Friday, June 21, 2013

Afflicting The Comfortable

Don't blame Geraldo Rivera, though he was tasteless, nasty, and inaccurate. After Michael Hastings' fatal car crash (presumably accident) he tweeted "Reporter Michael Hastings KI tragic car wreck Condolences to familyBut hard to forget he destroyed career of 1 of our best fighting generals."  At least Rivera noticed the news item.

In a profile three years ago of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, Hastings noted  the General had ridiculed Vice-President Biden and described Obama as "uncomfortable and intimidated" in a meeting with top military officials.  In a move I supported, McChrystal's commander-in-chief removed the general, whom Defense Secretary Gates observed "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgement," from his position.  He was replaced by General David Petraeus, after which the allied war effort in Afghanistan deteriorated, an event I did not anticipate, though consistent with the Teflon General's failure in Iraq and subsequent failure as head of the C.I.A.

Rivera, though, was not late to the party.  When Obama removed McChrystal, the Fox News commentator remarked (thankfully, before the era of Twitter domination), "the General’s resignation should have been refused by the President" and criticized the Rolling Stone reporter.

Hastings, however, was not responsible for progress of the war effort.  Nor was he responsible even for the departure of General McChrsytal.  The General made the remarks of his own free will and his resignation was requested by a president whom, we have increasingly found, has few restraints on his behavior, the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding.   But Hastings ought to be remembered in part, as Barrett Brown wrote when the McChrsytal flap emerged, as the journalist who

was for a time Newsweek’s Baghdad correspondent. In 2008, that mediocre publication assigned him to cover our republic’s most recent and ridiculous electoral contest, and as a consequence the fellow got an insider’s view of how terribly destructive is the manner in which this country covers its most important decisions. This sentiment is widespread among the more observant media professionals, who generally do not act on it out of concern for their own careers. In contrast, Hastings quit Newsweek and wrote a damning exposé about what he had seen and experienced during his stint. During a time in which many journalists thought of little more than how they would attain security for themselves, Hastings ensured that he would never be trusted by the establishment media ever again.

Instead, he seems at this point neither to be remembered, nor mourned, by many at all.  On Wednesday, for instance, The Philadelphia Inquirer, in its decline still a better daily than the vast majority in the nation, honored this great investigative reporter with an L.A. Times article it printed in the far, upper right hand corner of page A16.   The following morning, an article appearing just below the fold on page one and accompanied by a picture immediately above the fold blared "James Gandolfini, a star rooted in N.J."  (Not insignificantly, this reaction ensued even though Gandolfini hailed from a part of the state which includes few subscribers to the newspaper.)

The piece dominated the first page.  Thankfully, on Friday, the front page gave way to an article about the New Jersey budget and one about the precipitous drop in the stock market, though we did learn, in a piece far larger than the one on Thursday about Hastings, that Brad Pitt commented "I admire Jimmy as a ferocious actor, a gentle soul, and a genuinely funny man."   Nothing further about the guy who spoke truth to power unlike virtually anyone since the early days of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, now a splendid hack.

The Inquirer's response was typical.   On Thursday, Chris Matthews featured on Hardball (transcript, here) two segments dedicated to lionizing Gandofini, not including opening remarks in which he labeled the late actor among a number of "American icons."   Nothing on whats-his-name.   Salon- Salon!-  included on Thursday five posts about Gandolfini and one about Hastings.

The disconnect was most evident in Matthews' introduction, in which he identified as icons Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who dominated baseball when baseball thoroughly dominated American sports; Elvis Presley, undoubtedly the most influential performer in the history of American music; and John Kennedy, about whom Matthews wrote a book and whom (perhaps as another fabulously wealthy Irish-American Catholic) he worships as he does no other.  He may be forgiven that.

But Matthews selects as icons also Bruce Springsteen, who ought not to qualify; and Madonna, for whom the label is obscene. Gandolfini apparently gave, as the Inquirer's David Hiltbrand write, a "compellling portrayal of Tony Soprano, the basso profundo characer with the falsetto name (who) was arguably the most influential and indelible dramatic turn since Marlon Brando played Stanley Kowalski..." He was a good man and great and popular actor.

But he was an actor, thus someone who entertained people by excelling at pretending to be something he wasn't.  Michael Hastings, to the contrary, was one of only a few journalists or writers who even tried to unmask pretenders, and he excelled at it.  The lack of attention to his death and his work suggests those public officials and military brass who wield enormous power with little scrutiny will continue to do so.  

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