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Harpers v. the Blogger's Roundtable; The Left v. Petraeus

Posted By Grim • [July 21, 2007]

Ken Silverstein at Harper's Magazine has published an attack on the Pentagon's "Blogger Roundtables," to which I suppose I ought to respond.  I'll start with his summation.

Before these bloggers start to complain that they’ve done nothing wrong, I’d like to ask how they would feel if a group of handpicked, administration-friendly liberal bloggers had done the same thing during the Clinton years. I believe they would have objected vociferously–and I would have agreed with them. No one, on any side, should let themselves be used to spread the administration’s gospel. At least not anyone who can pretend to journalistic standards.

Mr. Silverstein didn't read far into these writings before he decided it was about "parroting" the administration; I recall David Axe titled one of his posts about a Blogger's Roundtable "Lies my leaders told me." (BlackFive.net's response to that same discussion is here.)  But that, of course, is not the point.

Mr. Silverstein is a professional journalist, and is here mostly attempting to defend his guild.  There is, Black Five readers well know, no weight to the charge that these Roundtables are about parroting Administration anything.  For the one thing, we don't talk to Administration officials, but to career military men.  The journalist is the one in error, by treating career servicemen as if they were political figures.  The journalist is also in error by suggesting that it is a disservice to the public to let the public read the actual words of military officers, instead of our filtered narrative.  We ask them questions, often questions that readers have asked us to ask them; then we post the transcript, and readers can judge for themselves.

"You're not a real journalist" is his way of saying "only professionals like me should be allowed to talk to high officials, not uncredentialed folks like you."  This is about protecting the idea that "the press" has a special status or stature, and that mere bloggers or citizens do not deserve access to important people.  That should be reserved for the journalists, the gatekeepers of our Republic.

In a sense that is highly amusing.  I am delighted by the idea that I might wish to "pretend to journalistic standards," as if that were some high and fine thing to which I ought to aspire.  Let me illustrate what I mean:  if military operational security secrets came into my possession, I would feel none of the tension that journalists claim to feel between printing the story and protecting national secrets.  I notice that this "tension" is almost always resolved in favor of printing the secrets; but for me it would not exist.  What I would do with those secrets is what a citizen ought to do with them -- which would not include publishing them for the convenience of our enemies. 

I feel an actual, personal loyalty to our fighting men on the ground.  They protect us:  the loyalty works both ways.  In other words, I am not a journalist.  I am an American citizen, engaged in our healthy national debate.  I don't need credentials for that; and if the price of the credentials is adopting some sort of "neutrality" between America and her enemies, I don't want them. 

Again, we don't talk to Bush or administration figures.  We talk to military officers, who are brother Americans and who have taken the same oaths to our Constitution that we have, at points in our lives, also sworn.  I'll give America's military men a voice and a platform to talk directly to Americans anytime they want it.  They are also citizens, and have every right to speak directly to me or to any other citizen they choose.  Whether speaking in an official capacity of their office, or as a private citizen, they owe absolutely nothing to "the profession of journalism."

But I notice that Mr. Silverstein's attack is only one prong of a two-pronged attack on the US military coming this week from left-wing journalists.  The other wing is an attack on General Petraeus, whose thoughts on the effectiveness of the Surge must be discredited by the Left for explicitly political purposes.  This was brought to my attention by The Commissar, who may be the most manful blogger writing today. 

The response, and an education in the true nature of blogs, in the extended entry.

As some of you will know, The Commissar was a pro-war blogger in the early days of the war, one who later decided that the Iraq war was a mistake, and became unabashedly anti-war (and anti-Bush).  A deeply thoughtful man, however, he engaged the discussion over several months with bloggers like myself and former Special Forces blogger BloodSpite of Technography.  He is everything I ask in a political opponent:  thoughtful and well educated in military science.  As a result, he not only knew about and had read, but was impressed by the new COIN manual.  He remained anti-war, but knew enough to see that real changes were underway.

When the initial statistics began to come in from the execution of the new COIN policy, The Commissar said the most impressive thing I've ever heard a blogger say:  'I admit that the truth of many questions of current events is not clear to me; so instead, for a time, I'm going to convert this blog to the study of the classics of ancient Greek.'  He has begun a remarkable series on the Anabasis, Xenophon's epic tale of how he and ten thousand Greek mercenaries were on the losing side of a civil war in Persia, and had to fight their way home.  I recommend it to you all.

Nevertheless, he does offer occasional posts on topics of the day.  As an education in "new media" for our Mr. Silverstein, or other journalists who may come this way, I'm going to reprint an entire comment thread below.  Perhaps after reading it, they will understand what blogging is actually about -- not journalism in their sense, but about free citizens engaged in a robust debate about the nature and proper function of our democracies.

