For a long-time media critic like myself, a quiet celebration was in order when, as the old year quietly closed, so did Washington’s preposterous monument to journalistic self-importance which called itself “the Newseum.” When it opened the doors of its palatial new $500 million building on Pennsylvania Avenue back in 2008, I predicted some such inglorious end for the enterprise, though I could hardly have foreseen that it would outlast the news itself — themselves? — by more than three years (see “The End of The News” in The New Criterion of September, 2016).
The Newseum was doomed, I believed, by its internal contradictions. Journalists are good at tearing things down but never more transparently phony than when building things up — especially when it is themselves that they are building up. They exist to expose and humiliate our secular heroes and, in more and more cases, to destroy them, but that can never make them into heroes except in their own conceit. Something there is in our reflexive sense of honor that does not love a talebearer — or, as he is now more often called, a “whistleblower” — even when his tales are true. And, increasingly, the media’s tales have not been true. The extremely low opinion, so the pollsters tell us, which Americans hold of the media could never bode well for an institution founded on the extremely high opinion the media hold of themselves.
On the day before the Newseum breathed its grateful last, my wife and I took three of our grand-children and their parents to another privately operated Washington museum which has recently relocated to a gleaming new glass-and-steel home at fabulous expense, this one at L’Enfant Plaza near the newly fashionable Wharf district (or District Wharf as it calls itself) centered on Maine Avenue in the city’s formerly semi-derelict Southwest quadrant. Unlike the Newseum, the Spy Museum appeared to be doing a land-office business, especially with younger visitors — so at least they were when school was out. But I couldn’t help noticing certain parallels with the late, unlamented pile over on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Both, that is, were unreflective exercises in triumphalist celebration of something historically regarded as a dirty, disreputable business, to say the least. Yet nowhere in the Spy Museum was there any hint of the long association between espionage and deceit or treachery — the spy as what Chaucer memorably describes as “The smiler with the knife under the cloak.” Actually, it’s worse than that. Deceit and treachery are precisely what are celebrated there, though not necessarily under those names. This was borne in on me when, in an exhibit devoted to the elaborate system of internal espionage operated by Cardinal Richelieu in the France of Louis XIII I saw quoted those chilling words of the Cardinal himself — “Let me have six lines from the hand of the most honorable of men, and I will find therein wherewith to hang him.” — in a context suggesting only that they showed the old boy sure knew his business as a spymaster.
Readers may remember that I quoted the Cardinal’s apothegm once before in these pages (see “A Wilderness of Mirrors” in The New Criterion of May, 2017), way back at the beginning of the Russia “collusion” narrative that dominated media coverage of the Trump administration’s first two years. I can claim no great prescience in seeing that the media — on that occasion it was the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof — were even then exercising their Richelieu-like interpretive ingenuity to suggest that not one but two presidents of the United States, Nixon and Trump, “may have been” guilty of treason, no less. Nor did I have any idea of the extent of the complicity of the country’s once-respected intelligence and law-enforcement “communities” in the attempted frame-up of President Trump. Yet long experience of the media might even then have led me to predict that, when the report of Inspector General Michael Horowitz in December made this complicity and this attempted frame-up all too clear, the media would also contrive to ignore it and move on to some other bogus accusation against a president they have been determined to destroy since he was elected and even before it.
Mr Horowitz himself gave them an excuse to ignore it by concluding, or so they claimed, that there had been no “bias” in the bogus surveillance warrants obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court against Carter Page, only innocent mistakes. Actually, he had said no such thing, only that there was no documentary or testimonial evidence of such bias — in other words, that no one he spoke to actually admitted it. But in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee (which CNN and MSNBC declined to cover live, though they had gone wall-to-wall with anything to do with Mr Mueller) he said that “There are so many errors, we couldn’t reach a conclusion or make a determination on what motivated those failures other than we did not credit what we lay out here were the explanations we got.”
He also said that “it’s fair to look at all of these 17 events and wonder how it could be purely incompetence.” Though he had to pick his words carefully, he must have understood as well as any unbiased observer would have had to do that it beggared belief to claim that so many of what James Comey was pleased to call “mistakes” had been made randomly and with no common anti-Trump purpose. It was therefore as disingenuous for the media to trumpet the “no bias” trope as it was for Mr Comey himself, setting the modern-day and probably the all-time world record for chutzpah, to claim in an op ed for The Washington Post that the report had found no wrong-doing on the part of himself or the FBI of the kind claimed both by Mr Trump and the attorney-general, William Barr — namely that they had “spied” on the Trump campaign. When asked about this claim by Senator Lindsey Graham at the Judiciary Committee hearing, Mr Horowitz replied that “I think the activities we found here don’t vindicate anybody who touched this FISA.”
Was Mr Comey abashed by such a rebuke? Was he hell! Weeks later he was back in the pages of The Washington Post explaining to its presumptively sympathetic readers “what it is like to be attacked [sc. “unjustly”] by the president” — just as if his innocence were by then too well-established to require further demonstration. Well, we should not be surprised. This is what happens when the rule of law gives way to the rule of lawyers. The sense of honor by which public men were once expected to own up to their own wrong-doing is now so far gone that we don’t expect them to own up even when such wrong-doing is exposed for all to see. Where mere gossip and innuendo in the Steele dossier — known at the time to be gossip and innuendo, as Mr Horowitz showed — were enough to convict the President in Mr Comey’s eyes, he was appropriating to his own use the classic gangster’s claim of innocence: “You can’t prove it!”
