Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Edward Jay Epstein (in 1974) on the difference between press mythology and political history on the subject of the Nixon administration, with application to the contemporary watchblog

We're going to quote at some length from Epstein's comments at, well, Commentary, on the mythology of the press taking down and taking on government corruption because I think it is instructive not only as a corrective of the myth that the press does all that much speaking truth to power but also as a warning to those who would undertake the project some call watchblogging.  The warning is this, if your understanding of journalistic activity is more informed by Hollywood renditions of "journalism" ranging from All the President's Men through to Spotlight, don't hold your breath waiting for something to happen.
Edward Jay Epstein  / July 1, 1974

A sustaining myth of journalism holds that every great government scandal is revealed through the work of enterprising reporters who by one means or another pierce the official veil of secrecy. The role that government institutions themselves play in exposing official misconduct and corruption therefore tends to be seriously neglected, if not wholly ignored, in the press. [emphasis added] This view of journalistic revelation is propagated by the press even in cases where journalists have had palpably little to do with the discovery of corruption. Pulitzer Prizes were thus awarded this year to the Wall Street Journal for “revealing” the scandal which forced Vice President Agnew to resign and to the Washington Star/News for “revealing” the campaign contribution that led to the indictments of former cabinet officers Maurice Stans and John N. Mitchell (who were subsequently acquitted), although reporters at neither newspaper in actual fact had anything to do with uncovering the scandals. In the former case, the U.S. Attorney in Maryland had through dogged plea-bargaining and grants of immunity induced witnesses to implicate the Vice President; and in the latter case, the Securities and Exchange Commission and a grand jury had conducted the investigation that unearthed the illegal contribution which led to the indictment of the cabinet officers. In both instances, even without “leaks” to the newspapers, the scandals uncovered by government institutions would have come to the public's attention when the cases came to trial. [emphases added] Yet to perpetuate the myth that the members of the press were the prime movers in such great events as the conviction of a Vice President and the indictment of two former cabinet officers, the Pulitzer Prize committee simply chose the news stories nearest to these events and awarded them its honors.

The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's autobiographical account of how they “revealed” the Watergate scandals
the government's investigation of itself has become a missing link in the story of the Watergate scandal, and the actual role that journalists played remains ill understood.
Perhaps the most perplexing mystery in Bernstein and Woodward's book is why they fail to understand the role of the institutions and investigators who were supplying them and other reporters with leaks. This blind spot, endemic to journalists, proceeds from an unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself. [emphasis added] If the government is considered monolithic, journalists can report its activities, in simply comprehended and coherent terms, as an adversary out of touch with popular sentiments. On the other hand, if governmental activity is viewed as the product of diverse and competing agencies, all with different bases of power and interests, journalism becomes a much more difficult affair.

In any event, the fact remains that it was not the press which exposed Watergate; it was agencies of government itself. So long as journalists maintain their usual professional blind spot toward the inner conflicts and workings of the institutions of government, they will no doubt continue to speak of Watergate in terms of the David and Goliath myth, with Bernstein and Woodward as David and the government as Goliath. [emphasis added]

So, since this blog tends to get known on account of an activity that is often called watchblogging, it's worth saying this a few times--bloggers didn't do anything to cause the downfall of Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll.  The press, the media, it didn't cause a decline. At most what the press did was happen to report things that, revealed from those who had insider access who chose to disclose things for public consideration, catalyzed a decline.  But that's not the quite the same thing as asserting that negative media coverage "caused" Mars Hill to decline or Mark Driscoll's reputation to suffer.  The problems in the lack of proper credit given to where it was due in the pages of the first print edition of Real Marriage were what they were in 2012 when the book was on sale.  What Janet Mefferd and others did was simply highlight for public consideration what was already a matter of public record. This was valuable, to be sure, but for those who would work in journalism and those who would work in the realm of watchblogging there needs to be a lot of care and consideration--it's dangerous to deceive ourselves into thinking that "we" did anything in the way of "causing" things to happen.  We didn't. 

