On Writers, the Media, and the Corruptions of Power

On Writers, the Media, and the Corruptions of Power

On Writers, the Media, and the Corruptions of Power

Joel Whitney, whose book Finks is about the CIA’s subversion of US culture, talks about the scars left by the Cold War.


In Part 1 of my exchange with Joel Whitney, conducted shortly after OR Books published Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, we explored the book as history (which is how Whitney intends it to be read). Our focus was on the narrative line in Finks, fascinating in itself, and its many varied implications—for writing and publishing, primarily, but also for American culture in a broader dimension.

In this, the conclusion of our conversation, we stayed much closer to the world out the window, as we both put it. I wanted to explore Whitney’s thinking as to the scars the period he wrote about has left behind. I was especially interested in Whitney’s reflections on the crisis in the American press and whether its corrupted relationship with power now can be usefully compared with its conduct during the Cold War—its “finkification,” as Whitney put it in a telephone conversation as I worked through the transcript.

“Nothing’s been subtracted from the setup that existed until the ’60s and ’70s,” he said during our interview. “There’s been no serious accountability. There’s no truth and reconciliation. It’s always the people who are involved who get to preside over the verdict of what it did and how it should be dealt with.”

Now, let me ask a question of Whitney the magazine editor. I think a lot about the Cold War’s scars. They are many. Among the deepest, in my view, is our inability to think clearly—cleanly, so to say, with detachment or disinterest. We’ve lost this, it seems to me. But maybe you disagree based on what comes across your desk at the magazine. In the matter of Cold War scars, what do you see as a magazine editor?

Well, since starting the book project I’ve removed myself from day-to-day Guernica responsibilities.… If you want to be a little more optimistic about culture, creating a magazine maybe at first will hurt you, but after its name has grown somewhat, it will help you to become more optimistic about culture long-term. People are writing about every damn thing. They probably always were. It’s easier than ever to get it to an editor now, probably, than has ever been the case. It’s just a question of finding the process and the time to get the good pieces from out of all the noise.

Talking about the scars of the Cold War, they’re there. In publishing I think there’s still a fear of sounding too left wing.

Oh, tell me about it.

I think there’s a fear of self-marginalization, self-censorship. Certainly with regard to the NSA surveillance story, which PEN did a great survey about: They found that writers were self-censoring. I think a lot of people were letting Obama off the hook on things like drones. Maybe Guantánamo—he tried to close it and got stonewalled—but on drones, how do we let him give a drone program, virtually intact, to Trump?

It is a very strong word, but it is inescapable: Obama is an assassin. He made himself an assassin.

Yes. He is an assassin. It’s political assassination from the air. It’s horrifying. And as we are now seeing, as Trump takes it over, there are other world leaders we’re afraid of who could get their own and are trying to get their own [drones]. That’s an American invention, and we let Obama off the hook. With Trump now, people are throwing caution to the wind and saying, “Good, let me be a fucking political writer.” And so they’ve mastered their aesthetics.

On a certain side.

On a certain side, which is true. I thought this book was going to land as a self-critique of the so-called liberal conspiracy, and I thought its lessons were very important for the Democratic Party. Corruption, collusion, and things like that. This is why I’ve resisted “explain your book in the age of Trump” questions. No, I was expecting to explain my book in the age of Hillary. So that question has stifled me a little bit. I still don’t have a vocabulary for Trump.

You were a bit wrong-footed.

Well no, I mean, history was wrong-footed. I was right-footed….

Now that we’re in the present, naturally, I want to ask the author of Finks several immediately pertinent questions. To begin, what’s your read of the rampant Russophobia we’re practically drowning in? My own is heavily colored by the period you’ve written about. What about yours? Does the work you did on Finks suggest a rerun?

When it comes to the election-hacking question, I was initially a little skeptical. But I understand the concern. Let’s find out more about how Americans vote and who can hack our systems. Republican presidential squeak-throughs are consistently tied to things like a lower popular vote and all sorts of other irregularities: Money as speech and Citizens United, overturning key parts of the Voting Rights Act through ideological interpretations of the law on the Supreme Court last summer, redistricting, bumping minorities who vote Democrat with the most common names from the voting rolls to shrink the blue majority—all this is more alarming to me than Russian hacking. It wasn’t rigged in the way Trump shouted; instead, his shouting was itself part of the diversion.

