The myth of the opinionless man*

The problem in the cases of ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and ousted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is not that they had opinions. Of course, they had opinions. Indeed, we should damned well want them to have opinions. If they each only accepted what they were told without doubts and complaints, without discrimination, they’d each be be very bad at their jobs, wouldn’t they?

The problem is not that those opinions were reported. Publicness — transparency, openness, authenticity, honesty — is good. It should lead to more trust. But here it didn’t. It led to public disgrace. Why?

The problem, then, is our myth of the opinionless man*.

I don’t think that is society’s myth. We all know better than to believe that men have no beliefs — because we are all merely men* with beliefs of our own.

No, the opinionless man is an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies. The opinionless man is meant to be an empty vessel to do the bidding of these hierarchies. But opinions and openness about them subvert hierarchies. Or to translate that to modern times, via the Cluetrain Manifesto, links subvert hierarchies. This is the age of links. So hierarchies: beware. One opinion leaks out of the opinionless man and it is shared and linked and spread instantly. The institutions treat this revelation as a shock and scandal — as a threat — and they eject the opinionated men. That is what happened to McChrystal and Weigel.

In my thinking for my book on publicness, I keep trying to look at such fears and offenses and turn them around to ask what they say not about the scandalous but instead about the scandalized — about us and about our myths and realities.

Former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the self-drawn archetype of the opinionless man. He famously refused to vote, thinking it somehow made him immune from opinions and their corruption of his journalism. That heritage is what led to Weigel’s ejection from the Post. But as Liz Mair argues (via @jayrosen_nyu), it’s ridiculous to assume that Weigel should accept and agree with everyone and and everything he encountered on his beat covering conservatives. He should be skeptical. Isn’t that a reporter’s job? And what is the source of that skepticism but opinions? We want to know.

Mayhill Fowler wrote a superb HuffingtonPost piece — inspired by McChrystal and her own experience in the Obama campaign — about journalism as a dance of seduction and betrayal. The corrupting temptation isn’t sex or beauty or wealth or even fame but access. Her perspective is so valuable because she came to journalism and politics as an outsider and maintained that perspective.

Michael Walsh, however, speaks for the institutions as he blows his vuvuzela until he’s red-faced warning of the dangers of such openness:

But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech — and thus of thought — is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: “executive privilege,” however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often “offensive”) conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling…

Still, the days when “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how “private,” is now potentially public — and potentially career-ending. That’s the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.

Whoa, boy*. I think exactly the opposite: that privacy for government and those who cover it is exactly what we do not need, exactly what we are working to eliminate with sunshine and publicness. Journalists should have been the ones opening the drapes on those dark rooms but they didn’t because they were seduced by their invitations in. So outsiders are forcing them open. Hurrah. Privacy is what protects the tyrants of North Korea and East Germany. Transparency is what kills them.

So if we want more transparency — and I believe that we, the people, do even if they, our institutions, often do not — then we must stop going along with the myth of the opinionless man and the scandal of the opinionated man. We should celebrate openness and honesty whenever they manage to break through. We should recognize that — to reform Walsh’s bottom line — transparency leads to trust. We should remind our institutions — government and the journalists who are supposed to cover them — that we expect them to judge and we will respect their actions more if we understand their judgment.

The institutions’ myth of the opinionless man is what is behind their disdain for the internet and its inhabitants — us. Don’t you hear it all the time: Oh, the internet is filled with nothing but opinions, as if opinions — our opinions — were worthless. But opinions and the arguments about them — and, yes, the facts needed to win those arguments — are the basis of decision-making in any organization and in society itself. Opinions are the soil of democracy. Publicness is the sunshine that lets it grow. (/metaphor)

What we’re witnessing in these cases is more than a mere two-day kerfuffle. We are witnessing small evidence of a cultural shift away from the privacy, secrecy, and control that empowered and protected institutions in a centralized, mass society to new cultural norms of publicness. That publicness grants us independence from the powerful; it wrests control from their hands. That is why we are grappling so with questions of privacy and publicness. (That is some of what I am trying to grapple with in my book.)