One of the things I've considered for years is the very real limits of what the press can achieve and the even more robust limits to what a blog can achieve. It was useful to bear those things in mind while blogging about Mars Hill.  It's worth repeating over and over because while someone like Justin Dean goes out on the road and says negative media coverage hurt Mars Hill that's not a very plausible account?  Why?  Because any serious engagement with the relationship between press coverage and political scandal at the highest levels of national concern in the history of the United States suggests that the press can have an overhyped influence.  The press didn't take down the Nixon administration, the Nixon administration took down the Nixon administration. 

Now to the extent that I knew this general thing about the history of the press and Nixon, sure, I could apply it here at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  It meant I wasn't under any illusions I'd be doing more than documenting internal fractures of trust within the corporate culture formerly known as Mars Hill Church.  So when year after year stuff from The City was leaked and docs came along this was not proof that Wenatchee The Hatchet was somehow more than a conduit, maybe someone people trusted to research things carefully--but at the risk of using the Nixon administration as a comparison point, I didn't have a misunderstanding that I was doing more than documenting the dissolution of trust that was going on within the Mars Hill culture. Had Driscoll and the others not led in a way that so badly alienated the rest of the leadership culture nobody would have been leaking anything. 

That other ministries and Christian celebrity authors have weathered controversy to do with rigging the New York Times bestseller list or even, somewhat remarkably, accusations of systemic infringement, suggests that the mistake is to think of these things as abnormal.  What was abnormal wasn't that a bunch of celebrity Christians have been accused of stuff like sales rigging or plagiarism, what was abnormal (in retrospect) was that these accusations seemed to actually hurt Mark Driscoll's reputation.  Why?  One possible answer could be that while others had these kinds of controversies they did not face them while having also said and done things to alienate their support base. It may have been that it was only within the confines of Mars Hill that jobs were getting gutted in mass layoffs during a "difficult season" in which the Driscolls were getting a million-dollar house in Snohomish county while the executive leaders were telling the staff to not appeal layoffs. There may just have been too much of rules for thee but not for me going on.

What Epstein warned about the willful blind spots of the institutional press could go triple for watchbloggers. If you undertake watchblogging be prepared for complete failure.  Why?  Take it from Wenatchee The Hatchet, Mark Driscoll bailed on restorative discipline in Washington; bailed on Mars Hill as both pastor and member; and went down to Phoenix and is preparing to re:launch and re:brand himself.  If we stick with the analogy to the Nixon administration Mark Driscoll's the Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors and the Board of Advisors and Accountability can be thought of as Gerald Ford issuing a pardon.

None of this is to say watchblogging has no value.  Far from it.  It's not like we haven't had ourselves plenty of watchblogging here at this blog for half a decade or so; the problem is, as I was saying earlier, we need to abandon the Hollywood mythology of the press because that's Hollywood's glossy take on the media's own self-aggrandizing mythology, none of which is necessarily a historical or methodological foundation from which to do real journalism. 

The difference between guys like Justin Dean who say the media hurt Mars Hill and former leaders who say that the hubris and cruelty of the leadership culture was what hurt Mars Hill is that in the first category we seem to have people bent on promoting a mythology of the power of the media by people who are in the media and whose livelihood seems to hinge on selling the idea of that power, while the second category seems to be those who were actually in ministerial leadership in some capacity who concluded that it was their culture of abuse that caused the problems.  Only the people who are in that second category seem to have any clear sense what went wrong at Mars Hill--anyone clinging to the power of the media to hurt the reputation of Mars Hill in any way has bought into a myth that has largely been debunked from within the discipline of the press itself.

There IS a case to be made for the legitimacy and viability of watchblogging that I hope to make later this year, but for now the caveat is more important--it's more important that we see what a blog can't do and to see what it can't do it is useful to see what not even the mainstream press can be shown to have done--if the press didn't take down the Nixon administration in the end, how much less should we expect blogs to take down megachurch pastors. 

Years ago I was asked if I wouldn't meet with leaders from Mars Hill.  What could it hurt?  Possibly nothing, but there was no compelling reason to meet, either.  So my response was to perhaps too cryptically cite Judges 9--If Abimelek was made king through a just process then, great, but if through wrongful bloodshed then let those who appointed him and the self-selected king spew forth fires that would take them both down together.

Being around to document how that might have happened isn't even remotely the same as somehow having catalyzed it.

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