Think about the Republicans in the light of butterfly ballots, stopping the recount, Diebold voting machines flipping votes always to the right, like Tinder [the dating site] for neocons and neofascists. That’s some legacy to be proud of there. This time, the big nonstory was the Crosscheck scheme funded by the Koch brothers’ fronts. This all struck me as much more important than the purported leaking of e-mails of Democratic establishment figures. And so I read the obsession with Russian hacking as a distraction from that. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any Russian interference. There may have been. But the influence of Russia on the election struck me as negligible, while people being bumped or otherwise disenfranchised struck me as much more serious.

Where I’m less skeptical of the Russian collusion and corruption story is where Trump may be making money, illicit money, through decades-old ties to Russian oligarchs. And if investigating that avenue can reduce Trump to something other than a hawk who fires missiles into the void while destroying American democratic institutions wholesale, then I’m all for pursuing it. He needs to be stopped from taking the country back to the age of the robber barons, which is what those who are ordering up his policies appear to want.

You refer to Syria. A brave, perspicacious professor at MIT just exploded all, as in all accepted accounts of the recent chemical weapons incident in Khan Sheikhoun—in my view, I should say, as others think otherwise. Pinning that on Damascus was sheer fabrication—as was the August 2013 incident, of course. In both cases, the American media reported not a single deviation from the official account. Theodore Postol, the MIT scientist, wrote this in his open letter reporting his findings: “The critical function of the mainstream media in the current situation should be to report the facts that clearly and unambiguously contradict government claims. This has so far not occurred, and this is perhaps the biggest indicator of how incapacitated the mechanisms for democratic governance of the United States have become.”

That’s a big statement. Do you view our circumstances with similar gravity?

Ted Postol did great work on pushing back against the defense establishment during the 1990s and early 2000s. His analysis of the Patriot missile showed that, despite their initial success rate of 100 percent or so in hitting their targets during the Gulf War, they often fell apart in the sky instead. A decade later, he showed how easily balloon decoys—balloons shaped like missiles tied to our enemies’ missiles—could thwart the boondoggle of missile defense. Those are important victories for the truth.

If your question is about media uniformity generally speaking, yes, I do view our circumstances with gravity. Especially in times of war, there is a tendency to go with the flow of prior reporting that often emanates from the White House and its reports and intelligence briefings. Those are most problematic when the whiff of ideology creeps in, as we saw in 2003. Likewise, in the specific context of Dr. Postol’s media critique tucked into his report about the allegations of a sarin attack by Assad, I find it a little odd that he shifts from analysis—15 or so paragraphs—about a physical event, topped by a quick correction on wind direction, new data presumably, to preaching to his readers that we should be on Putin’s side (read: Assad’s side) in our fight against ISIS, and that anything less might weaken relations with Russia. I don’t therefore read this as his most credible scientific report or his most credible media critique, given that the war in Syria has many more players than Assad and IS. I’m sure Dr. Postol knows this when he’s being thorough. The correction on wind direction, though understandable, suggests he was keen to get this out in real time, and that’s not always the best way to do science.

It is always chancy to make comparisons such as the one I’ll make now, but in my view the American press is now at least as compromised as it was during the Cold War decades, and possibly more so. I locate the critical moment, the beginning of the collapse, in 2001, when the press committed—quite explicitly in meetings with White House officials—to support of the official narrative whatever that may be. No difficult questions, editors promised. Accepting the term “war on terror” was a grave error in itself, given all it licensed the administration to do. Simply rejecting those three words would have made an immense difference.

Having written Finks, you must have a view on this, and I’m eager to hear it.

Is the American press as compromised as it was during the Cold War? I would guess that the answer is yes and no. But let’s start with the 2001 terrorist moment and its aftermath, which felt often quite dire and altogether too uniform in terms of media dancing to George Bush’s war drums, to use that old cliché. Nevertheless, I took the counter-narratives reported and argued in The Nation—honestly, not just to curry favor here—as proof that the media still had many counter-currents, both in the US and internationally. Opinion journals may not have the same audience sizes as what we call mainstream media. But what I largely report on in Finks was the opinion media, the little intellectual magazines. I hardly report on TV at all.

