Journalists I Have Known, Part 47
Nice fellow. Smart. Good writer. No doubt fun to have a beer with. Wants to discuss politics, but only on his own terms. Doesn’t want you to know who he voted for. Wants to turn every question about Michael Moore into a question about Michael Moore and Ann Coulter.
A classic MSMer, in other words, and not very serious about the war though he does write about it on occasion. The war provides material. Everything is material. Got to be able to laugh, right, or at least smile?
I understand that humor and science writing is different from political commentary, but Joel really did not seem to understand my point that, upon leaving humor and science behind for politics and war, tone and approach ought to change.
And he definitely doesn’t buy into my long standing belief that those whose bylines appear in big papers or who broadcast from big microphones owe their audience basic disclosures.
In no other field is secrecy as to personal belief and ideological investment so well regarded as journalism.
In the courts, jurors and witnesses must unburden themselves of their past relevant associations and positions before being allowed to participate.
In trading, insiders are under scrutiny, and the self-interested suspect.
In some areas of journalism, it is a sin to report on any entity with which the reporter has even a slight connection.
But political reporters and columnists recoil in horror at the prospect of a simple answer to the question: For whom did you vote.
Here’s the reason: If you gathered up the ballots from the past four presidential elections from the 1,000 most influential MSMers in print and broadcast, I guess that more than 3,600 of the ballots would have Kerry, Gore or Clinton on them.
From such a pool an objective press cannot spring.
So upon being asked, they dissemble. But they also stumble.
HH: You’ve never voted for a Republican, have you?
JA: I’m sure I have.
HH: Okay, so what I’m getting at is why not tell people? Why not just honestly say here I am. I’m Joel Achenbach in the round. I’m not trying to fool anyone. I’m not trying to smuggle politics into my humor/science column. I’m just a guy who believes in this, this, and this, and correct for the lie of the green. Why not share that out?
JA: That’s a good question. I don’t know, I don’t think that it necessarily helps if you know the political voting pattern of everyone who writes for the newspaper.
It doesn’t help the credibility of the newspaper, for sure, if all of their writers are voting left decade in and decade out.
The most interesting exchange, though, is on Joel’s guess as to the future assessment of the war from the generals who fought it:
JA: Well, let me ask you this, Hugh. Do you think when this war is all over, and the military people write their memoirs of this war, write the sort of lessons learned of Iraq, do you think that those books are going to say we did this right? Do you think that even one out of ten will say we did this right? I will guess that nine out of ten will say this thing was a fiasco. That’s what I think they’ll say.
HH: What do you base that on?
JA: That’s how…that’s just a guess. I’ll just place the bet there. I think nine out of ten. Maybe it’ll be eight out of ten. But I don’t think that many people will champion this as a well thought out plan. I think that if you’ll go back and look…
HH: But what do you base that on?
JA: Look at what Colin Powell said to Bush in that meeting that Bob Woodward reported about, where Bush tells Powell get your war uniform on. Powell says to Bush, you know, you’re going to end up owning this place, meaning all of Iraq’s problems are going to become our problems. Now Bush said, I believe it was Monday, at the press conference, the press availability at Camp David, he made the point look, this is worth it. You know, what we are doing over there is worth it. And I think it’s important for the President to make that argument. I mean, to persuade the American public that the sacrifice is worth it. But when it all…when it’s all over, and the historians go through it, that’s the question they’re also going to have to ask. Was the level of sacrifice worth it?
HH: But I want to have more of a conversation, Joel. These are honest questions, trying to plumb whether or not you have a clue what you’re talking about. Was Guadalcanal a fiasco, Joel?
JA: You mean in World War II?
HH: Absolutely it was. It was an utter and complete fiasco from the first landing…
JA: How did we get to Guadalcanal?
HH: Because I’m trying to establish fiascoes, or tactical errors, of which…
JA: How would you describe…tell me…
HH: I’m trying to help you out here.
JA: How would you describe this overall conduct of the war?
HH: No, but what you said was that nine out of ten generals will describe this as a fiasco. And I’m certain that nine out of ten generals, in fact, ten out of ten will find things upon which they might have improved, and which they wished they had done differently, whether it’s more troops at the beginning, whether it’s getting the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey so that they could engage and destroy the enemy, whether it was more quickly moving so that WMD could not be disbursed or destroyed. There are lots of second guessing. But given any kind of war, and given every fiasco, and I mean, there are much bigger fiascoes than Guadalcanal in World War II. There’s the fiasco of a training exercise off of Britain in advance of D-Day, which I believe killed more people than have died in this entire war.
JA: No, I will concede your point that in fact fiascoes…it’s a strong word. It’s also kind of the norm for any war. And I’ve been reading this Rick Atkinson book. It’s called An Army At Dawn, and it’s about the war in North Africa in World War II. And it’s a really wonderful book, and I commend it to all your listeners. It won the Pultizer Prize. He’s a Washington Post reporter. He’s since gone on to being really a historian. And the thing that’s so striking about that book is that everything goes wrong. I mean, we got…we won the war, ultimately. But everything from the supplies to the weather reports to people blowing themselves up accidentally, everything goes wrong. And I’m not saying that this is a case where what’s wrong is…I mean, obviously, in every war, your battle plan gets shredded the moment things start happening. But I’m just going to guess that the people who study this, and particularly the people who are military experts, and the generals who were there, will be very jaundiced about this war. And do you disagree with that?
HH: Yes, absolutely. I think in fact that you will find that the generals who were there by the reverse margin will agree that it was a necessary war, though at times not exactly executed as was the case. But I understood you to say nine out of ten will regret the decision to go to war. Is that what you were trying to say?
JA: No…well, I mean, I don’t think that’s what I said before. I think the decision to go to war is actually not something that a military person makes that decision. That’s a civilian decision.
HH: All right, as a civilian, then…
JA: And the military people say okay…
HH: Do you think we made the right…was it smart to go to war in Iraq, Joel Achenbach? Do you think George Bush did the right thing when he launched that invasion?
JA: Based on where I sit now, no. I think it probably was a mistake. I think that more specifically, I think if you’re going to go to war, you’ve got to have the resources to make sure that you win it, and that your casualties are as limited as possible, and your political objectives are met. And based…you know, based on where I sit, and you know, watching them, wathcing the same war you’re watching, it doesn’t look to me like the decision was the right one.
Joel begins by asserting that nine out of ten generals will one day proclaim the war a fiasco, and ends by declaring that we ought not to consult the generals on whether we should go to war.
My argument with Joel is not that humor writing is illegitimate. It isn’t. It is in fact very valuable and last –and hard to do well.
And I didn’t assert and would never assert that reporting on science is other than crucial and one of the more difficult areas of journalism.
But what I did say –again and again– is that the war isn’t really a subject into which one can drop or stop by and unload a few casual opinions as though the writer “had just seen a film and though –by God I’m not a reviewer or a critic of any sort– but I rather disliked it and thought it long.”
That sort of approach to the war allows the writer to escape the seriousness of the subject and in fact diminshes the stakes to those of just another political debate.
On the war, let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.” That doesn’t mean abandon humor or irony, or the right to change your mind.
But I think it does mean that the military and the families from which they come deserve clarity of opinion and rigor of writing effort so that those who are actually in harm’s way know what the writer is trying to say.
I note that WashingtonPost.com still does not have a milblogger who believes in the war and has experience in it. There are plenty available. It is a huge gap, far more significant than the failure to find a center-right political blogger.