Out of the Blog
Just Where Do Citizen Journalists Such As Marcy Wheeler Fit Into Today's News World?
Like many Americans, Marcy Wheeler, citizen journalist and author of Anatomy of Deceit, is mad as hell. It's hard to blame her. The subtitle--How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy--speaks for itself. For four years this March, the United States has been caught in a ruinous war that the American public was ambivalent about entering in the first place. For about the same amount of time, Wheeler--a Michigan-based business consultant by day who blogs by night, under the name "emptywheel," at thenexthurrah.typepad.com--has been spending spare hours poring through old articles, news reports, and unclassified online documents along with others in the liberal blogosphere.
While George W. Bush bears the brunt of her rage, you can't help wondering what role she and other "citizen journalists" (her term) are going to play once his administration slinks out the door. As this thin book indicates, Wheeler and the Bushies have achieved an angry symbiosis. After four years of surfing the Valerie Plame scandal, her studies of the Bush administration's inner mind verges on the Talmudic. Take her intricate reading of Lewis "Scooter" Libby's enigmatic waiver letter to Judith Miller, in which Libby mentions that "aspens turn in clusters, because their roots connect them": "Miller's recognition of the reference certainly suggests Libby may have been trying to send a message about cooperating. It's notable, too, that Cheney maintains a home in Jackson Hole; Libby often traveled there with the vice president."
And now the party's almost over. A few weeks after this book first appeared in stores, Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted of perjury. Revenge is bittersweet, and justice may never really be served. Now that the tents are being folded and all the evidence we're going to see is on the table, bloggers like Wheeler have files stuffed to exploding with furious tracts typed late into the night. This seven-chapter book, which traces the development of the Plame case from September 2002 to December '06, is more of a sampler than a history: a collection of essays that document the Bush administration's attempt to sell the Iraq war to a hesitant public.
The Plame case "is an ongoing story," Wheeler writes in her introduction, "so I can only guess how it might end." Given the fact that she's doggedly pursued the case for years, you might ask why she didn't wait until the verdict came out to publish her book about it. It's probably because the genre rides a wave of anger that has already crested.
It's hard to blame Wheeler for wanting to get a book on the Plame scandal out there before the big shots do. For years, DIY journalists like Wheeler have been voices in the wilderness, wondering why the administration's line was being swallowed so meekly by the establishment press. Now, much of what they've said has been taken up by the major labels. Journalistic superstar Bob Woodward has ruefully admitted that, when the Iraq war fever was at its heart, he "dropped the ball" by swallowing the administration's line on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And he's made more money admitting that he was wrong than citizen journalists ever made being right.
Given her Ph.D. in French literature, Wheeler has a generic term for this sort of quickly processed chapbook. "Feuilletons," she writes, are conversational political essays that originally materialized in France during the era of Napoleonic censorship. As their 19th-century French counterparts did, American citizen journalists are presumably taking up the slack with this medium, by "using ordinary language [to] tell of important events in a more meaningful way."
Deceit has the look and feel of a feuilleton that has been rapidly pasted together. Fifty of its 176 pages are "extras"--an extended 19-page time line and 27 pages of notes. If there's a reason for reading this labor of love, it's not because Wheeler has discovered anything we don't already know about the Bush administration. There are few primary sources here, and Wheeler openly admits that. She's not part of the Beltway cocktail circuit, and she's not a conduit for leaks. But while she doesn't have a Rolodex of inside sources, she, like most of us, is armed with Google and Lexis-Nexis. She's done what she can with that: the writings of Robert Novak, Woodward, Miller, and all the other "celebrity journalists" are cited in detail.
Instead of interviewing major players, she deconstructs them. The New York Times' Judith Miller, for instance, is a primary target of Wheeler's wrath. In a chapter titled "Deconstructing Judy," she painstakingly chronicles the relationships cultivated by this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist as she covered her WMD beat. Tim Russert, Novak, Woodward, David Broder, and other high-profile Washington journalists are treated with similar disdain, as members of the "cocktail weenie" set: journalists who thrive in the incestuous network of political powerbrokers.
Because Wheeler's sources are all secondary, though, you wish that she'd been able to worm her way into a few cocktail parties herself. Instead of relying on "administration officials," she relies on old news and bits of information that are circulated in the blogosphere. She even has a term that she uses for the movement: "Plameology," or the practice of researching a conspiracy by circulating the resources of the blogosphere among a hard-core group of like-minded believers. The skill involved here is in the collation of previously printed material. There are no interviews, and there is no need to muck about Washington's incestuous swamp of primary sources. For a Plameologist, all the information one needs is at one's fingertips.
This book is a well-written, if brief, narrative of the administration's paranoid attempts at incorporating Beltway journalism into its grand design. But it's also a little disturbing. If you believe what Wheeler says, there's a dangerous gap in the hard-news market--otherwise, America probably wouldn't be embroiled in Iraq in the first place. On one hand, as Wheeler puts it, those who follow the mainstream media are getting packaged talking points from a band of Washington-based "über-insiders" who act as conduits for leaks. Now, if Americans don't believe what they read, they can tune into Daily Kos or the Next Hurrah, and cherry pick the evidence to support their own conspiracy theories. Sandwiched somewhere between those two warring crowds is a shrinking band of full-time professionals who have the time and resources to investigate the hard news. By the end of Anatomy of Deceit, you wish there were a few more people doing just that.