While TV and mainstream newspaper coverage were at a high point of uniformity and even collaboration in the weeks and months between September 11, 2001, and into March 2003, when we bombed the regime and people of Iraq for an attack that had nothing to do with them, it was also a moment when that same mainstream media’s uniform power was on the verge of crumbling apart. Readers like me felt the intuitive need to seek out other media, diversities of opinion, and found ourselves devouring everything—The Guardian, The New Statesman, In These Times, Mother Jones, Harper’s, The Nation—or we may have sought to launch our own sites, like Guernica, n+1, etc. Even if the Cold War saw the systematic sidelining of leftist and antiwar voices—and dissident voices and civil rights voices and the voices of people of color by calling them fellow travelers, spying on them or worse, or by merely developing a comparative economy that saw better patronage, and therefore more privileges incurred for adhering to the Washington consensus, all of which I report in Finks—that doesn’t mean readers value these outsider voices any less. In times of crisis especially. And thanks to the Internet, they may be just as easy to access if you know about them in the first place. So the problem moves from a media monopoly of sorts, where you knew a certain line was being followed, to a media overload where you may be too lazy to check who owns the site putting out a certain headline that can help you in your ongoing war with your uncle who is a conservative evangelical, as the case may be.

But I’ll double down on that moment you cite, with a quieter one. In the middle of, I think, 2012, Michael Hastings reported in BuzzFeed that the new Defense Authorization Bill that Obama signed essentially removed the ban on fake news and disinformation-based propaganda by the military and other US government agencies inside our borders. As Finks shows us, our own propaganda has made us stupider and more innocent by finding its way inside our own borders for decades, even if much of what we read was technically illegal but hid its propaganda origins and therefore mooted its illegality.

But this last election, with all its outcry over fake news by Democrats, was not just the second presidential election in the age of the Republican-won Citizens United decision. Money as speech. Legalized corruption, if you like. Weighting of opinion in favor of corporate greed and needs. It was the first one where disinformation and propaganda inside our borders by our own government—disinformation for the people, of the people, if not by the people then by their tax dollars, which is their labor, their time and effort—was newly legal. So yes, be skeptical. When a democratic government seeks to remove the ban on lying to you, be very skeptical indeed, because you’re in for a long, bumpy ride.

Let’s talk about mechanisms. Your book has got a lot about the “how” of the cultural Cold War and the propaganda campaigns. Do you think the same thing is going on again? Paid agents in the media, or people doing favors voluntarily, the access game, unwitting dupes, untraceable cash payments? How far along are we in this? I’m asking as a former hack—a hack nursing a profound betrayal.

The default assumption seems to be that since the revelations of the 1960s and ’70s up to the Church Committee, when names were named: “OK, we fixed that. That was then, this is now.” I don’t buy that for a second.

I don’t either.

It’s my rule, and I think an unwritten rule among all correspondents and reporters, that you can’t name names without evidence. It’s too career-destroying. It’s not responsible. And since by definition you’re never going to come by any evidence, no names are mentioned. But I could name four or five or six people who really are right out there. There were people I knew in Asia—I was their editor in some cases—and I thought, Why don’t you put a little neon sign on your forehead? It was evident, but you can’t name them.

OK, fair enough: It’s too grave a charge. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but it is so apparent, if not quite evident, that this is still going on, even maybe more so, and I wonder what your thought is. I’m curious to know not only whether you think it’s still going on, but whether the mechanisms are still the same.

My sense of it is that the elements are all there for it not only to have not been disrupted at all by any revelations, but nothing’s been subtracted from the setup that existed until the 1960s and ’70s. There’s been no serious accountability. There’s no truth and reconciliation. It’s always the people who are involved who get to preside over the verdict of what it did and how it should be dealt with. You see this when the CIA conducts its own investigations into its own scandals. If they can’t quite conduct it themselves, then they’ll spy on the people who are. We saw this with the recent torture report. There’s no accountability in the CIA—that seems pretty clear still. There’s no significant corrective accountability that one sees from the outside. I’m not at all claiming to be an expert on the CIA now.…

