Silly Blogger, Intellectual Standards are for Unserious People

by Brien Jackson

The more media criticism I’ve done, particularly of newspapers, the more the thing I keep coming back to is a pretty simple, unbelievably scary, fact of American journalism; elite journalists are held to lower standards of intellectual rigor than the average college freshman in a general requirement composition class. If you slap “opinion” on an article, newspaper editors will declare that you can say absolutely anything, and that they’re powerless to demand even the most basic of intellectual requirements from your writing (especially if you’re under contract with them, which is itself a very pernicious fact of the business). Arguments can be incoherent, you can misstate (or make up), the “facts” you employ to support your arguments, and editors, especially Fred Hiatt, will declare it all part of the “exchange of ideas” or some similar nonsense. If we’re to take people like Hiatt at their word, professional norms of journalism require them to publish writing that couldn’t pass a freshman level course at any reputable university.

Only in this sort of working environment could Richard Cohen get away with writing this:

Cheney says he once had the memos in his files and has since asked that they be released. He’s got a point. After all, this is not merely some political catfight conducted by bloggers, although it is a bit of that, too. Inescapably, it is about life and death — not ideology, but people hurling themselves from the burning World Trade Center. If Cheney is right, then let the debate begin

A whopping two weeks after he wrote this:

Yet the debate over torture has been infected with silly arguments about utility: whether it works or not. Of course it works — sometimes or rarely, but if a proverbial bomb is ticking, that may just be the one time it works. I refer you to the 1995 interrogation by Philippine authorities of Abdul Hakim Murad, an al-Qaeda terrorist who served up extremely useful information about a plot to blow up airliners when he was told that he was about to be turned over to Israel’s Mossad. As George Orwell suggested in “1984,” everyone has his own idea of torture.

If the threat of torture works — if it has worked at least once — then it follows that torture itself would work. Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can’t all be fools or knaves. This is also the position of Dick Cheney, who can sometimes be both, but in this, at least, he has some support.

America should repudiate torture not because it is always ineffective — nothing is always anything — or because others loathe it but because it degrades us and runs counter to our national values. It is a statement of principle, somewhat similar to why we do not tap all phones or stop and frisk everyone under the age of 28. Those measures would certainly reduce crime, but they are abhorrent to us.

In other words, two weeks ago Richard Cohen thought the debate over the Bush torture regime was getting side-tracked by the irrelevant question of whether or not the torture techniques worked. Today, Richard Cohen thinks that there’s no debate happening over torture, and we need to start asking ourselves if maybe torture might be an effective way to gather information. And there’s not the slightest bit of acknowledgement whatsoever of his prior column. It’s the absolute height of intellectual dishonesty, straight from the pages of one of our premiere Serious Journalistic Enterprises.

Here’s an idea for some hedge fund manager with a smidgeon of patriotism who wants to rehabilitate his image somewhat; short the Washington Post. Your nation will be eternally grateful.

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