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Christopher Hitchens

Wednesday, July 5, 2006
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HH: We begin, though, as we do when we’re lucky on Wednesdays with Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair columnist. Christopher Hitchens, welcome back. Good to have you.

CH: Nice to be back.

HH: I want your reactions, Christopher Hitchens, to some commentary from elite media about the New York Times, and the bloback it’s suffering, specifically, these lines: “In the wake of the administration’s record of dishonesty and incompetence in Iraq, and the consequent decline in the President’s domestic polling numbers, it is not hard to discern why the White House might find a convenient enemy in the editors of the Times. This is an election year. And in the era of the Pentagon Papers, a war-weary White House went to the courts to stifle the press. You begin to wonder if the Bush White House, and its urgent need to find scapegoats for the myriad of disasters it has inflicted, is preparing to repeat a dismal and dismaying episode of the Nixon years.” What do you think, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: That sounds to me like Frank Rich.

HH: Well, no, it’s not that hysterical.

CH: (laughing) Well, you know me as a fair-minded person without rancor. Let’s say it’s 10% true. I mean, it’s become evident to me that the President and the Vice President, in some of their speeches to the Republican faithful, are attempting to do what Agnew tried and failed to do, which is to change the subject, and say there’s an enemy within, and that it’s the elite press, and all of that. And I hope that you will not lend your voice to that campaign.

HH: I actually believe the New York Times did a very bad thing that helps terrorists elude capture, but I also don’t believe the administration is launching any kind of offensive against them, or that it’s an ideological noise machine. I think it’s a legitimate criticism of an elite and out of touch media that published a story they shouldn’t have, Christopher Hitchens.

CH: Well, I’ll take that as a statement from you. Was it a question?

HH: I’m just wondering, why do you suppose…this is David Remnick, by the way, writing in the New Yorker, that he is beside himself with fear that the press, especially the mainstream press, is in a collective state of anxious transition, hurt by scandals, by the appearance of a blizzard of new technologies, and ideologicalized alternatives like Fox News. He even calls it a time of existential worry for the press. I mean…

CH: Ah, well that, I mean, David was always smart about these things, I think is right about that. I’ll also add something about what I think is happening at the Times, which is that collectively, what they think over there, is that they were played for a sucker by the administration about things like WMD and other matters arising from Iraq, whereas in fact, if they waited a bit longer, they could actually have found the evidence is perhaps a bit stronger than the administration even thought it was. I put that in parenthesis. But they…and they let Judy Miller, in effect, go to jail because of this ridiculous prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and his desire to get everyone in the press to turn over their notes, which is something that I think you should be denouncing a lot when it does happen. There’s an element to me of overcompensation involved. They’re trying to prove that they’re, as the saying goes, watchdogs, not lapdogs. And it’s a bit like the embedding mistake that the administration made with the press. I think the press shouldn’t have lent itself to being embedded, and it left a huge number of journalists who couldn’t get that prestige with nothing to write except another story. And obviously, that wasn’t going to be a friendly one. They’d have to write something different. And I think all of these things need to be factored in. The real problem of the press is it wants to be novel. It wants to be new, and it wants to appear brave. And this is what they do when they feel they’ve been used.

HH: Are they being brave when they deny what Doyle McManus, among others, say is conceivable that they assisted terrorists? Are they being brave, Christopher Hitchens, when they refuse to credit the reaction of more than two-thirds of America, that it was a bad idea, and a potentially killing idea to run this story?

CH: They ought to have taken that point on board a bit more than they did. I mean, the piece that I’m sure you read by Richard Clarke and one other…

HH: Right.

CH: …about this was I thought only about 50% persuasive. The real question is in a way, need to know. And then there is also the question of, which is exactly what’s raised by the Fitzgerald prosecution, what are you now supposed to do, everyone having supporting the witch hunt against Karl Rove, which pulled out an empty net, and the jailing of Judy Miller, which pulled out an empty net as well. What are you now supposed to do when someone gives you classified information? Everyone has already gone on sides saying that the use of the Intelligence Agents Protection Act, which…Identities Protection Act, which is a repressive piece of law designed to gut the 1st Amendment, was okay. If they concede that, I can’t quite see how they can well, we can print any classified information/leak that we like.

