Taibbi, Brooks and McChrystal

I've been a fan of Matt Taibbi ever since I read his review of The World Is Flat. I laughed so hard over that piece I nearly injured myself. Since then he has shown he is not just a master of invective but also an energetic reporter and (though he seems embarrassed to admit it) a thinker, until his anger gets the better of him, which usually doesn't take long. Yet I am also--and how many Taibbi fans can say this?--an admirer of David Brooks. So I've been thinking about Taibbi's complaints over Brooks's column on the McChrystal episode.

In that piece Brooks noted with some sadness the prevailing "culture of exposure".

General McChrystal was excellent at his job... But [he], like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter... [Hastings] essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.

The reticent ethos had its flaws. But 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.

At this, Taibbi is furious (obviously). The real failure of the media is not their desire to expose, he says, but their desire to expose the wrong things.

What we get very little of is reporting that asks difficult questions about complicated issues and makes a sincere effort to explain to the public who's really running this country and how they go about doing it... [W]here were all those gotcha journalists during the internet bubble that ended up costing America $5 trillion? Answer: hounding Bill Clinton about the Lewinsky business.

Taibbi praises the Rolling Stone story on McChrystal because it was the right kind of journalism.

We have a president who during his election campaign ran on the idea that he was going to pursue a narrow strategy in Afghanistan centered around fighting al-Qaeda. Then he gets elected and puts in charge a guy who immediately wants more troops and seems committed to a loony nation-building exercise... In this context the dumb insubordination of McChrystal and his drunken staff...were completely newsworthy and relevant comments that Hastings absolutely had to put into print in order to shed light on the larger issue.

I think Taibbi is mostly right about the failings of the media but mostly wrong about the Rolling Stone article. In general, the media are hopeless at probing policy, as Taibbi says. They are much more interested in petty scandals, partisan point-scoring, and the political horse race. (In this they are responding to commercial pressures: unfortunately, this seems to be what readers and viewers want.) But I see Brooks as an impressive exception. He is interested in policy, not unduly obsessed with the horse race, and though he leans conservative he is capable of praising Democrats and criticizing Republicans. He does not do petty point-scoring. He is a very good thing. Taibbi should give him some credit.

My view of politicians is not Brooks's: I don't think that "most people in government" are there because "they sincerely want to do good." On the other hand, it is not Taibbi's either: I don't think they are all criminals and sociopaths. There are exceptions, but I think most people in government are there because they enjoy power and like bossing the rest of us around. They therefore need to be watched, and the press should always view them sceptically. Brooks advises "sympathetic scrutiny" rather than outright scorn. Scorn is often justified, I'd say; and why should the scrutiny ever be "sympathetic"?

But Taibbi's idea that disclosing McChrystal's insubordination "shed light on the larger issue" of COIN versus narrow anti-terrorism is nonsense. True, the piece as a whole did shed a wider light. The discontent with the strategy among soldiers, notably over rules of engagement, was telling. But the quotes that got McChrystal sacked did not. Was anybody really shocked by Vice-President Bite Me, and the rest of it? Perhaps Taibbi was disturbed by the profanity. You don't mean to tell me that some people dislike Holbrooke? Good lord. He speaks so well of them.

It was shocking to see it all in print. It was shocking that McChrystal and his people were stupid enough to say it on the record. And Hastings, just to be clear, was right to report it (unless he had promised not to, and it seems he made no such undertaking). But the idea that Obama's team of rivals criticize and mock each other was neither new nor the least bit surprising.

Yet we all had to say how disturbed we were--civilian control of the military was at stake, you see, as though McChrystal was planning some kind of coup--and Obama had to act. The hypocrisy all round in this story might have been a worthier target for Taibbi's disgust.