Our Anosognotic Media
It goes without saying that a Hollywood biopic is going to aggrandize its subject — Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, General Patton, whomever. No one wants to star in, direct, fund, or produce a motion picture whose tagline would be, “Joe Shmedlap: A Real Dick.” They’re like memoirs; no former President is going to write in his memoir, “Gee, I did a really crappy job in the White House.”
So it’s no surprise that “Kill the Messenger,” a new film starring Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who broke the story of Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the cocaine trade that fueled the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, aggrandizes Webb. That’s what movies do.
What is surprising is that the film is creating such push-back against the Webb iconography by the media itself. Thanks to Renner’s performance, Webb is rapidly becoming a kind of pre-Edward Snowden — a whistle-blowing Truth-Teller — and in today’s Washington Post, Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, tries to throw a wet blanket on what he sees as Webb’s canonization by popular acclaim. Webb, Leen insists, “was no journalism hero.”
Anosognosia. It’s a little-understood psychiatric condition in which a patient who objectively suffers from some disability — paralysis, say — not only refuses to believe she suffers from it but is objectively unable to “see” that she does.
American journalism has anosognosia.
Leen isn’t objecting to a movie. He’s objecting to what the movie implies: that American journalism is craven, cowardly, overly concerned with placating those in power — that is, those upon whom American journalism depends for access — and often does little more than perpetuate narratives that serve power, rather than challenge it.
Leen hopes to offer a cautionary note for “the younger reporters on [his] staff,” as well as the rest of us: Webb did bad journalism because “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” And according to Leen, Webb didn’t have extraordinary proof. Heck, Leen points out that Hollywood was making movies about CIA cocaine trafficking in the ’80s, so there! Webb didn’t tell us anything, really. No extraordinary proof, those no extraordinary claim worth paying attention to.
Really? Where was Jeff Leen when the Washington Post was breathlessly promoting the idea that the Saddam Hussein regime was a “clear-and-present danger” to the national security of the United States? Where was Leen when William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer were spewing out op-ed after op-ed in the Post asserting that “the only” strategy left to the United States for dealing with Saddam was invasion and regime change? Where was Leen when so-called “military historians” Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were pimping the idea in the Post of retaining US military forces in Afghanistan for, essentially, ever?
He was cashing his paycheck.
Leen is pushing back against a movie — a movie! — because in that movie Webb represents something far more threatening to American media’s image of itself than simply the notion that newspapers dropped the ball on an important story, and this is why it isn’t coincidental that the first blow is being struck by the Washington Post.
In “Kill the Messenger,” Webb is the anti-“Woodstein,” the portmanteau used for the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, famous for working the Watergate story. That moment 40 years ago is still (rather tragically) the high point in the history of American journalism, the touchstone for what “real” journalism can be, the namesake for every “scandal,” real and imagined, since, and the lodestar for every journalism major in every college and university in the country and perhaps the world — even the Danish television series “Borgen” pays homage to the two: the young, investigative reporter for the fictional “TV1” channel, Katrine Fønsmark (played by actress Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), displays a poster for the 1976 Woodstein biopic “All the President’s Men” in her apartment.
Regardless of how truthful “Kill the Messenger” may or may not be — and I think we can all agree that films, even documentary films, are at best defined by what the comedian Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness” — it calls our attention to the all-too cozy relationship between Power and the institution that is allegedly the citizen’s watchdog on power, the media.
But as numerous studies show, the watchdog seems increasingly tame because it’s now part of the political class: journalists marry those in power (Andrea Mitchell and former Chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan), send their kids to the same schools as those in power, vie amongst each other for invitations to sit at the knee of power (White House press corps functions and the like). Journalists want politicians to like them — after all, who doesn’t want to get along with their neighbor?
Leen, like most journalists these days, doesn’t seem to appreciate that there’s a difference between 40 years ago and today — 40 years. Forty years ago, journalists still had to get things right — when, as the informal motto of Chicago’s now-defunct City News Bureau had it, your mother told you she loved you, you had to check it out. You could do that because the newspaper came out in the morning, the three networks’ news came on that evening. And that was it.
[su_r_sky_ad]In today’s information environment, you can’t check it out because you can’t be beat by those who don’t care about checking it out. Journalism today doesn’t have time to do journalism because the real master of journalism is the closing stock price of the corporation that owns journalism, not the Woodstein-infused dream goals of journalists. Today’s motto would be, “When your mother says she loves you, say so — especially if someone has already Tweeted it.”
So Leen can fulminate all he wants against a fictionalized portrayal of one reporter in the 1980s. He can insist that Webb wasn’t a good journalist because he didn’t have the “stuff” to support his claims. Maybe he didn’t. But by the standards of the journalism in which Leen trades, the journalism of 2014, the journalism of false-equivalency, the journalism that has been whipped into beaten-dog fearfulness by baseless whining about “liberal bias,” Webb’s reporting was rock-solid.
Perhaps that’s what so troubles Leen: in today’s corporate media, that which is “truthy” might just as well have been carried down the Mount by Moses, carved in stone, because when it has counted — Snowden, Iraq, Syria, Obamacare, Benghazi — the media has proven itself time and again to be doing stenography.
And why not? If your primary goal in life as a messenger is to not be killed — to not be criticized for “bias” or to be fired for not booking John McCain on a Sunday talk-fest when “everyone else” has booked him — then stenography is justifiable, safe, and (obviously) profitable. We shouldn’t need “fact-checker” columns in newspapers to tell us when a politician or pundit is dissembling or lying — a reporter should just go ahead and do that. That’s the reporter’s job.
But don’t expect Jeff Leen to see it that way. Anosognosia is incurable.