Walter Kirn, guest blogging on andrewsullivan.com:
I saw yesterday that Norman Pearlstein, an editorial honcho at Time Inc., just recently told a New York audience that the guarantee of anonymity granted to Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame kerfuffle wasn't justified by the value of the info that Rove disclosed, confirmed, or whatever. He's right, I suppose, but that's not what interests me about this whole affair, whose very presence in the news - and especially on the front pages and magazine covers and at the top of broadcast after broadcast - wasn't justified by the underlying info, as evidenced by the cessation of this coverage before most of the main issues have been resolved.
The story got the play it did, I think, because it cast the journalists involved in a coveted, heroic, old-fashioned role - as crusading truth tellers, researchers, and promise keepers. They dig for the facts, and as they dig they stand up to the highest powers that be, meanwhile putting their words of honor on the line as a way of reassuring anxious sources. This is a flattering notion in a period when the reality is just the opposite.
What big-time Washington journalists largely do these days, in my experience, is to get as close as possible to power, socially and in every other way, while maintaining the legal fiction that they aren't implicated in its workings. They send their kids to school with power's kids, they marry it, they go to parties with it, they jabber with it on the phone, they watch the game with it from adjoining seats, and, as a natural result, they keep its confidences - until, that is, some secret leaks out anyway and they have to pretend that they didn't already know it but will get to the bottom of it immediately or that they knew it all along and just weren't telling their audiences because they were bound by some lofty code of ethics that allows them to do the jobs they rarely do. They're profound double-dealers, is what I'm saying, who pay for their access, influence, and by going along and getting along until it's simply too embarrassing not to. They reserve their best stories for one another, publishing them only when they have to and feeling very nervous when they do, because it might screw up the Great Arrangement. And afterwards, once the secrets are on the street, it often comes out that they were common knowledge among the people whose jobs it was to tell them.
Quick story. In the mid 1980s I went to a fancy Fifth Avenue party for Senator Ted Kennedy. There were journalists there and lots of other bigwigs. The only time I'd seen Kennedy before was at a campaign stop in 1979 when he'd been seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He might have won, but I realized at the party that it would have been a terrible thing because he was the drunkest human being I had ever encountered in my life, and chances were that it hadn't just started that night. Sure, he already had this reputation, but it was a vague reputation, all myth and gossip, while the intoxicated wreck in front of me was as vivid and specific as a car wreck. How many thousands of times, I wondered, had such behavior as I was witnessing been quietly countenanced by journalists, and how much other wild, scary stuff pertaining to other movers and shakers who had a shot at ruling the free world, say, had they deftly slipped into their back pockets in return for the right to attend such parties as this one?
I was a kid then, in my early twenties, and I couldn't answer that question. Now I'm older, I've seen more, and I can. A certain kind of job in journalism can only be kept if its holder, for the most part, refrains from doing it.- posted by Walter