You Will Be Assimilated

Recently, Glenn Greenwald interviewed Chris Hayes about Hayes’s new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. I have the audiobook cued up in the car, and will start it as soon as I’m done with the one I’m listening to now (Charles Ferguson’s Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America, which is superb and might become the subject of a subsequent post here).

For me, the most thought-provoking part of the interview came at the end, when Greenwald asked Hayes about Hayes’s assertion that even the most well-intentioned people will inevitably be corrupted — what Hayes calls “cognitive capture” — by entry into the American elite (aka the One Percent, aka the American Oligarchy). Given that Hayes, who started out writing for The Nation, is now an establishment TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations (Hayes hosts his own talk show, Up with Chris Hayes, on MSNBC), Greenwald wanted to know what steps Hayes is taking to prevent his own cognitive capture.

As someone who deals extensively with questions of subornment in fiction (and who once had some training on the subject, courtesy of Uncle Sam), I found the question itself extremely interesting. I was also interested — and, as admirer of Hayes and his work, concerned — that Hayes really had no answer. He said he would try to protect himself by continuing to practice what he recognized as good journalism, which he said consists at least in part of ensuring that a wide variety of voices are heard on his show. But countless people have gone astray before Hayes, and surely all of them — at least the ones who weren’t corrupt to begin with — promised themselves at least this much, that they would continue to practice good journalism. And alas, the promise wasn’t enough.

So I got to thinking. What are the warning signs, the real metrics a well-intentioned and clear-eyed journalist should consider before her subornment begins, and by which she can judge whether her integrity is slowly being compromised, corroded, and lost? It’s important to think about these issues in advance. Cops and soldiers, after all, use when/then thinking to prepare for physical danger. The principles apply to the danger of subornment, too.

I’ve come up with a few general warning signs that I think represent a good start. I hope Hayes, and others, will consider them, and I hope readers will add to them.

1. Probably the first compromise will take the form of a rationalization. You’ll be pressured to do something you know isn’t quite right. But you’ll be scared not to do it — if you don’t, you’ll alienate someone powerful, your career will suffer a setback, your ambitious goals will suddenly seem farther away. At this point, your lesser self, driven by fear, greed, status-seeking, and other selfish emotions, will offer up a rationalization, and your greater self will grasp at it eagerly. As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, “hypocrisy… is the tribute which morality pays to immorality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised.”

For me, Hayes’s first big test came after he said on his show that he was “uncomfortable” calling American war dead “heroes,” and I wish Greenwald had asked about this specifically, as it was directly relevant to Greenwald’s more general question. There was a predictable Twitter and blogosphere outcry in response to Hayes comments, and Hayes quickly apologized. I thought the apology was unfortunate. Of course my heart goes out to every family that’s ever lost a loved one in combat. But whether it follows from this that every American soldier who dies in combat is automatically a hero is, at a minimum, not a topic that in a democracy should be taboo.

I don’t know the extent to which Hayes’s apology was heartfelt (personally, I find it incomprehensible). But my guess is that he felt he had to make it — perhaps because of pressure from corporate higher-ups; perhaps because he felt that his show wouldn’t be properly heeded if he became a poster boy for rightist attacks.

The first compromise will likely be the hardest (and maybe this one was for Hayes), because you’ve never made one before, or at least not one of this magnitude, and the contrast with your relative purity will be strong. But they’ll get easier over time, just as impurities are harder to notice when added to water that’s already turbid. The danger of this increasing ease is part of the reason I blurb so few books. I won’t claim absolute purity when it comes to the abysmally corrupt practice of blurbing; I’ve found myself (rarely, for what that’s worth) in situations where I felt the cost of a no was too high, and I tried to square the circle by saying good things about a book that, while not exactly untrue, weren’t exactly from the heart, either. But I’ve also said no many times where the no was uncomfortable and a yes would have done me a lot of good. From the beginning, I’ve sensed that once you start saying positive things about books you didn’t really enjoy (or that you haven’t even read), it gets easier and easier, and that the increased commercial success you might enjoy as a result of all those increasingly easy blurbs will be purchased with your own integrity. The best way out of that trap is not to get into it in the first place.

2. As the compromises accumulate, you’ll need a larger, more all-purpose rationalization to explain them away. I suspect the most common of these boils down to, “Okay, this isn’t my proudest moment, but overall I do more good with my journalism than I do bad. Plus, if I left this position, it would be filled by someone with (even) greater capacity for compromise, and less capacity for doing good. So on balance, I have to do this small bad thing in the service of the larger good I do.”

If you’re especially adept with this rationalization, you should be a politician, where your talents can find their greatest expression. As a journalist, you’re just not being all you can be.

3. As your career progresses, you can usefully ask yourself if you can name a compromise of which you’re not proud. If you can’t… bad sign.

4. And: have you ever publicly copped to that compromise? If not… bad sign (see: “You’re only as sick as your secrets”).

5. Can you identify compromises you think have been made by any of your compatriots? If not… bad sign. It means you’re not even capable of projection. But if so, try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and understand what led him to the compromise of which you’re critical. Are you sure you’re so much stronger and virtuous than he is?

I’m sure Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, for example, started with the best of intentions, but is now attending the White House Correspondents Dinner, America’s premier sleaze-fest celebration of government/media cooperation and collusion. I’m sure Marshall tells himself that breaking bread and yucking it up with the powerful figures TPM purports to hold to account is necessary for “access” and will in no way affect his objectivity or his coverage. I’m sure David Gregory tells himself the same. And yet.