Those who are only interested in the attack on Petraeus should skip to comment 13, where that part of the debate begins.  The initial discussion is on the nature and role of the citizen.

    1. Grim wrote:

      There are really only two things to know about [Matt Yglesias]. The first is that he considers the American Revolution a sorrow for the world; and the second, that he was born an American and has had every advantage of his nation, up to and including a Harvard education (which, sad to say, isn’t the advantage it was a hundred years ago).

      In keeping with your new theme, I think Plato captured the sense of what a man like that owes his country in the Phaedo.

    2. rachel wrote:

      Gee, Grim. From your dark hinting I was expecting an anti-American screed, but this:

      In that light, it seems to me that while the Revolution should not be condemned, it is something to be regretted: a failure of Imperial policy and an inability of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to work out some thorny governance and burden-sharing issues. Not much of an occassion for fireworks.

      Seems more like a common-sensical regret expressed by somebody who actually studied the history of the American Revolution. Remember, the Americans were loyal subjects of King George III until his (and Parliament’s) obstinate folly goaded them past patience. and when he suggests that a united empire of Britain, Canada and the USA would have stopped Hitler much sooner, he’s probably right.

    3. DavidC wrote:

      Seems more like a common-sensical regret expressed by somebody who actually studied the history of the American Revolution.

      Actually it sounds more like wild unfounded speculation based on a historical “what if.” If the American Revolution had not occurred there’s no telling what the world situation might have been like by 1939.

      when he suggests that a united empire of Britain, Canada and the USA would have stopped Hitler much sooner, he’s probably right.

      Again, ridiculous speculation on all counts. There’s a 160+ years between the American Revolution and the start of World War 2 to account for. It’s equally possible, since we are speculating, to concoct a scenario wherein the absence of a strong, independent U.S. leads to the crushing defeat of the Allies in WW2.

    4. Grim wrote:

      It sounds to me like somebody who thinks that the principles of the Founders are dispensable; which is a fine principle for a Canadian, but an unworthy and unfit one for an American who has enjoyed every advantage of his nation. He ought to have learned to love her above all, and her history and traditions. That he has not done so points to a basic moral failing in his character, one that I hope age and experience will help him overcome.

      One notes that, in the British system he prefers, the rights of men are not guaranteed except by tradition, unlike in the Constitutional system where they are codified. There are no formal limits on the power of government; and no notion underlying the system that mankind is equal in creation, and made up of people who have a right to be free of Kings, or to constitute new governments in response to tyranny.

      The American Declaration of Independence relied on an earlier declaration, that of Arbroath, which was likewise a rejection of English tyranny (Edward’s instead of George’s). The English have proven good at inspiring men to think about liberty — the Magna Carta being another example of a reaction against their tyrants, this time John, who managed to inspire his barons to rebellion and his yeomanry to create similarly inspiring tales in the legend of Robin Hood.

      All of those documents are compelling and admirable, and they all point to a longing in a single direction: to depart from the Greek for the Latin of the Declaration of Arbroath, “Non enim propter gloriam, diuicias aut honores pugnamus set propter libertatem solummodo quam Nemo bonus nisi simul *** vita amittit.”

      That is, “It is not for glory nor honors nor riches that we fight, but for freedom alone: for that freedom that no good man lays down but with his life.” The American calling is to defend that principle, as it is expressed in our Declaration of Independence and in the best traditions of our nation. We are free men — free, even as Yglesias, to turn aside from that duty. We are also free to despise him for his choices.

    5. canuckistani wrote:

      which is a fine principle for a Canadian, but an unworthy and unfit one for an American who has enjoyed every advantage of his nation

      One notes that, in the British system he prefers, the rights of men are not guaranteed except by tradition, unlike in the Constitutional system where they are codified. There are no formal limits on the power of government; and no notion underlying the system that mankind is equal in creation, and made up of people who have a right to be free of Kings, or to constitute new governments in response to tyranny.

      So which of us lives in a country with a right of habeus corpus, and which lives in a country where citizens can be declared “enemy combatants” and jailed and tortured in offshore prisons at the pleasure of the President?

    6. Grim wrote:

      One of us lives in a country in which habeus corpus is formally protected in this fashion: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”

      That would appear to suggest that the right is being correctly protected: those who are engaged in either rebellion (i.e., an American joining a movement that aims at the actual destruction of the American government) or invasion (i.e., a foreigner entering the country with the intention of carrying out acts of war) are not protected by it.

      That, too, is the outer limit of the argument — the courts are considering even tighter limits on how that provision of our Constitution may be applied. We shall see how it turns out, but it is clearly the case that the government takes the issue as seriously as the Constitution demands, and is considering what limits that document imposes on its power to address the problem of international terrorism.

