Media life seems to have turned into one long cannibal feast, a fratricidal Thanksgiving dinner minus the giving of thanks. No sooner have we finished dining out on roast Judith Miller with stuffing than we are ready for a nice, big slice of Bob Woodward pie.
Now that everyone's a moralist, all mistakes are outrages. It's born of the desperation of Big Journalism's realization that it has lost control. Mainstream Media are trapped in the pincer assaults of the fact-free ethical anarchy of the blogosphere and the cynicism of quarterly profit-driven conglomerates enslaved to entertainment values. No one wants to be caught without a chair when the music stops.
Remember Dan Rather, the ghost of journalism past? He got it in the neck for the National Guard blunder from all ends -- the blogs, the administration, the media and then his own CBS colleagues. The old elephant culled by the herd.
Contrary to some of the postings from the grassy knoll, I believe Woodward when he says he didn't think the leak he heard about Valerie Plame's job was important at the time. He probably did see it as gossip, somewhere between macho knowingness and just another routine drive-by shooting from the Bush crowd. The problem is that when Woodward hears political gossip it's not a couple of lowly hacks at the office water cooler -- it's a transaction between one Big Beast at the heart of the power jungle and another. He hoarded the info for some larger reportorial purpose because that's what Big Beasts do. They don't waste time fiddling around with the quotidian crumbs from the dish of the day when they're aiming to haul in the big, fat story we'll all be chewing on for months.
True, going on TV to make oracular pronouncements declaring Patrick Fitzgerald a "junkyard dog" was unfortunate. But navigating the porous demands of living as a Human Brand instead of a human being gets more complex every day. The Bush administration's negative halo is so toxic now it extends to everyone who gets within five feet of it.
All the ranting about Woodward's journalistic ethics, however, is a displacement of anger against the real sources, so to speak, of the public's misery. Unable to get rid of the real origin of abusive power, the media set fire to yet another messenger.
Woodward works from home! Sometimes Woodward's editors don't hear from him for months! Woodward gets to write books without taking a leave! Woodward knows everybody! Everybody knows Woodward! Time to send Woodward to the woodpile! It must be the crowning irritation to smaller woodland animals that once again the Big Beast knew the name of a prime leaker before anyone else -- and that, once again, he wasn't talking till he was good and ready.
Fitzgerald is understandably focused on official sources -- in his narrative, they're the perps -- but the obsession with sources is a distraction in the conversation about journalism. "Sources" often reveal useful things, but the revelations mostly come after it's too late to avoid the disasters they retrospectively illuminate: the secret deal at Suez in 1956, the phony evidence for the supposed Tonkin Gulf attacks, who was to blame for the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland -- and the absence of any significant WMD in Iraq or any meaningful Saddam-Osama connection. Finding the truth about complex matters has to be set in motion by competent reporters (usually plural) who must find independent validation, as the best of them do. It was a revealing assumption voiced by Miller when she explained her fallacious WMD stories in the New York Times with "If your sources are wrong, you are wrong."
On a deeper level, many serious journalists and dutiful Democrats find it painful to contemplate the inadequacies of their own performances leading up to the ill-prepared invasion of Iraq. George Packer's compelling new book "The Assassins' Gate" is a fresh reminder of how recklessly the Pentagon rejected out of hand the military's advice on troop level, and the State Department's detailed post-invasion plans.
It's not just tragic; it's embarrassing. Erstwhile war advocates feel bamboozled, bullied, led by the nose -- as much by hype and mood as by phony facts. They're right to deplore the alleged manipulation of prewar intelligence, but they know it's also a handy cover story for what they worry now was, in part, their own lack of rigor, their own political cowardice, their own blinkered ideology.
The amazing thing is the lack of any matching angst or humble reassessment inside the Bush administration. Aren't there any dark nights of the soul in that crumbling fortress of moral clarity? No teeny little McNamara moments from the current president of the World Bank about the administration whose arrogance and incompetence jeopardized any noble chance there was of the Iraq experiment working without too much bloodshed? One senses it's the public's unrealistic longing for a burst of regretful truth-telling that fuels the distemper of the polls. In his speech at Annapolis yesterday, the president probably succeeded in damping down withdrawal fever for now, but he offered no whiff of cleansing self-criticism to make Staying the Course not seem as just more of the same.
For that, perhaps, we have to wait for the lethal tape recorder of Bob Woodward. What's the betting that he will soon open the lockbox of secrets and bring them all down in the end? It's fashionable these days to call America's most famous investigative journalist a stenographer to power, but stenography can be useful when you're taking down confessions.
(c)2005, Tina Brown