I’ll finish with this parenthetical. The year before I pre-launched this book at the National Press Club Book Fair in DC, I’d been dating someone who was stationed there for a year as a professor of fiction, and she’d dragged me to the spy museum, which I assumed was going to be propaganda for spying. It is, essentially, but it claims to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical. There’s a lot of spy film memorabilia; it’s like fetishizing spying and secret weaponry. But one of the things that came out of that was the singular fact that DC is the city in the world with the most spies per capita.…

When I was at the National Press Club Book Fair almost a year later, someone walks up to me and she says, “I’ve spent my career in The AP, and I suspect a few of my colleagues—not at the AP necessarily, but in journalism—of having CIA ties.” And I said, “Great, do you want to talk about that?” She replied, “No, I just want to know if your book has an index.” I said, “Yep.” She sort of stood back from me so I couldn’t see where she was in the alphabet, and she said, “Yep! There’s one of them!” She slammed it closed, plopped it down, and walked away.

Just my point a moment ago.

In my head I said, “I’ve already written about this person. You might as well tell me what your perspective on them was.” But who knows? That could have been decades-old information that she wanted to verify. It doesn’t matter, because what you do have is the hangover from this.

The book jokingly calls them “finks.” Some of these guys were basically journalists who were also publicists for the American consensus. If you find the funding, then you can of course go public with the names, because it has a severe public interest. If it’s gossipy and it’s just a whispered rumor, it’s harder. But if you can see in their work that there’s nothing critical about their own side, then to me that’s enough.

Do you think so?

I mean, what do we want other people in other countries to do? We want them to have the freedom to criticize their own regimes. If we have that freedom here, in theory, but we don’t exercise it, it’s as useless as not having it.

Superb point. On that basis, one can name names. Anyway, we return to the question of one’s position toward these people. I think press people today are up to their eyeballs in the sort of stuff you describe in the book, and this is why, as I suggested earlier, there is no excusing the Plimptons and Matthiessens for youthful follies or well-intended misjudgments. Now as then, there is a responsibility for all of us to understand what it is we are doing and accept the consequences of it. That’s what I meant in my earlier reference to Sartre.

If you go soft on the subjects of your book, and I understand your use of the word “sympathy” better now than I did before, it would imply that you would go soft on people around you now. And I just cannot have that. I simply cannot abide that.

We have cases like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene—these guys did work on the dark side, Maugham in World War I and Greene in World War II. Help me out here. My attitude is entirely different, especially in the case of Greene. Why? Because I have very high regard for the novels? Well, that colors the judgment, in truth. And I liked Greene’s politics. But because the cause was different—that’s what matters.

If I understand your attitude, it might have to do with the alleged onslaught of Nazism: It was very real. It was crossing borders. It wouldn’t stop.… To spy to try to turn Nazi agents into new counterintelligence: That may have been a necessary evil; we may think of it in those terms.…

All to say that Graham Greene, as with all of these guys, if you just list out the names, it’s extensive. It goes back to the question an interviewer for Vice asked me, which was, “Why did you have to go and ruin all of my favorite writers?” Everyone was involved. It doesn’t mean they all participated in the same way. It doesn’t mean they all came out thoughtlessly replicating the same mistakes. Some of them went, as Peter Matthiessen liked to say as part of his apologia, further and further left. Baldwin actually did go further and further left, and he became much more savvy about how he’d been instrumentalized earlier in his career. And that’s what we all need to do—to become savvy, to become critical, and to be able to criticize our own side.

I’ll ask you this as the author of this book but also as a poet. The relationship between the artist and his political environment—the public and private selves, the turn outward and the turn inward: This is an eternal question. What is your view of this, and has it changed in our time?

For me it’s been pretty consistently inclusive of public and private, politics being fair game for everyone from poets to fiction writers to journalists who want to go from straight reporting to opinion writing. Some of the precedents on the journalism side I respect more than the older, more quaint ones from the Cold War. When Guernica was launched, I felt like I understood what some of the aesthetics were behind magazines like The Paris Review and some of their poets—the Robert Lowells, the Richard Howards. The material was the life of the mind, the private life. But there were Latin American poets who had written about politics and who’d had the ability to express the same intimacy between their thoughts and the page, their lives and the way they address the reader, and then intermingle that with politics. There are so many great examples of how this has been handled, and it’s only in a very specific political period when you hear that there’s any problem with so-called creative writers writing about politics. So on that question I’ve never had anything but sympathy for the view that writers can write about whatever the hell they damn well want.

