Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

Rebels of the Establishment

Elizabeth Lauten is one of history’s greatest monsters. At least, that’s what I read in the papers.      

What did Lauten do? She wrote some critical things on her personal Facebook page about the president’s daughters (she didn’t like the way they were dressed for a White House Thanksgiving event). Putting aside the excruciatingly dull ethical question of how we should treat Facebook posts — are they public? are they private? is this topic so boring it will encourage people to cut themselves? — I guess she shouldn’t have written what she wrote. Or maybe she should have. The truth is I just can’t muster the energy to care very much.

I don’t mean to pile on Ms. Lauten, who was forced to resign from her job over the firestorm, but she is not what one would call a big fish in Washington. She is — or rather was — the communications director of a little-known second-term Tennessee congressman. Plucking her out of obscurity for ritual sacrifice is a bit like some monarch dispatching soldiers to retrieve a girl from the hinterlands for a witch trial because she said something nefarious around the village well.

But that, of course, misses the point. Lauten’s news value had nothing to do with the news and everything to do with its utility: It furthered The Story.

Longtime reporter Matti Friedman has written a remarkable essay for The Atlantic on how the Associated Press’s Jerusalem bureau has become corrupted by the “Israel Story.” In Friedman’s telling, when reporters set foot in Jerusalem, they’re folded into the preexisting expat stew of fellow journalists, U.N. officials, and the various remoras that feed off them. These incestuous communities “provide reporters with social circles, romantic partners, and alternative employment,” Friedman writes. “Journalists cross from places like the BBC to organizations like Oxfam and back. The current spokesman at the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, for example, is a former BBC man.”

In a brilliant coup, the Palestinians have succeeded at what might be called the foreign-aid equivalent of regulatory capture. They own the U.N. and other NGOs psychologically. Reporters treat these highly ideological and partisan organizations as sources not just of information (and future jobs), but as narrators of the Israel Story, the narrative that binds together their community. Hence it’s taboo to subject their moral authority to journalistic skepticism.

That is why Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a truth-squad outfit that casts a critical eye on Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and similar outfits, was a non-person to the Associated Press. “In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor,” writes Friedman.

The Israel Story, according to Friedman, is “a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure.” The tiniest infractions by the Israelis are treated as major news — because they advance the plot. Palestinian transgressions count only if they can be bent to make Israel look bad. “For the international press, the uglier characteristics of Palestinian politics and society are mostly untouchable because they would disrupt the Israel story, which is a story of Jewish moral failure.”

Well, the Israel Story isn’t the only one being told. Here at home we have a community of storytellers, too. In America, mainstream journalists move seamlessly from the media to the government. They date and marry each other. They rely on activist groups as impartial sources (see: Southern Poverty Law Center, Women’s Sports Foundation, NAACP, ACLU, and roughly 10,000 others) and extol experts with skin in the game (Jonathan Gruber).

Sure, there’s a vaguely similar ecosystem on the right, but conservatives are identified as conservatives working at conservative institutions. The community of storytellers I’m talking about runs pretty much everything, from the mainstream media to academia, while denying their own ideological commitments and punishing conservatives for being honest about theirs.

And what is the story they’re telling? Well, the plot points vary, but what endures is the motivation of the actors. “We” (liberals) are the good guys, “they” (conservatives) are the bad guys, and Americans who disagree are in need of moral rehabilitation (i.e., pry their bitter, clinging fingers from their guns and Bibles). Also, “we” are somehow rebellious, fighting against forces more powerful than us.

This last motivation doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I’m always astounded by the conceit that liberalism is somehow rebellious. As I’ve written before, college students seem to honestly believe that agreeing with their own professors, never mind agreeing with the media, Hollywood, and the music, fashion, and publishing industries, is an act of great defiance. This mindset more than anything explains the Left’s obsession with the Koch brothers: We cannot be knights without worthy dragons to slay.

Former New York Timesman Frank Rich recently interviewed comedian Chris Rock for New York magazine. Trying to figure out why Dennis Miller is (allegedly) less funny than Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, he asked Rock, “Do you think that identifying with those in power is an impediment to laughter?”

Cue record scratch. Stewart, Maher, and Rock are standing up to “those in power”? Really? Who knew?

Like a Geraldo Rivera selfie, this level of self-deluded narcissism is both fascinating and frightening. But if Frank Rich — of all people — honestly believes that he is on the rebellious side, fighting the Powers That Be, it does help you understand how supposedly serious journalists can justify devoting vastly more time to Elizabeth Lauten than to, say, Jonathan Gruber. Lauten’s comments have no news value whatsoever, but they are incredibly useful to the storytellers who need to convince the world — and themselves — that We Are the Good Guys.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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