The establishment media just keep getting worse. They're further and further from good, tough investigative journalism, and more prone to be pawns in complicated games that affect the public interest in untold ways. A significant recent example is The New Yorker's vaunted August 8 exclusive on the vanquishing of Osama bin Laden.
The piece, trumpeted as the most detailed account to date of the May 1 raid in Abbottabad Pakistan, was an instant hit. "Got the chills half dozen times reading @NewYorker killing bin Laden tick tock...exquisite journalism," tweeted the digital director of the PBS show Frontline. The author, freelancer Nicholas Schmidle, was quickly featured on the Charlie Rose show, an influential determiner of "chattering class" opinion. Other news outlets rushed to praise the story as "exhaustive," "utterly compelling," and on and on.
To be sure, it is the kind of granular, heroic story that the public loves, that generates follow-up bestsellers and movie options. The takedown even has a Hollywood-esque code name: "Operation Neptune's Spear"
Here's the introduction to the mission commander, full of minute details that help give it a ring of authenticity and the most intimate reportorial access:
"James, a broad-chested man in his late thirties, does not have the lithe swimmer's frame that one might expect of a SEAL--he is built more like a discus thrower. That night, he wore a shirt and trousers in Desert Digital Camouflage, and carried a silenced Sig Sauer P226 pistol, along with extra ammunition; a CamelBak, for hydration; and gel shots, for endurance. He held a short-barrel, silenced M4 rifle. (Others SEALs had chosen the Heckler & Koch MP7.) A 'blowout kit,' for treating field trauma, was tucked into the small of James's back. Stuffed into one of his pockets was a laminated gridded map of the compound. In another pocket was a booklet with photographs and physical descriptions of the people suspected of being inside. He wore a noise-cancelling headset, which blocked out nearly everything besides his heartbeat."
On and on went the "tick-tock." Yet as Paul Farhi, a Washington Post reporter, noted, that narrative was misleading in the extreme, because the New Yorker reporter never actually spoke to James--nor to a single one of James's fellow SEALs (who have never been identified or photographed--even from behind--to protect their identity.) Instead, every word of Schmidle's narrative was provided to him by people who were not present at the raid. Complains Farhi:
"...a casual reader of the article wouldn't know that; neither the article nor an editor's note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly."
That didn't trouble New Yorker editor David Remnick, according to Farhi:
"Remnick says he's satisfied with the accuracy of the account. 'The sources spoke to our fact-checkers,' he said. 'I know who they are.'"
But we don't.
On a story of this gravity, should we automatically join in with the huzzahs because it has the imprimatur of America's most respected magazine? Or would we be wise to approach it with caution?
Most of us are not the trusting naifs we once were. And with good reason.
The list of consequential events packaged for us by media and Hollywood in unsatisfactory ways continues to grow. It starts, certainly, with the official version of the JFK assassination, widely discredited yet still carried forward by most major media organizations. (For more on that, see this.) More and more people realize that the heroic Woodward and Bernstein story of Nixon's demise is deeply problematical. (I've written extensively on both of these in my book Family of Secrets.)