A few months ago, I helped with a project connected to one of my kids' extracurricular activities. There were about 15 parents on the project, which, to keep from embarrassing my kids and getting punched in the face, I'll call "building the communal breadbox." At first, breadbox construction seemed a potentially enjoyable activity. There were piles of wood, wood screws to drive and plenty of the cordless electric drills that make those satisfying "frrrrrip" noises. We were working outside, and it was a sunny day in beautiful Santa Barbara.
But it turned into an awful day, mostly for one reason: The guy appointed by the unseen powers that be to run the project was the kind of self-confident, cheerful, authoritarian incompetent who so often winds up running the show, for no apparent reason. You remember former FEMA director Michael Brown? The "Brownie" who was doing "a helluva job" at disaster relief right after Hurricane Katrina hit, until he was sent back to Washington in disgrace a few days later?
The director of breadbox building was the Brownie of volunteer activities. He pretended he had carefully programmed what was actually a disorderly mess, pushed for silly and complicated solutions to simple problems, kept the easy and fun tasks for himself and then, when he was tired of ordering people around in ways that were often nonsensical, disappeared, while the rest of us did the work.
I'm telling you about the breadbox director not because he was abnormal but because he's standard issue — and not just for my kid's project. The confident, incompetent, political toady-in-charge has become a given of American culture. Another given: For the most part, the people who actually have expertise, the smartest folks in the room (the real ones, not the Enron kind), sit on the sidelines, muttering and rolling their eyes, while the Brownies make their messes, only to be replaced with other Brownies. It's the way of the world.
It shouldn't be, of course, at least not in the United States of Meritocracy, where the best and brightest are supposed to serve the general welfare, and institutional checks and balances are expected to offset any bad actors who slip in and appoint toadies to mismanage the show. But the checks aren't stopping anyone in government from doing almost anything nowadays, the balances haven't been calibrated for three decades or so, and the best and brightest are — far too often — rolling their eyes, muttering and running off to make their own personal pile, before the bad guys take it all.
The Bush administration marks the apotheosis of toady leadership in modern American history; malleable appointees who have no problem with hidden agendas have thrived, while people of competence and honor have had their eyelashes pulled out (viz. Gen. Eric Shinseki, kicked into the corner for having the temerity to suggest it would take far more troops than originally deployed to occupy Iraq).
Having reported for a decade in Texas, where government hews closer to the banana republic model than to anything that might be considered small-d democratic, I'm unsurprised by the rise of bootlicking bureaucrats in a Texan presidency. Unimaginative über-fidelity has been a bipartisan Lone Star tradition at least since the days of LBJ, who described his notion of a presidential aide this way: "I don't want loyalty. I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy's window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket."
Former White House Counsel and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been a standout among the current crop of Texas sycophants, cheerfully helping provide the legal underpinnings for the U.S. government to violate the human rights of terrorism suspects. Along the way, Gonzales presided over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006 for what appears to be an ugly political goal: making sure that U.S. attorneys would use their prosecutorial powers to advance the interests of Republican office-seekers by smearing their Democratic opponents via phony ethics investigations. I bring up the U.S. attorneys imbroglio not because it was the worst activity of the Gonzales period but because it illustrates how poorly one check on governmental malfeasance — the press — has performed, particularly in terms of timeliness.
J. Edgar Hoover and John Mitchell to one side, the U.S. Justice Department hasn't often spent a lot of time trying to perpetuate indefinitely the hold of one political party on power. A subversion of everything the department should stand for would seem to be juicy fare for the watchdogs of the press. Eventually, it's true, the news media got around to dealing with the disappearing federal prosecutors.
But the organization that made the story happen wasn't one of the storied giants of American journalism but a couple of small Web sites put out by Joshua Micah Marshall and a few reporter/bloggers and research interns. Marshall won a coveted George Polk Award earlier this year for his work on the U.S. attorneys scandal, with the judges in the contest saying that his sites, Talking Points Memo and its sister, TPM Muckraker, "led the news media in coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country. ... Marshall's tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales."
Indeed, Marshall and company performed admirably, but five or six people putting out a couple of Web sites do not constitute the journalistic bulwark we expect to protect us from official aggrandizement and oppression. And as the major press slept, there was another watchdog missing from the hunt in the U.S. attorneys scandal: the legal profession.
While Gonzales failed to remember his way through congressional hearing after congressional hearing, some of the very smartest kids in the class — the people who run law schools and bar associations — were notable for failing to make noise. Unless, of course, they were publicly defiling themselves, as the American Bar Association did when its ABA Journal named Gonzales its 2007 Lawyer of the Year. After a few days of general outrage, the ABA changed its award, touting Gonzales merely as the legal newsmaker of the year.
This, from the people who should have been investigating Gonzales' fitness to hold a law license.
When I say the major press dozed as the Bush administration dramatically extended its powers, I do not mean to sound like some mad blogger, denouncing the mainstream media as corrupted protectors of wealth, power and whomever or whatever else the mad bloggers happen to think the MSM is in the tank for these days. I have been a beat reporter and an enterprise reporter at daily newspapers and know how hard both those jobs are. Finding out what's actually going on in the halls of power, documenting it in a way that will stand up to legal scrutiny and then trying to write a story that will persuade and impress harried editors can be exhausting and, at times, fruitless. It's easy to say the Bush administration lied about intelligence to gain support for an invasion of Iraq. Even today, it's hard to prove the statement in a way that will convince those who don't already sing in your choir.
With those caveats, I do think it's settled that the press has done less well than it should have at speaking truth to the Bush administration's power; even the mighty New York Times has acknowledged its shortcomings in the run-up to the Iraq war. As is usual when the press admits error, panel discussions have proliferated. Mea culpas have been offered; promises to do better have been sworn.
