Reading is fundamental

By Megan McArdle

Sigh. Glenn Greenwald lashes back. Mr Greenwald's anger at the establishment power structure seems to be rapidly transmuting into anger at the non-Glenn-Greenwald power structure:


The "points" they make along the way are just painfully self-refuting and outright false (self-evidently so), so I'm only going briefly to address a couple of those points for illustrative purposes. I want to focus, instead, on some substantive, broader points which their mentality demonstrates.

McArdle's principal point is that "Americans care more about [Obama] than John Yoo because, well, John Yoo isn't running for president" and that "most people don't care about minor government functionaries." Just think about that for a moment. Megan McCardle thinks that John Yoo is basically the DOJ version of Lynndie England -- just some low-level guy who went off on his own and did some isolated, unauthorized bad things in the past that our political leaders have now corrected.

She quite obviously has no idea that the memoranda John Yoo wrote -- legalizing government torture, declaring presidential omnipotence, and suspending the Fourth Amendment inside the U.S. -- are not merely his opinion, but became the official position of the entire Executive Branch of the U.S. Government. She also quite obviously has no idea that he did all of that in close association with the most powerful political officials in the White House, including David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and ultimately Donald Rumsfeld, nor does she have the slightest awareness that the torture-authorizing memoranda were used to brief Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of Guantanamo who then went to Iraq to train the commanders of American prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, nor that the theories of presidential omnipotence underlying it all remain firmly in place.



This quite takes my breath away. Because the only reason that one could possibly disagree with Glenn Greenwald about anything is that WE JUST DIDN'T UNDERSTAND HIM!!!!!!!! OMG!!!!!

Obviously, I know who John Yoo was, and what he did. From the point of view of the American public, however, he is a minor government functionary, much like--oh, say, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Please try this exercise: without using Google, name the US Trade Representative. The chair of the CEA. The head of OFHEO. The other members of the Federal Reserve's FOMC. The deputy secretary of the Treasury. The head of the White House Office of Management and Budget. The current commissioners of the SEC. The Chairman of the FDIC. The leaders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

I know all of their names, because that's my job. I am willing to bet that Glenn Greenwald couldn't name all of them on the spot; he might well not be able to name any of them. That's no slur. Almost no one whose professional life does not depend on the knowledge has any idea who they are.

To the great American public, these are, yes, minor government functionaries--minor functionaries whose rounding errors probably result in more lives saved or lost than could ever plausibly be attributed to John Yoo. I do not like this fact, but I do acknowledge it. Nor do I think that yelling at journalists will much change it.

I do not mean to thereby conflate torture with economic development; the former has a moral horror, even in small numbers, that even very bad development policy lacks--which is why, yes, the Holocaust is worse than the Ukrainian famine. But if torture is important enough to be front page news, so is knowing who is responsible for guiding trade policy in the world's leader on liberalisation, who will be steering us through a financial crisis that could cause economic problems around the world, and who is working on fixing the globe's deepest and broadest capital markets.

I would dearly love to see those names splashed across every front page every day--not because I write about them, but because I think Americans should know these things. But only someone delusional would claim that they are outranked by Obama's photo ops merely because journalists just aren't trying hard enough. Nor, I think, does Glenn Greenwald really believe that vital topics like mark-to-market accounting are being left out of the nation's A sections because the editors think pictures of Hillary's new hairdo have greater metaphysical importance.

And that's the point. Because we have an establishment media that completely ignores these matters in favor of chattering endlessly about how Obama bowls and the cleavage that Hillary shows, the U.S. Government, at its highest levels, can literally create a torture regime -- war crimes by any measure -- and explicitly seize lawbreaking powers. And when they do, even people like Megan McArdle -- who writes on political matters for the The Atlantic -- will remain completely ignorant of even the most basic facts about what the Government did, ignorance which won't stop her from defending it all and dismissing its significance.

And she wants it that way, as she argues that the media should tell her more about Obama's bowling score than about these dreary, boring stories about DOJ memos. That's why the Government can and does continue to do what it does -- because our elite establishment opinion-makers aren't just profoundly ignorant, but happy about it, grateful for it even.



Greenwald error number two: I don't cover politics; I cover economic policy. These are not the same thing, which seems like the kind of thing that people who set themselves up as media critics should be aware of.

And given that I write about something that roughly 99% of the population considers less interesting than the newest diet fad, it's clearly ridiculous to assert that I am happy about the American public's raving disinterest in complicated policy stories. I spend much of my life whining to editors that the eight paragraphs on financial math are really interesting, dammit!

Now, is the problem that all of you really do want to know about how to calculate bond duration, and my mean stupid editors are misguided? Or is it more likely that you would skip to the next article--hey, did you realize you can lose twelve pounds in two weeks?

I am not defending John Yoo, or his memos, or the government's behavior. I am simply pointing out that when it comes to the journalistic coverage of same, Mr Greenwald has the correlation running the wrong way: the public doesn't know because it doesn't care, not because the journalists don't want to tell them. If the public did care, Mr Greenwald would have more readers.

Frankly, his assertions sound bizarre, even lunatic, to anyone who has ever met a journalist or a newspaper editor. And the later part of his rant, during which he accuses me and Dan of supporting the media establishment because it is helping us cover up our war crimes, ranges into the kind of frenzied conspiracy-theorizing that I generally associate with Ron Paul's more wild-eyed supporters. You know, the ones who tell you that when the rEVOLution comes, you'll be the first one with your back against the wall. The ones who aren't really arguing with you, but rather using you as a stand-in for everyone they've ever disagreed with, including the kids who made fun of them for wetting their pants in first grade. The ones who are filing their bizarrely capitalized missives from atop the massive stockpiles of canned goods and ammunition they have stored in an abandoned copper mine.

Now, some of my readers are arguing that we journalists have a duty to give the public what they don't particularly want. Okay, well, you really should know how to calculate a bond duration; if you have fixed income investments, as you should when you're near retirement, you'll want to know the weighted average maturity in order to balance your income across time. The mathematics for simple instruments is fairly easy; I can explain it in perhaps ten minutes of moderately involved reading, then you'll want to spend perhaps an hour or so doing excercises at home to make sure you've really nailed it. Ready?

That's ridiculous. You didn't come here to be bored by some formula you can look up if you need it; you're here to talk about foreign policy!

. . . oh hear that hollow laugh. That, my friends, is the sound of an eager young journalist's soul dying just a little bit every day.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/04/reading-is-fundamental/3200/