On the journalism side, I knew, having done a stint as editor of long-form features at Al Jazeera America, that there was a possibility of state propaganda for Qatar by working there. One of my tests going in, since they’re an oil oligarchy, was: How do they cover climate change? And they covered it so much better than the American media. In the first week on air I think they gave it more airtime than CNN, certainly Fox, NBC, and maybe one other major network had together in the previous year. And certainly on the web, we were covering LGBT stuff, poverty and homelessness, class stuff—w e were covering it really well, but as editors we were careful to put someone on the opinion side and on the reporting side. It stayed pure.

We don’t do that really at Guernica as much—it’s new media, new literary stuff. What we blended together was, if someone was writing about politics we just thought it was lovely, and came at it through an aesthetic temperament. It would be lovely if they also could work in some really private thoughts about the first person because that would personalize the political arguments they were making. A long, reported op-ed was one of the first Guernica forms. Later on, we had funding and partnerships with The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, the Pulitzer Center, and other organizations that were funding reporting, and we were able to oversee straight reporting, too, from all over the world. It was amazing that we could do it on a shoestring by partnering with The Nation Institute…

To summarize what I’m saying, there’s no way to quarantine one little part of our brain or one little part of our experience. It’s just that some of us sound more authentic when we write about one thing. If we try to stretch and we don’t sound authentic, that may just mean we’re approaching it from too shallow a place.…

Final question, bringing us back to your book. Having written it, and publishing it in 2017, does it occur to you that we are doomed to repeat our errors, having resolutely refused to learn from them? Look out the window, and what do you see through the lens of your book?

History is infinitely explorable. People always read history with some sort of starting point, some sort of angle, some sort of bias. “I’ve liked this topic before, so let me see if this new book on this topic if of interest to me” is usually about as innocent as it gets. So history always has an entry point, and I don’t begrudge history or American culture that fact.

But if I look coldly at both parties, I see a lot of policies that I strongly disagree with on the Republican right and I see a mix of policies that I disagree and agree with in the Democratic Party. But I see a tendency to curtail, instrumentalize, leash, control, or ignore history in both parties.

The Democrats are so keen to elect a certain person that they’re willing to say, “We don’t want to know about stuff she may have done to cheat against the other candidate for the nomination.” I can understand that if I think in terms like “This is an election, it’s a battleground period, it’s a little more Machiavellian than the rest of our lives.” I can let it off the hook for a second, but then as soon as I do, I’m realizing that Trump has already filed his reelection papers and we’re in campaigning mindset all the time—culturally, politically, and, in some cases, personally—and we’re in a couple of different wars that are ongoing, sort of permanent wars against terror. Both of those are unfavorable atmospheres for people to innocently explore history.

With you so far.

So there’s no good time to tell the inconvenient stories about our own team, our own party, our own political tendencies, but we have to look at them. If we’re not going to reckon with the full measures of accountability and mistakes that were made in our party that let this quasi-fascist in, then I don’t feel very hopeful. But I also feel that we have a lot of conversation left to have in the wake of the election. It’s weird for me to be doing these appearances and interviews for a book that points back decades when I’m really starting to get keen to write and talk about Trump and Republicanism.

You do have a lot to say about Trump, I have to note, even if you didn’t intend your book as a commentary of the kind people try to make it.

There is one story I haven’t yet told very well in the book, which is the rise of two different strains of conservatism that was partially enabled by the Cold War funders. You hinted on it when you pointed to William F. Buckley among the names. The other one to point to would be Irving Kristol. So what you have is collusion between the hard right, Buckley, and the neo-right, under Kristol. Those two groups’ being funded, in fact, was an attempt to overshadow the libertarian, isolationist part of the conservative movement that saw the war as a conspiracy to use government funding and everything else. That story is not told in the book, and I look forward to telling that story in the Trump era. It may not be quite as urgent as going out and protesting, but I feel like while we protest, while we resist, while we sign petitions, while we rally our party to put forth better candidates or candidates we want, I think history is a great way to look out the window and see what else we can do.

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