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Shouldn't the New Yorker be doing its job, instead of blaming others for doing it badly?

Joseph Murtagh


Shouldn’t the New Yorker be doing its job, instead of blaming others for doing it badly?


October 19, 2006 -- Never mind Loose Change: anyone who wishes to understand what’s going on in America right now ought to watch 12 Angry Men, Sydney Lumet’s 1957 classic movie about a group of jurors debating whether they should send a young Puerto Rican kid to his death for allegedly killing his father.  The movie opens with the men gathering in the jury room after the trial, and just when it seems like everyone is sure of the kid’s guilt, one man, played by Henry Fonda, says he’s not convinced, he’s got a reasonable doubt, and soon one man turns into two, and two into three, and three into four, and on and on, as the men go back over the evidence presented in the trial and realize how many holes there are in the prosecution’s case.  To anyone who might be feeling pretty bleak these days about the prospects of our own country-wide jury, in the movie at least, there’s a happy ending. 


One of the more memorable characters is a stockbroker, played by E.G. Marshall.  He comes across as cool, sophisticated, logical – actually, just the type of person who might read a magazine like the New Yorker – and he clearly places a high emphasis on critical thinking.  “I rely only on facts,” he keeps telling the other jurors.  This sounds reasonable enough, except what becomes painfully obvious during the course of the movie is that his judgment is being influenced less by a genuine desire to get to the bottom of things than by a feeling of intellectual superiority over the other men in the room, as one by one they all change their minds about the case, and he still clings obstinately to his first assumptions.  Having grown used to the idea that his view ought to matter, he finds it very hard to give it up. 


Last week, the smartest journal in the land weighed in on the conspiracy issue.  In an article called “Paranoid Style,” Nicholas Lemann writes in The New Yorker that “today in America the conspiracy against Americans that Bush announced five years ago forms a kind of matched set with the conviction, widely held at least by those who don’t like Bush or his policies, that the Administration conspired to use the September 11 attacks to launch an unnecessary military adventure.” 


Following this statement comes a discussion of Loose Change, the documentary claiming the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks by independent filmmakers Dylan Avery, Korey Rowe, and Jason Bermas, which, as the press never tires of reminding us, was made on a private laptop for only $6000.  Carefully tiptoeing around saying anything about the film’s allegations, Lemann instead focuses almost exclusively on matters of style, and while he initially tries to strike a tone of friendly disinterestedness, his real feelings about Loose Change quickly emerge through prose heavily laden with the language of seduction – he refers to the “thrill” of the revelations, the images with a “powerful undertow,” “the undeniably mesmerizing quality,” “the tantalizing revelations,” and the implication, at any rate, is clear: whatever may be said for the “audience in the millions” who’ve already watched Loose Change on the Internet, Nicholas Lemann was not born yesterday. 


After assuming that “huffy denunciations of the many journalistic shortcomings of Loose Change would probably not change the minds of many of its fans,” Lemann goes on to review a spate of books, “The Puzzle of 9/11” by Eric D. Williams, “The Horrifying Fraud” by Theirry Mason, and “Armed Madhouse” by Greg Palast, the last of which he describes as “great fun,” but cautions his readers that “skeptics who need to be won over do not seem to be the intended audience.” 


Next, he takes a look at some documentary films, “Hijacking Catastrophe” by Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp, “Uncovered: the Whole Truth About the Iraq War” by Robert Greenwald, and “Why We Fight” by Eugene Jarecki, and while his attitude towards the individual films varies  – he admires Greenwald’s work, for instance – he’s skeptical about documentaries as a whole, about which he makes a comment that I think is definitely true, and which I’ll have more to say about in a moment: “Documentaries have the authority that accompanies images of things that really happened, the ability to make associative leaps through cuts and interpolations of unrelated material, and an implied freedom from having to produce a response from whatever charges an interview subject makes on camera.” 


Finally, he finishes up by citing historian Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, on the basis of which he concludes that over half the country is now suffering from a “view of how the world works that mistakenly empowers particular, and evil, forces with the ability to determine the course of events,” and that “misses the messiness and contingency with which life unfolds.”       


The first thing to say about this article is that it completely fails to get at the root cause of the problem, which is that the main reason for the “paranoid style” in American journalism today is the Bush administration’s recurring pattern of bureaucratic secrecy.  If the government was open and honest with the public, there would be no need for all the conspiratorial thinking.  People want answers, and they’re not getting any, and all articles like Lemann’s do is exacerbate the problem.  Lemann ought to be hammering away at the walls of iron that have been raised around the public’s eyes and ears, but instead he’s merely giving us his opinion on the paranoid results.  The first would be journalism indeed, but the second is a kind of belletristic cultural criticism, which goes nowhere and does nothing. 


Second, what Lemann hopes to achieve with this article is far from clear.  Does he honestly think this is going to help the paranoid masses quit their speculating?  If anything, he’s just added more fuel to the fire, because thanks to this new article of his now even more people will be looking up the videos online and freaking out about building 7 and explosions in the towers and all the rest of it.  Here’s an idea: why doesn’t Lemann do his job and ask questions of the government instead of publicly looking down his nose at all his countrymen who have no other choice but to engage in this kind of thinking?  Where’s the dignity in the Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism at Columbia University lecturing a couple of college dropouts who live in a trailer in rural upstate New York on their “many journalistic shortcomings?”  Since it was chiefly because of the incompetence of professional journalists that amateurs like Dylan Avery and Kory Rowe started making movies in the first place, it seems absurd for the professionals to come along now and accuse them of being unprofessional.         


