Monday, May 30, 2005

The Other GWOT: Newsweek edition, pt. 2

E.J. Dionne states the obvious about the systematic right-wing assaults on the independent media:

I fear that too many people in traditional journalism are becoming dangerously defensive in the face of a brilliantly conceived conservative attack on the independent media.

Conservative academics have long attacked "postmodernist" philosophies for questioning whether "truth" exists at all and claiming that what we take as "truths" are merely "narratives" woven around some ideological predisposition. Today's conservative activists have become the new postmodernists. They shift attention away from the truth or falsity of specific facts and allegations -- and move the discussion to the motives of the journalists and media organizations putting them forward. Just a modest number of failures can be used to discredit an entire enterprise.

Of course journalists make mistakes, sometimes stupid ones. Dan Rather should not have used those wacky documents in reporting on President Bush's Air National Guard service. Newsweek has been admirably self-critical about what it sees as its own mistakes on the Guantanamo story. Anonymous sources are overused. Why quote a nameless conservative saying a particular columnist is "an idiot liberal" when many loyal right-wingers could be found to say the same thing even more colorfully on the record? If the current controversies lead to better journalism, three cheers.

But this particular anti-press campaign is not about Journalism 101. It is about Power 101. It is a sophisticated effort to demolish the idea of a press independent of political parties by way of discouraging scrutiny of conservative politicians in power. By using bad documents, Dan Rather helped Bush, not John Kerry, because Rather gave Bush's skilled lieutenants the chance to use the CBS mistake to close off an entire line of inquiry about the president. In the case of Guantanamo, the administration, for a while, cast its actions as less important than Newsweek's.

Back when the press was investigating Bill Clinton, conservatives were eager to believe every negative report about the incumbent. Some even pushed totally false claims, including the loony allegation that Clinton aide Vince Foster was somehow murdered by Clinton's apparatchiks when, in fact, Foster committed suicide. Every journalist who went after Clinton was "courageous." Anyone who opposed his impeachment or questioned even false allegations was "an apologist."

We now know that the conservatives' admiration for a crusading and investigative press carried an expiration date of Jan. 20, 2001.

When the press fails, it should be called on the carpet. But when the press confronts a politically motivated campaign of intimidation, its obligation is to resist -- and to keep reporting.

Since "conservative postmodernists" have become a bit of a meme on the part of bloggers wishing to sound clever, it's worth noting that despite wingnut claims to the contary, there was nothing particularly "leftist" about postmodernism. Indeed, it cannot be emphasized enough that even though postmodernity's assault on fixed relations and meanings and values is clearly anti-conservative in the sence that it undermines "traditional" values and all other prejudices, and even though most so-called "postmodernists" have been men and women of the left, an anti-foundationalist epistemology in no way rules out right-wing politics. Precisely this, of course, was made all the revelations of Paul de Man's wartime Nazi-sympathizing so embarassing.

The old Nietzschean insight was that once you believe in nothing in particular, you can do anything. Contemporary right-wingers have turned that proposition on its head: in order to be able to do anything, you simply argue that there is no such thing as facts, only opinions.

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