Monday, April 20, 2009

Masked And Anonymous

A decision made by The Politico's Mike Allen to allow an anonymous former Bush administration official free rein to both levy attacks on the Obama administration for the release of the OLC torture memos and brandish unsubtantiated claims as self-evident truths touched off the ire of Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald last week.

Sullivan was pretty brutal, asking (rhetorically, I suppose), "What journalistic standard is Allen following in allowing such a person to speak anonymously? And how much lower can he sink in craving buzz and traffic? And then Greenwald basically went on a multiplatform tear, assailing Allen on both Salon and his Twitter account. Greenwald's Twitter attacks got noticed -- they prompted the first post to Allen's Twitter account in over a month, and led to him penning an article that attempted to justify the inclusion of the quote (and which reimagined the monolithic left as containing only Sullivan and Greenwald, as if perfectly mainstream people wouldn't object to this anonymous slag).

Well, reading his justification piece cause my eyes to pop, mainly for this paragraph:

I figured that readers could decide whether the former Bush official's comments sounded defensive or vindictive. And POLITICO readers aren't so delicate that we have to deceptively pretend there's no other side to a major issue. So at the bottom of the Axelrod story, I tacked on an ellipsized excerpt of the former Bush official's quotes, removing several ad hominem attacks on Obama. I quoted less than half of the comment and took out the most incendiary parts -- a way to hint at the opposing view without giving an anonymous source free rein. I also added a final sentence with additional White House perspective, so the former Bush official wouldn't have the last word.
Greenwald, in response, captured what made my gorge rise:

I find that paragraph so perfect in its illogic and self-negation that I have come to cherish it in some perverse way. Allen's excuse for anonymity was that readers could decide for themselves whether the anonymous Bush criticisms "sounded defensive or vindictive." But he then confesses that he edited out "the most incendiary parts," including "several ad hominems." So, like a good servant-editor, he first helpfully sanitized the Bush official's smears by making them appear more sober and substantive than they actually were -- by removing all the parts that reflected vindictiveness towards Obama -- and then justified the anonymity he granted by saying he wanted readers to see for themselves if the criticisms of Obama's decision were grounded in vindictiveness. He evidently confessed all of that without realizing that his actions completely negate his claimed justification.
Exactly. If the issue here is how to properly allow the reader insight into the character of this critic, you have to actually do that. Here, Allen intimates that the critic is obviously a spewer of invective. But if that gets edited out, we're missing the most critical thing about the tenor of the criticism! This is servility, masquerading as service.

Still, Glenn is being kind, because he leaves two clean shots on the table:

1. One of the issues here, to me, is that Obama has had some high profile critics from the previous administration -- Cheney and Rove come to mind -- who have lately basked in and dined out on the heaps of attacks they've laid on him, to which they have signed their name. And the press has earned their coin, broadcasting their criticism. But now, these memos are in the news, front and center. And they are casting broad implications of widespread, institutionally-approved wrongdoing. And guess what? Those same institutional mouthpieces -- the same big-dick-swingers who couldn't wait to put their autographed criticisms out there -- are all hiding behind Mike Allen's moleskine. Again, this speaks to their character! The character of sadistic cowards, specifically!

2. Really. Why run ANY OF THIS COMMENTARY if it's off the record? If this was worth publishing at all, some attempt should have been made to make this anonymous critic nut up and own his words. As it is, they add very little of import, other than to remind readers that Mike Allen, reporter, has cultivated important sources.

My question is this: these former administration officials don't hold the keys of power or the bully pulpit anymore. They're no longer on the supply side of the journalistic access equation. So why does Mike Allen have to act like they've got leverage?

This whole sorry chapter belongs in a high school scientific primer on invertebrates.

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