      As I said, a Canadian is right to love his country and its traditions, as we are right to love ours. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Canada at all; I just mean that, if you are born an American, and grow up enjoying every advantage your country has to offer, it is rank ingratitude to regret she ever existed.

    7. commissar wrote:

      Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

    8. Grim wrote:

      Well, as I said, it fits right into your new theme — it’s an excellent segue into the Phaedo. Since we’re talking about Classical Greek concepts, here’s one that was quite important to them: the duty of a citizen.

    9. canuckistani wrote:

      That would appear to suggest that the right is being correctly protected: those who are engaged in either rebellion (i.e., an American joining a movement that aims at the actual destruction of the American government) or invasion (i.e., a foreigner entering the country with the intention of carrying out acts of war) are not protected by it.

      2 problems -
      1) We aren’t talking about those engaged in rebellion, we are talking about those who are accused of engaging in rebellion
      2) This:

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

      That’s “all men”, not “all citizens not engaged in rebellion”

      A written constitution isn’t any good if you don’t pay attention to what it says. You may as well live in the USSR, where they had the best bill of rights anywhere which only applied to law-abiding citizens.

      Or in some Persian monarchy with an absolute king.

      Yes, I know it’s the Declaration of Independence and not the Constitution. But the priciple is the same isn’t it?

      Sorry commissar, politics is still seething beneath the surface here. I’ll be good now.

    10. commissar wrote:

      It’s fine, Canuck.

      I’m still interested in politics, and at times even have something to say. Have at it. :)

    11. Grim wrote:

      No, the principle isn’t the same. The Declaration of Independence was a statement of grievances and intentions; the Constitution was a functional document laying out how to create and protect a space in which liberty can flourish.

      That second type of document is necessary if the ideas are going to be more than ideas, if they are instead to be made real in the world. A space for liberty has to be won, and it has to be defended. Within those walls, men can be free, because they are protected from the world without.

      You must, however, use all necessary force to prevent those walls from being torn down. This is true whether the attempt to destroy the Constitutional order is coming from within, or from without.

      Thus, “invasion” and “rebellion” constitute two special cases that threaten the whole project. They are not like normal crimes in that they threaten to collapse the space in which men can be free. For that reason, the Founders rightly recognized that those cases require a different set of responses from the responses used to address normal crimes. They included the exceptions in the Constitution. Far from ignoring the document, we are applying it.

      We disagree at times on just what the document requires, which is why we have several court cases about those questions. We will eventually reach a resolution of the questions, however, and that resolution will be applied. You should not allow the heated quality of the rhetoric between Americans to confuse you on the subject. The fact that some Americans are screaming “The Constitution is being ignored!” doesn’t make it so. The maximal argument being put forward by Bush etc. is in fact a perfectly reasonable reading of that clause of the Constitution I cited. Other arguments are also reasonable readings. We’re debating, in our courts, which reading is the right one. There is no chance, however, of us adopting a reading that is plainly unconstitutional — indeed, there isn’t one on the table.

      You should not doubt American devotion to the Constitutional order. Except, of course, for Americans who feel the whole project is a mistake… but thankfully, they rarely appear outside of places like Harvard. Americans as a whole have a reverence for the Founders and the Constitution, and many of us have formally sworn an oath to protect and defend it against its enemies.

      I think Socrates would have approved. I think he would have approved of the whole argument, in fact: that freedom requires winning and defending a space in the world; that tyranny is to be resisted; that serious debates about the proper role of the government are to be resolved through debate; and that, in spite of the heated nature of those debates, a citizen owes love and service to the home that reared him, educated him, and defends the space in which he prospers.

    12. Grim wrote:

      I should have written, “disagreements about the proper role of the government are to be resolved through debate,” above. But you understand what I mean.

      This may also help you understand the particular vehemence I have for anti-patriots like Yglesias. For liberals who love the American project as much as I do, I have a deep and true respect. We disagree about many things, but I know that we are equally devoted to protecting and upholding the space in which our liberty flourishes. We are true countrymen, who will fight for each other.

      It is only for anti-patriots that I have real disdain, for the ones who are actually opposed to the American project itself, or who feel it is sad for the world that there is an America. Even then, I have true disdain only for the ones like Yglesias, who have reached their antipatriotism on a road of privilege. They have had all the best, and do not say: “Thank you fathers, and brothers, for these special gifts of freedom and plenty; and now let us hold these gifts for our children.”

      They say instead, “Hmph. It could have been better.”

    13. commissar wrote:

      Grim,

      Many of the lefties, including people I generally find reasonable (John Cole, Andrew Sullivan, Steve Benen) are raking Petraus over the coals for appearing on Hewitt’s radio show. I dunno. What do you think?