But I have not seen any real attempt to get a handle on how the media might be on better guard the next time the forces of calamity gather. After all, it's not as if all the smart and experienced journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and countless other fine institutions tried to be wrong or late about weapons of mass destruction and subprime mortgages. They just were.
Charlie Peters, the legendary founding editor of The Washington Monthly magazine, thinks reporters and editors who are focused on the right things can help avert disaster. To help them focus, the nonprofit he heads, Understanding Government, is sponsoring a $50,000 award for preventive journalism, defined as "reporting that identifies inept leaders, wrong-headed policies and bureaucratic bungling before they lead to disasters like the bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the travesty that was the response to Katrina."
I asked Peters whether he thought another journalism award — albeit with a big cash stipend — would actually make the press more proactive. "I think we've seen in the entries we've received some modest indication that indeed that has happened," he says, expressing the hope that publicity when the award is announced this fall will increase awareness. Still, Peters acknowledges that for in-depth, preventive journalism to flower, there need to be reporters who value the work, editors who support it and a sophisticated public that demands it. "I'm afraid right now we're pretty short on all three counts," he says.
Another recent entry in the high-dollar journalism awards field, the Grantham Prize, offers $75,000 for excellence in environmental journalism. It's funded by the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment and administered by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, housed at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography.
The Metcalf Institute doesn't just run a journalism award; it holds workshops for journalists, hosts nine-month fellowships that train minority reporters in science and science reporting and puts on an annual public lecture series on environmental and science journalism. Perhaps most important, last year the institute invited top news executives from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many other news organizations to workshops where some of the world's leading climate scientists explained global warming. Metcalf Executive Director Sunshine Menezes says the institute uses surveys and looks at the journalism that fellows produce, before and after Metcalf training, to try to assess the effectiveness of its programs. She acknowledges the tracking system is less than comprehensive but does see one clear victory.
"There was one very solid and impressive response that we had to that roundtable: Carolyn Washburn, editor of [The] Des Moines Register, moderated a Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses, a couple months after participating in our roundtable," Menezes wrote in an e-mail. "She asked the first question in any of the Republican debates about climate change, and her question came directly from our program. Needless to say, we were thrilled to see that.
"Aside from very tailored workshops like that one, though, it is very difficult to assess impacts, and proper assessment would require resources that we just don't have. I think this is a master's project waiting to happen."
As do I.
Even if admirable programs like Peters' and Menezes' organizations wholesale to the need for more in-depth, prevention-oriented reportage on complex subjects, the nation's major media will, I predict, continue to miss stories that are complicated, technical and/or nonvisual. The media alone will also be an insufficient check on seeming incompetence that is actually a cover for governmental overreach. Even armies of news reporters could not balance the wild proliferation of Brownies, Albertos and Julies who staff the government and sometimes seem willing to forget almost anything in service of their patrons and protectors.
By Julie, I mean Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary in charge of undermining the U.S. Department of the Interior. You'll meet her in a few pages, about 80 percent of the way through Hal Herring's fiercely indignant opinion piece about the depredations of the environment authorized by the Bush administration during a recent natural gas drilling boom across the western U.S. She did an enormous number of things a deputy assistant secretary of the Interior ought not do, from rewriting scientific reports to bullying her staff. MacDonald finally resigned last year, but it's not as if there aren't plenty of others of her ilk in supervisory positions across the Bush Interior Department. The press just isn't equipped, on its own, to unmask them all, particularly in this Internet age of shrinking newsrooms.
But the experts — in environmental science, economics, geology, biology and the many other disciplines whose research intersects with the activities of the (for one example) Interior Department — certainly are.
In recent decades, what many other countries call the intelligentsia hasn't served as much of a force in American politics and governance. Although there has been a shuffling in and out of usual suspects from the Ivy League, the political powers that be have largely ignored and/or derided the academy, even when the powers weren't named Bush. The Clinton administration, for example, was a lot more interested in keeping Bubba on board than in solidifying the egghead vote. This is not a new phenomenon; from Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) to Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008), American contempt for the professorial class has been well-documented.
I suppose I could issue a rousing call here for professors, scientific researchers, top university administrators and other experts to man the barricades and wade into public life. But I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for such an unlikely happenstance. Instead, I'll make a couple of small and simple suggestions. Consider them my message to the smartest kids in the class, particularly the ones who stayed on at university to make a career of research.
Journalists may oversimplify, get things wrong and treat academic researchers like dreamy eggheads bereft of all common sense. They may, in fact, often be as peacock-ignorant as any Brownie or Alberto. But the greatest proportion of the reporters I've known in my 30 years in the business went into their ill-paid line of work for the same reasons most research professors went into their undercompensated profession: out of a belief in the truth and a dedication to the general good. The academy and the press are natural allies; unfortunately, neither knows very well how to be one. But true experts — actual masters of learning — ought to be able to teach themselves how to befriend a journalist or two who might help get solidly researched solutions for the country's major problems to an audience beyond the university library. (Hint: Spanish wine is cheap and a good icebreaker.)
The smartest kids in the class might also consider writing more often for a popular audience themselves. I know that researchers who promote their ideas in or to mainstream media are sometimes looked down on by colleagues who consider such activity to constitute pandering that requires dumbing down the research. I edit a magazine dedicated to the proposition that those colleagues are wrong. Take a look at this month's cover story, "Derailing the Boondoggle," and let me know whether you think the research of Danish professor Bent Flyvbjerg panders — or holds out the promise of saving taxpayers a lot of money. You might also ask yourself whether it might, just possibly, undermine a political toady or three, somewhere down the line.
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