hearsay that is unverifiable. (I pointed out some other very weird aspects to Woodward’s version of events here.)

Kind of unreal, no? That’s because reality is not the point.

PostScript:  It’s fun to contrast these two perspectives. In his piece, Bowden says: “One doesn’t begin by disbelieving everyone, by assuming that everyone is lying. Before I would accuse Obama or anyone else of concocting an elaborate lie, I would need at least one hard fact.

Two years ago, when he was launching his Snowden leaks, Greenwald explained he has basically the opposite approach: ““I approach my journalism as a litigator. People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.”

The difference between the two — Bowden wants evidence before accusing someone of perfidy, while Greenwald assumes it is there and then constructs his reality to prove it — says a tremendous amount about the quality, perspective, and veracity of both men’s work.

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