And finally, where was Nicholas Leman five years ago to warn us of the dangers of paranoid thinking when like a blitzkrieg out of our television screens there blazed endless news stories about a super-well-organized worldwide network of terrorists numbering in the tens of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, ready to kill us in droves?  Why were there no words of wisdom then, no lofty perorations on the “paranoid style” in American journalism?  I’ll tell you why: because Nicholas Lemann believed in that conspiracy, the same way over half the country now believes in another, and so what ought to happen next is for all of us together as a people to move from a position of belief to a position of knowledge, and there’s no better person to help us do that than Nicholas Lemann, since it is, after all, what he has been trained and gets paid to do.                          


Nicholas Lemann is an incredibly bright guy, and 999 times out of a thousand, his assumptions about the world are going to be right on, but this is not one of those times, and because he’s old, and because he’s set in his ways, and because he’s entrenched in a stronghold of professional conformity over there at Columbia, he hasn’t been able to come to grips with something that probably close to half his readers have already figured out and that will hopefully be dawning on him any day now too.  The point he makes about documentaries being able to manipulate events through cuts and interpolations is very well taken, but there is another important aspect to documentaries he forgets to mention, which is hardly surprising given his rather snooty disregard for the opinions of the sort of people who don’t subscribe to the New Yorker or read James Joyce, and that is the power of documentaries to present a moving personal testimony, the opportunity they give to people who have been marginalized in some way, or made the victims of some injustice, to speak to the viewer on an equal footing. 


And I guess Nicholas Lemann must have been too busy resisting the charms of Loose Change to hear anything about an important group of documentaries that do just this, all of which have come out in the last month or so, and which together form their own little subgenre in that they all seem to arise out of a similar set of circumstances:    


1) A U.S. citizen suffers personally as a result of the government’s actions, and this experience causes him to have a radical transformation in the way he views his political reality.


2) He joins forces with others who have had similar experiences and together they try to bring the issue to public attention.


3) They might get limited coverage in the mainstream press, but generally their plight gets drowned out by other issues, such as terrorism, bird-flu, or the latest missing white woman. 


4) An independent filmmaker comes along and makes a documentary in which these people finally get a chance to speak to the public.


5) Anyone who then watches these documentaries has the same radical transformation in his or her political reality as the people in the film, because he or she can sympathize with the subjects on a personal level by saying, “Hey, this could have been me or my family.”


6) Afterwards, he or she tells others about the film through e-mail or word of mouth.


7) He or she gets called a conspiracy nut or worse – that is, until the people who are doing the name-calling finally get around to watching the films themselves and have the same radical transformation in their political reality and start spreading the word too. 


8) Professional journalists like Nicholas Lemann who obviously haven’t watched any of these films then write jarringly misinformed articles, and those of us in his audience who have watched them wonder what’s keeping him from doing so too, when at least two of these films are only a few clicks of a mouse away.


The films I’m talking about are “9/11 Press for Truth” by Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy, “Iraq for Sale” by Robert Greenwald, and “American Blackout” by Ian Inaba, none of which are mentioned by Nicholas Lemann in his article.  Together, these films expose the federal government’s absolutely horrendous crimes against the American people over the last six years: the cover-up of 9/11, the insane behavior of federally contracted corporations in Iraq, and documented cases of grievous vote fraud among black populations in Florida and Ohio.  The first two of these films are available online at Google, and anyone who hasn’t watched them should do so now:     


To watch these videos click on the title links.  9/11 Press for Truth and Iraq for Sale


Neither of these films includes anything as sensational as missiles hitting the pentagon or remote controlled airplanes or nuclear explosions in the basement of the World Trade Center.  What they show instead is the personal stories of people whose suffering has given them a very unique insight into American politics today, one might even say a genuine insight, an insight that reveals the real world of pain and suffering that Nicholas Lemann, in his acrobatic effort to please all sides, seems to have forgotten all about.  Actually, it would be a very interesting experience to watch these films in the presence of Nicholas Lemann, so that one might observe the expression of horror and dismay slipping gradually over his face as he watches a pattern of criminal behavior unfold on the part of the Bush administration that makes Tony Soprano look like Mr. Magoo.  And then maybe to take him out for a beer afterwards, and tell him it’s okay, we all got duped, but now we have to start thinking seriously about how to get out of this mess, because the transformation of consciousness that occurs after watching these films is roughly akin to moving from a position where you think that members of the Bush administration are either good or bad politicians, to a position where you feel that members of the Bush administration could quite potentially wipe out you and your whole family on a whim.   


In the end, the problem with the Nicholas Lemanns' of this world is that they are just too damn complacent.  The stories coming in from the people in these films – widows, soldiers, civilian contractors, detainees – is of an evil so horrifying, so appalling, that it defies comprehension.  You would think the same magazine that broke the Abu Ghraib scandal would be screaming its head off.  Instead, all we’re getting from the New Yorker these days are prissy articles that in the name of impartiality at any cost do little more than assist the government in covering up the truth.  It’s impossible to say of the folks at the New Yorker what Hannah Arendt said of the Jews after World War II: “In fear and trembling, have they finally realized of what mankind is capable,” and so they routinely fail to live up to the second part of Arendt’s statement: “and this is indeed the precondition of any modern political thinking.”  Nicholas Lemann knows nothing about the nature of truly radical evil: that lesson wasn’t taught to him in his journalism classes at Harvard.  It must be taught to him by those of his countrymen who know what it means to suffer at the hands of power – all Nicholas Lemann has to do is stop being so smug and listen to them. 


I hate saying these things.  I love the New Yorker.  I always learn something reading the articles, I think the prose is great, and I love the way the flashy covers look sitting on my coffee table.  But objectivity is a poor excuse for cowardice, and if Nicholas Lemann and crew can’t get their act together those covers won’t be sitting on my table much longer.     

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