HH: Well, that is…that is, I think, the key point.

CH: That’s the bind that they’re really in that nobody points out, because that goes down the middle, as it were, between the parties on that.

HH: Well, that’s true. You cannot stand and say that the name Valerie Plame is an injury to all of our well-being, but the publication of the methodology by which Hambali was obtained is not. That’s impossible.

CH: That’s been my point for ages. I mean, it was absolutely legitimate, in my view, to mention the connection between Joseph Wilson’s wife, his career, the roll of the CIA in sending him to Niger, the way he got it all wrong, the way he lied about it subsequently. That really was something one needed to know if one was going to discuss the subject at all. And Novak didn’t know he was leaking anything classified when he said it. He thought it was common knowledge, which in Washington, it was. But after all the fantastic hysteria about this, I must say, I’m a bit cynical about them saying well now, we have the right to disclose anything from any mole we like. This is really deplorable. I still don’t think, though, that there should be an attempt to say that what’s printed is worse than, as it were, the right to disclose.

HH: Have you read, or did you see, Bill Keller’s statements on Face The Nation on Sunday?

CH: No. I read the rather oleaginous thing that he co-signed with the editor of the L.A. Times.

HH: Well…I’ll read it to you, Christopher. If you had…Bob Schieffer says, “If you had something to say to the people in America on this 4th of July weekend about all this, what would it be, Mr. Keller?” And he responds, “I guess I would say that if you’re under the impression that the press is neutral in this War On Terror, or that we’re agnostic, and you could get that impression from some of the criticism, that couldn’t be more wrong. We have people traveling on the front lines with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had people who’ve been murdered in trying to figure out the terrorist threat. You know, we live in cities that are targets, proven targets for the terrorists, so we…we’re not neutral in this.” What kind of a reaction is that?

CH: I have to first say that I think there’s something smelly about the question. What’s the 4th of July got to do with it? The clear implication there, and obviously Mr. Keller is getting nervous about it, is are you patriotic or not.

HH: That is the clear…yup.

CH: He has a tone of voice, I have to say, I don’t like, and I’m a very strong defender of the war, and of the United States as the guardian of liberty in Iraq and Afghanistan. I just don’t like the tone of the question, I have to say. I would have bridled a bit. Neutrality, that’s very interesting. The Times says it’s objective. And many people confuse the words, term subjective, even-handed, fair-minded, bipartisan, all of these things are confused. Objectivity is the search for truth. Neutrality isn’t something the press can exactly declare. I mean, they can’t very well say we’re neutral, as between the United States and Zarqawi. But in a way, they have to behave as if they were.

HH: Well, I think you’re right. By implying 4th of July, he’s suggesting patriotism at issue. And if your patriotism is questioned, don’t you come back with teeth bared, unless, of course, you’re guilty?

CH: (laughing) Well, as you know, Mr. Keller has been quite eloquent in the past about saying that he’s terribly worried about attacks on American cities, not just the ones where he lives, and wrote a very excellent article saying what the danger was, when a lot of people were unaware of it, and I certainly don’t think that he personally thinks that there’s nothing to choose between…

HH: Oh, I agree, but he’s being very weak-kneed, and I wonder if it’s because he is stunned, and should be stunned, by the reaction of the American people. 30 seconds, Christopher Hitchens.

CH: Well, I would still hope that any editor of any kind would not give a damn for public opinion, no matter what it was. I think that’s the first qualification. Not to be willing to quarrel with public opinion means that you’ve caved in to populism, which is the worst thing that can happen to the press.

HH: All right. Christopher Hitchens, always a pleasure. Thank you. Talk to you again next week.

End of interview.

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