The point is not that he did this — of course he did — but that the media, acting as a single medium, allowed him to get away with it. To do otherwise, I suppose, would have been to compromise their shameless refusal to acknowledge their own malfeasance over more than two years, also made plain by the Inspector General’s report, in reporting as truth whatever their ideological confreres in the deep state fed to them. Now we know what kind of world we are living in: one in which truth has been completely politicized — in short, the world of Donald Trump’s “Fake News” which he turns out to have been completely right about, as he has been about so many other things, including the Mueller “witch-hunt.”
One might be inclined to sympathize with the argument of his many media critics (if they had ever made such an argument) that there were good reasons for them to put more trust in their sources in the FBI and the “intelligence community” than in Mr Trump if they would only admit to having been duped by those sources. But they don’t. Even now. What conclusion can be drawn from that, if not that they were in on the deception and the attempted coup from the start? How is it possible for what would undoubtedly be, were the political polarities reversed, the biggest scandal in American history to be utterly ignored by the scandal-loving media without some kind of genuinely vast conspiracy to which both government and media have been and remain parties? I ask for information, not because I know the answer.
One possible answer occurred to me as I read, in the first days of the new year, Neal Ascherson’s tribute to his friend, the late Jonathan Miller — physician, opera director and all-round wise man — in the London Review of Books. Miller, he wrote,
was an Enlightenment person, not a Renaissance man. I don’t think he ever quite grasped that there could be genuinely evil people immune to rational persuasion, or that lies and corruption could be the deliberate choice of an educated politician. Not an ounce of superstition in Jonathan: instead, a marvellous incredulity that so many other people couldn’t see the bleeding obvious in science or politics once it was demonstrated.
Presumably, “the bleeding obvious” included things like Mr Ascherson’s including the spy and traitor Guy Burgess and the communist John Cornford (along with, oddly, Rupert Brooke) among the “culture heroes” who had preceded himself and his late friend on the hallowed sofas (don’t ask) of Cambridge. The arrogance is jaw-dropping, not just because it is arrogance but because it thinks such arrogance, such confidence in one’s own intimacy with The Truth, such utter lack of curiosity about those who hold different views from one’s own — here seemingly dismissed as “evil people immune to rational persuasion” — as entirely admirable.
Yet I think it safe to say that no jaws dropped in response to Mr Ascherson’s piece anywhere near the Bloomsbury offices of the London Review of Books. Everything which appears in that otherwise estimable publication on a political subject — or, increasingly, a historical one — partakes of a similar arrogance. It is the fashion of the day in neo-Bloomsbury, where the LRB also operates a book shop and a cake shop. Along with the neighborhood, The Truth and illustrious contributors like Messrs Miller and Ascherson — among whom I can boast of more than one old friend of far greater intellectual eminence than anything I could ever pretend to — they are all part of the paper’s brand. In fact, you could say that Bloomsbury pioneered the branding or, more accurately, the patenting of The Truth. That’s how literary and political coteries are formed.
But in their latter-day incarnations such coteries have multiplied and finally merged to form one great tribe with the power of a classic honor group to punish or exclude members or would-be members seeking the good things the group has to offer — like academic fellowships or government or media jobs — who do not subscribe to or who even dare to question the slightest detail of the group’s patented Truths, recognition of and submission to which are the condition of membership.
The American media have always envied this cozy yet prestigious familiarity with The Truth as claimed by the class-minded, club-minded Brits, and with the dawn of the Trump era, they embarked on an advertising campaign, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, to make some suitably Americanized version of the fashionable Euro-Truths their own brand. Now even my little local all-news radio station that I used to like to listen to while getting dressed in the morning has adopted as its new slogan: “The Truth. Delivered. Daily.”
Oh, please! It’s not as feeble, or as laughable, as the Washington Post’s “Democracy dies in darkness,” but it partakes of the same arrogance, like that of Jonathan Miller or Neal Ascherson. For them as for everyone in the media-government complex — which, as we can now see, think themselves entitled to run the country without regard to election results — the truth is no longer the elusive article that previous generations were wont to “pursue” but rarely to possess is now nothing but a much-mentioned status-symbol, to be taken for granted so long as it has the right brand on it. This is why James Comey or Nancy Pelosi or Adam Schiff can appear before the public and blandly recite patent untruths without so much as a ripple of dissent, let alone outrage, from the media. In their own minds they own the patents on the truth, just as Jonathan Miller did, and therefore anything they say is true by definition — just as anything said to the contrary must be false.
When you think about it, some such dynamic must also have been at work in funneling all those kids into the Spy Museum at Christmas time. The spy, like the journalist or the “whistleblower,” is likely to appear as a hero to the new generation, raised on the fanciful elite of the Harry Potter novels, because he by-passes the tiresome organic constraints of honor and truthfulness and loyalty that are so often inconvenient to those seeking to get ahead in the world, just as the constraints of gravity prevent Harry Potter-lovers from flying like their hero. The spy may perform what are objectively wrong or even wicked actions, or what would be such actions for anyone else, but absolve himself of any wrong-doing, just like James Comey, because of who he is — namely, a member of a privileged class, defined by its high moral purpose.
“So it was all lies,” tweeted Mr Comey on the release of the Inspector General’s report. “No treason. No spying on the campaign. No tapping Trumps [sic] wires. It was just good people trying to protect America.” I think it pretty bleeding obvious that this was meant all along to be read backwards, proposition one being the axiomatic: “It was just good people trying to protect America.” That having been established — though it was only necessary to establish it for the benefit of the slower kids at the back of the class — it then followed as the night follows the day that there can have been “No treason” etc. either. Unlike Mr Trump, who may do the right thing — like extinguishing the terror-lord Qasem Soleimani — but only for the wrong reasons, the former FBI head assumes to himself the power to do any number of wrong things because he and his fellow club-mates enjoy exclusive possession of the right reason. And, as that early journalistic appropriator of The Truth Walter Cronkite used to put it, “that’s the way it is,” Anno Domini 2020.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.