    14. Grim wrote:

      Why shouldn’t he talk to Hugh? It’s not like he only talks to Hugh. If he weren’t willing to talk to anyone except Hugh Hewitt and Rush Limbaugh, I could see an argument that he wasn’t willing to take hard questions, or whatever; but he and his fellow generals hold press conferences at least weekly.

      I think the military is increasingly interested in new media: the office of the SECDEF (OSD or OASD, depending on who you ask) has opened an office to deal with new media outlets. It’s run by a guy named Jack Holt, who’s a good lad, and offers bloggers regular access to general officers, colonels, sergeants major, and so forth. I talked to Gen. Holmes this morning on one of their roundtables, and Gen. Bergner last week.

      They are mostly interested in the military bloggers because (as Bergner said in the last conversation) we’re the ones with the background to understand their answers. The problem with the press (and the Congress, to a large degree) is that their membership has little grounding in military science or military history. As a result, communicating with them is a problem, as they don’t appreciate the importance of what you’re saying, and you don’t know what gaps they have in their understanding until they print their article (and the correction, if you can get one, shows up on page A25 or whatever).

      Milblogs are a useful way to talk to Americans through bloggers who really can understand what’s being said in the half-hour the general has to talk to the press (what with that war they have going on and all), and who can then convey that information to readers with the appropriate background explained.

      I think Hugh’s show is similar in that regard. He seems to understand what is going on far better than most of the journalists and even many new-media writers today (for example, the folks at Pandagon, who reduced the strategy of the new COIN manual to “?”). So, yeah, of course Petraeus would want to talk to him and his audience. Why not?

    15. commissar wrote:

      If he weren’t willing to talk to anyone except Hugh Hewitt and Rush Limbaugh, I could see an argument

      I think that’s the beef. Allegedly he hasn’t appeared on Meet the Press.

    16. canuckistani wrote:

      The beef is that Fox News is widely regarded as the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, and that the appearance of a senior military figure there is seen as military interference in civilian affairs - i.e. endorsing the political line expounded by Fox.

      (ed. — I assume canuckistani means “Hewitt.”)

    17. Grim wrote:

      Well, “he hasn’t appeared on the particular tv show Meet the Press” isn’t quite the same thing as “he won’t meet with the press.” The guy holds regular news conferences with the press himself, and has also deputies whose job it is to do little else but take questions from the press and get answers for them.

      But let’s talk about the military interference in civilian affairs problem. Where does that come from?

      It comes from here: the President says that the war is showing progress; the Senate Majority Leader says the war “is lost,” and the Surge has “failed.” That is now a political question, and political questions are to be handled (in the American system) by the civilian branches of government.

      Yet it isn’t only a political question. It’s also a factual question, one that is susceptible to empirical evidence. Petraeus is the guy who is best positioned to explicate that evidence. He has his own view, which he has clearly advocated on his own, that the surge is working, and that our COIN policies are producing a “sea change” in Iraq.

      As far as I know, he’s arrived to that conclusion based on observation of actual conditions in the field. His observations are in agreement with everyone I’ve talked to in Iraq, from Marine sergeants in Anbar to Army Corps of Engineers officials in rebuilding projects. I don’t think Petraeus is trying to sway the civilian debate for political reasons, but trying to get the facts out.

      He’s tried to get them out through traditional media outlets — like I said, he has a PAO who does little else. He has deputies who do little else. That’s their full time job. So he’s tried talking to them.

      If he wants to try some of the new media outlets too — to see if they’re a better method of getting the facts out, to answer the factual question of whether the Surge is working — why shouldn’t he do so? Why shouldn’t he talk to the American people in whatever mode seems to work best?

      The goal is to communicate the facts. Nothing gives Helen Thomas or Meet The Press a special monopoly on being the conduit. They’re not constitutional officers; they’re creatures of the free market.

      So yes, there is a political question here, and the military has to be very careful to ’stay in its lane.’ On the other hand, there is also a factual question. The general has every right to communicate the facts to the American people using whatever means is most efficient. Hewitt let the general speak for himself, and then the transcript went to the blogs, who carried the General’s actual, full-text remarks to the most engaged citizens.

      That’s pretty efficient service — and it’s service that determines who wins in the market. If the guys on MTP want to have a sinecure, they can run for office like everybody else. Otherwise, they have to compete on the basis of the quality of their services — even with journalists who happen to be Republicans.

    18. DavidC wrote:

      The beef is that Fox News is widely regarded as the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, and that the appearance of a senior military figure there is seen as military interference in civilian affairs - i.e. endorsing the political line expounded by Fox.

      Yes, if you are left-winger. Otherwise Fox is regarded as a news channel that is generally pro-Republican and leans right, as the other channels are generally pro-Democrat and lean left. Left-wing sniveling about Fox never ceases to amaze me.


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