I have to admit at the outset that I know next to nothing about the American military or the people in charge of it and to be honest I am kind of happy to leave it like that. From the safe distance of Europe, I always regarded the men who lead that army as part loony, part scary and part comic, like characters out Dr Strangelove. Now that I live somewhat closer to them I see no reason to change my mind. They are people I would not like to get any closer to than a movie screen.
However I do know one or two things about the media and accordingly I was always suspicious of the adoration and uncritical praise the US media heaped upon the now scandal-ridden General Petraeus. As others have commented in the last day or so, long before Paula Broadwell unzipped the general’s trousers the media had been queuing up to give him blow-jobs.
There are three features which characterize all countries’ media and America is no exception:
One is the preference of media folk to hunt in packs or herds, in the sense that if you get a story wrong it sure helps that everyone else in the business has as well. It’s called perfect cover. But its really pernicious effect is that everyone, more or less, has the same story or at least the same approach to and explanation for the story. The herd instinct in the media imposes uniformity.
The second is an overpowering hunger for access. By access I mean the willingness of people, especially people in power, to talk to them. Gaining access is the emblem of success and it is what keeps editors’ smiling at the reporters who have it and glowering at those who don’t. Access brings a badge of respectability (meaning that the reporter is deemed trustworthy) and stories. The fact that the stories generated by access are invariably worthless pap doesn’t matter because it’s the fact that pap was produced by access that really counts. Access brings its own constraints however. Gaining it is one thing but the real trick is keeping it and the only way to do that is to keep on writing or broadcasting in the way that pleases the access donor. In other words, step out of line, question the donor’s veracity or motives, or in any other way annoy the donor and access can be withdrawn. Your editor won’t care why it was withdrawn, just that now you don’t have it but your competitors do – and needless to say the subsequent implications for career prospects are pretty obvious. Controlling access is the single most powerful weapon that can be used to manage the media. It keeps all those people on MSNBC, CBS and CNN, not to mention the NYTimes, the Washington Post and so on in line.
The third universal characteristic of the media is cowardice. That means that very, very few journalists have the cojones to engage in the sort of reportage that means breaking away from the herd and endangering your access. Doing that gets you a bad name amongst your colleagues, seriously pisses off your boss and can destroy your career. (It is the reason, in my experience, why those who get to management positions in news organizations are often the most mediocre)
This is not the time and place for an essay on the state of the modern media but it is arguable that the highly corporate nature of the business in America has intensified the effect of these three factors in this country and accelerated the decline of conventional media (but benefited social media alternatives). This is not to say that the same factors are absent elsewhere. In fact I would argue that the smallness of the media in Ireland, in contrast to America, also intensified the unhealthy consequences of all this.
Anyway to get back to Petraeus, I had always suspected that these factors were present in spades with him if only because when I see and hear the media collectively having orgasms over an individual as they did with him for so many years, then every suspicious fibre in my body quivers.
It has taken Petraeus’ fall to bring this story out and it makes good reading and watching (a possible fourth characteristic of the media is that they are pretty vengeful when exposed as fools and suckers). Although he is most definitely not in that category, there is this article by Michael Hastings who single handedly brought down another military idol, Stanley McChrystal. He points out that Petraeus’s two claims to military genius – the Sunni Awakening in Iraq and the counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan – were both frauds and that the man’s track record in those two countries points to an uncaring willingness to use brutal violence.
The other is an interview that Hollywood director Oliver Stone gave to CNN last night. Stone makes the same points but adds that Petraeus has, as much as Obama, been responsible for the vast expansion of drone deployment by the CIA in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Arab/Muslim world. He says, correctly in my view, that this may well be the result of putting a military man in charge of the CIA. The consequences of that, the deaths of innocents, many of them children, and the anger and alienation that will one day revisit America, is perhaps the best reason to greet Petraeus’ disgrace and departure with joy and relief. And in the future to take the media’s praise of a general, or anybody else, with a bag of salt.