Feb 12

Lies and Consequences

Eason Jordan has resigned as CNN’s chief news executive following
rumors that he said at a conference in Davos that the U.S. military
had deliberately targeted journalists for death. Jordan denied making
this allegation, but two U.S. legislators who were present agree that
he did, and the Davos organizers have denied repeated requests to
release the session video.

But I am not writing to argue about what Eason did or didn’t do. I
want to address the way some people have reasoned about the worst-case
interpretation of his remarks. The blogosphere pressure for release
of the video from Davos has been described
this way: “…tire-necklaced by a bloodthirsty group of utopian,
bible-thumping knuckledraggers” to “benefit the torturing,
gulag-building blood-cult known Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld’s Republican
Party.” Even leaving aside the bloody-minded partisanship, this
seems, shall we say, a little over the top?

Nobody should want journalists ever to fear attacking the behavior
of the U.S. military when they have actual evidence that it is wrong.
Militaries are dangerous and terrible things, and a free press is a
vital means of keeping them in check. It is right and proper that
we make heroes of those who speak damning truths to power.

But it makes all the difference in the world when a journalist does
not have actual evidence of wrongdoing. Especially when
the journalist is a U.S. citizen and the claim gives aid and comfort
to the declared enemies of the U.S. in wartime. Under those
circumstances, such an attack is not heroic but traitorous.

I hope this is a teachable moment. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed
that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech; if
the speaker has no evidence of actual fire, the consequences to that
speaker should be as dire as the risk of death by trampling he created
for others. The Holmes test should be applied in politics as well.

And yes, I agree that test should be applied to the Bush
administration — but, unlike the “Bush Lied, People Died”
crowd, I haven’t forgotten that the warnings about Iraqi WMD were not
only backed by British and French intelligence reports, but echoed
assessments made by the Clinton administration and endorsed to this
day by Clinton himself. Whatever errors Bush & Co. may have made
on this score, they believed they had evidence to back them.

Assuming Eason Jordan said what the witnesses say he did, his
behavior was far worse — because his own account of his remarks
makes clear that does not believe he has evidence for any claim of
deliberate targeting. It is good that he has been forced out over
this. It will be better if his disgrace frightens other journalists
into paying more attention to details like having some evidence up
front. The best outcome, though probably too much to hope for, would
be the end of reflexive oppositionalism in American media.

After Vietnam and Watergate, a lot of journalists (and other
people) lost the distinction between speaking truth to power and
simply attacking whoever is in charge (especially any Republican in
charge) on any grounds, no matter how factually baseless. Mere
oppositionalism was increasingly confused with heroism even as the
cultural climate made it ever less risky. Eventually we arrived at the
ludicrous spectacle of multimillionaire media personalities posing as
persecuted victims and wailing about the supposed crushing of dissent
on national news and talk shows.

But now, for the first time in decades, irresponsible
oppositionalism just cost a major media figure his career. Better yet,
the campaign that forced him out was a grass-roots effort by people
who take seriously their responsibility to hold the media to account
for its truthfulness. These are both grounds for celebration, and for
hope that the horribly dysfunctional culture of American newsrooms
will improve in the future.