What’s especially interesting is that Marshall and Talking Points Memo made merciless — and deserved — fun of journalists who went “swinging on the tire” at John McCain’s Sedona estate during the last presidential election, and adopted the phrase as shorthand “to describe a reporter who has gotten way too cozy with a politician and has had their supposed objectivity affected.” I think this is an instance where a journalist is able to identify the flaws in the behavior of others without being able to apply the underlying principles to himself. Because is there really a material difference between a barbecue at a politician’s estate and a party at the White House? Not if you think distance is critical to objectivity, but in all things it’s easier to criticize the mote in another’s eye than it is to come to grips with the beam in your own.

Actually, “Have you accepted an invitation to the White House Correspondents Dinner?” really deserves its own special category because when you get that invitation, and you start thinking about all the reasons you should accept it, warning klaxons should be sounding in your mind. And I don’t mean to single out Marshall. Andrew Sullivan is another blogger who failed to lash himself sufficiently tightly to the masts of his integrity to resist this particular siren song. I’m sure both these men are able to explain themselves, at least when they look in the mirror, but they really shouldn’t be in a position where they have to do so. If you purport to cover powerful figures, you can only — at best — impede your ability to do so by partying with your charges. The notion that you have to cultivate these people in order to gain journalistic “access” is such a lie that it could be called out as its own distinct rationalization.

So an exercise: Identify at least several journalists you once admired, or who you think once had integrity but who no longer do, and ask yourself what happened to them. Accept that they didn’t set out intending to become corrupt; in fact, you should accept that their ethics and intentions were, at the outset, as strong and noble as yours are right now. To what did they succumb, and why will you be able to resist it when they couldn’t?

6. Do you find yourself identifying more with the public figures you’re supposed to hold to account than with the readers and viewers you’re supposed to serve? This identification can take many forms. Do you worry about whether they’ll think you’re a “good guy” or otherwise about their good opinion of you? About whether they’ll grant you various forms of access? About whether they’ll invite you to prestige events and speak well of you to their friends?

When Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings reported in his article The Runaway General on the kind of disrespect for the civilian chain of command he saw while spending time with General Stanley McChrystal and his entourage, he had to grapple with some of the questions raised in this post (he describes that process in his excellent book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan). He made the right decision, and in so doing, exposed the true values and allegiances of many of his colleagues who think of themselves as journalists but in fact operate as government spokespeople. The New York Times David Brooks, for example, criticized Hastings for being part of a “culture of exposure” (don’t you hate when journalists expose things?). Also, read CBS reporter’s Lara Logan’s complaints about Hastings and his article — especially her obvious reverence for General McChrystal — and again, you’ll find a reporter who has come to identify with the powerful figures she should be holding to account.

And do you find yourself feeling special because of the kind of access you feel you have? Do your government sources (who are playing you, and if you don’t see that, that itself is a bad sign) share secret information with you on background that makes you feel you understand the real world better than do people who are not similarly in-the-know? These are not good signs and you should watch out for them. Here’s NPR’s national security reporter Dina Temple-Raston, who, irritated at a panel discussion at Greenwald’s demand for evidence that Anwar al-Awlaki (an American citizen who President Obama had ordered executed) was guilty of the crimes the government accused him of, sought to win the argument by asking, “Isn’t it possible that I’ve seen something you haven’t seen?” and reminding Greenwald that “he doesn’t do national security for a living.” This is a pristine example of the kind of “cognitive capture” Hayes warns about.

7. Can you identify a personal or career cost to any of your decisions? If not… bad sign. Who will you be offending, and what retribution are you likely to suffer? Who has the power to reward and punish you, and what are you willing to do to risk losing those rewards and incurring that punishment?

8. Here’s one you wouldn’t think a journalist should even need to ask (but you’d be wrong): are there any public figures you refuse to honestly, objectively, publicly criticize? If yes… it’s worse than bad. You’re already suborned. You’re not even a journalist.

9. Can you identify any scenarios, any potential compromises, that you would not make under any circumstances, that you would resign over before ever embracing? If not… bad sign.

10. Can you put yourself in the shoes of the organization/establishment/oligarchy and imagine how you would go about suborning yourself to get past your defenses? How would you obscure the true nature of those compromises to conceal them from the target’s conscience, how would you package them to make them more easily swallowed and digested? How would you, knowing yourself, attempt to suborn yourself if you were really determined to bring it off? Because if you’re not thinking like the opposition, you’re surrounding yourself with talismans, not protecting yourself with real self defense.

I’m sure there are many more, of increasing specificity (do you print, without compelling reason, shit anonymous sources tell you?), but I think this is a good start. And obviously, the principles we’re dealing with here apply to professions and situations beyond just journalism.

I’m not a journalist, but I do know that when you enter an enormous, shifting system single-mindedly dedicated to beguiling you into surrendering your values and assimilating you, you have to do more than assure yourself you’ll practice good journalism. You have to take the threat seriously, consider how many people have succumbed to it before you, and armor up accordingly. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance. And if you don’t think you need to take the threat seriously, you’re even more vulnerable, and more likely doomed, than most.

Probably I’ve just spent more time thinking about these issues than most journalists. From his response to Greenwald, I gather I’ve spent more time even than Hayes, who claims “cognitive capture” is a universal consequence to sufficiently prolonged exposure to temptation. This isn’t a good sign. But I hope this article will prompt at least a few journalists to take more seriously the threat Hayes identifies, but has apparently not yet come to grips with.