links for 2009-07-28
Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Jonathan Weisman/Wall Street Journal Edition)

Is Michael Massing Making a Joke?

Michael Massing writes:

The News About the Internet - The New York Review of Books: The bloggers I have been reading reject such reflexive attempts at "balance," and it's their willingness to dispense with such conventions that makes the blogosphere a lively and bracing place. This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Glenn Greenwald...

So far, so good. Most of what makes Glenn Greenwald worth reading is his unwillingness to say that everything is all grey and that every argument is made in good faith--his belief that there is right and wrong, and the fact that that belief compels him to investigate issues and argue strenuously that:

  • Any process in which 100 prisoners of the United States die under interrogation is one of systematic torture.
  • Torture is against the law.
  • Laws ought to be followed.
  • When laws are not followed, the government officials who did not follow them should be prosecuted.
  • If the officials seek to plead that it was necessary to break the law, then they should make that plea first to their jury, and then to the president when they petition for a pardon--and let first the jury and, if appropriate, the president judge the worth of that plea.

But two paragraphs later Michael Massing is saying that the thing wrong with Greenwald is--guess what--that he is "unbalanced":

In June [2009 Glenn Greenwald] wrote:

The steadfast, ongoing refusal of our leading media institutions to refer to what the Bush administration did as "torture"—even in the face of more than 100 detainee deaths; the use of that term by a leading Bush official to describe what was done at Guantánamo; and the fact that media outlets frequently use the word "torture" to describe the exact same methods when used by other countries—reveals much about how the modern journalist thinks.

For the press, Greenwald added, "there are two sides and only two sides to every 'debate'—the Beltway Democratic establishment and the Beltway Republican establishment." In so vigilantly watching over the press, Greenwald has performed an invaluable service. But his posts have a downside. After reading his harsh denunciations of Obama's decision not to release the latest batch of torture photos, I began to lose sight of the persuasive arguments that other commentators have made in support of the President's position. As well-argued and provocative as I found many of Greenwald's postings, they often seem oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers must contend with. This points to some of the more troubling features of the journalism taking shape on the Web. The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real...

But Massing never says what the "persuasive arguments" against Greenwald are, or why Greenwald should be moved by them. The total content of Massing's critique of Greenwald is that Greenwald is (a) shrill and (b) effective, and that that makes Massing uncomfortable.

This is an excellent and reflexive example of exactly what Massing earlier in the article had called "reflexive attempts at 'balance'" the absence of which "makes the blogosphere a lively and bracing place"--and the presence of which sucks the lifeblood out of the mainstream print media and will soon consign it to a sodden death.

Does Massing understand that by not making a real critique of Greenwald--by not saying what the "persuasive arguments... in support of the president's position" are, that he is performing the kind of journamalism that he has condemned for most of the article? Is it just a little albeit sophisticated joke on his part?

The consensus of observers is no, that it is not a joke. Massing has, at this stage in his article, decided that he needs to cover his flank: to:

establish his I'm-not-shrill bonafides here...

as one of Massing's peers put it in email, and that Massing does so:

in a shameful way...

If Massing thinks that the arguments against Greenwald are persuasive, then they are worth laying out in the article. If they are not worth laying out in the article, then they are not persuasive--and Massing should not claim that they are.