Friday, June 25, 2010

Exposure, Indecent and Otherwise

Two incidents of stripping public figures bare bracket the question of "the public's right to know" in an era of redefining journalism--the downfall of Gen. McChrystal and an inconvenient possible truth about Al Gore as a Clintonesque groper.

David Brooks asserts the General was done in by a cultural change that has elevated "private kvetching" by public officials to the forefront of the news, citing Theodore White's "Making of the President" books in the 1960s as a turning point.

He concludes that "the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important."

For a participant and close observer of all this, that misses the main point--an evolution that has taken journalism from helplessly reporting official lies (as in Sen. Joe McCarthy's wild claims) to digging for the truth behind them (Woodward and Bernstein) to, in the age of the Internet, of swamping us 24/7 with facts, factoids and fake news.

If anything, the McChrystal saga illustrates, not the overwhelming of public privacy, but a classic journalistic mission, particularly of magazines with the luxury of time to do it, of finding and showing the truth behind officially constructed facades.

Over the past year, the General's insubordination was one of those truths struggling to be seen, going back to last fall when he went public to pressure the President's decision of more troops for Afghanistan, to the point of being indirectly reprimanded by the Secretary of Defense.

McChrystal's arrogance, far from being what Brooks terms a harmless outlet to "let off steam," was part of a campaign to pressure an ambivalent President into making a major commitment of lives and money to what many, if not most Americans, consider a losing cause.

What Michael Hastings showed in Rolling Stone will probably win a National Magazine Award, for the same reasons that I, as a judge 40 years ago, voted to give one to the New Yorker for Richard Harris' reporting on what John Mitchell was doing to corrupt the Justice Department, long before the Watergate scandal broke.

All the way down at the other end of the news food chain is a National Enquirer revelation that Al Gore may or may not have acted like a jerk while getting a massage in Portland, Oregon four years ago.

Do we really need to know the details of that? Or does that come under the heading of giving people the privacy, by Brooks' definition, to let off steam?

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