Alan F. Westin’s influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom expresses the view of the prior era: “The greatest threat to civilized social life,” he says in his gravest possible terms, “would be a situation in which each individual was utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.” Well, hasn’t he just described the internet? There we see our emerging social norm of publicness. There we see the war of the private and the public. It’s about more than Facebook photos.

Jürgen Habermas idealized the emergence of the (bourgeois) public sphere of rational discourse in the 18th century as a counterpoint to government authority and he lamented its eventual corruption by media and commercialization. I will argue in my book that perhaps now, in our post-institutional age, we may see his public sphere emerge after all. It’s not going to look idealized for it is built on discourse — on internet opinions — and to those accustomed to the neatness of control by government and media, that looks messy. But if we have faith in our fellow man* then we can at least hope that out of this discourse, rationality may emerge.

In such discourse, the opinionless man is silent. I’d rather hear him.

* You needn’t supply your rant about how I should not use the word “man.” I’m using it unapologetically — well, except for this footnote. I’m using it because there’s nothing wrong with the word man but moreso because if you take every instance of the word “man” in this post and replace it with “men and women” or “persons” or “humans” it would result in awkward English and lose cultural reference. Besides, in this case, we happen to be talking about two men. And I am one myself. I’m unapologetic about that.

: LATER: Matthew Yglesias on having no opinion as make-believe.

  • Jarvis —

    I understand your desire to shoehorn the McChrystal affair into your overall thesis. The facts may not support you. It was not the fact that McChrystal allowed his opinions to be made public that forced his resignation; it was what those opinions — and those of his aides — happened to be. Rolling Stone depicted a military leadership in Afghanistan that held their civilian chain of command in contempt. He could not hold those opinions, or allow his subordinates to hold those opinions, and hold his job.

    Regards — Tyndall

    • Andrew,
      You can’t believe that soldiers have not long complained about their orders. The only difference here is the publicness of it

      • McChrystal was not complaining about his orders. Why should he? He was the one giving the orders. The counterinsurgency was his (and Petraeus’) idea. What went public was his team’s disdain for those in civilian authority over him. The firing offense was the military going rogue not opinions going public.

  • Jeff:
    Regarding the Weigel affair. As I understood it, Dave Weigel was supposed to be a conservative opinion writer, not a reporter covering the conservative political scene. That his actual opinions about conservatives (as expressed by his wish that Matt Drudge set himself on fire and other rants on the liberal journalist list) were at odds with his job assignment, he was a fraud and deserved to be fired.

    As for McChrystal, I would have to agree with Andrew. Military leaders and officers cannot show contempt for the civilian leadership. Having those opinions are one thing, show them is another.


    • Speaking just for myself, I offered to write a reported blog in line with my previous reporting. I am not an opinion blogger. I’m a reporter with opinions.

      • You’re an opinion writer, whether you admit it or not. Your puff-piece excusing Etheridge’s assault on cameramen is just one example.

    • Andy Freeman

      Would the Post hire a reporter who thinks that liberals are “ratfuckers” in any role, let alone to cover them?

  • james Robertson

    Two issues with this:

    — Wiegel (via Journolist) was trying to actively shape news coverage. Having a slant is one thing. being dishonest about it is another

    — Mchrystal’s sin was different: as a military commander, you don’t publicly diss the CIC, period. You want to do that, you resign first.

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  • Eric Gauvin

    Is it a commonly held belief that men (people) are opnionless? I’ve never heard of that. Why do you think that?

    • Eric,
      I didn’t see commonly. Read it again. I said it is a myth perpetuated by certain institutions, like newspapers, which try to make believe their staffs are opinionless. Klar?

    • Eric Gauvin

      McChrystal Klar… :-(

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  • There is legal precedent in the McChrystal case that I’ve not heard mentioned. In the dynamic between labor unions and management, there is a category of “commentary” that is protected for workers. It’s called “shop talk,” and workers cannot be punished for anti-management statements made while engaging in shop talk. In this area, labor law recognizes that people will say shit just to say it, and that it bears no weight in terms of performance. Off-the-cuff comments about managers made in the course of daily work are the background hum of the beehive and not to be used against those who utter such things. It doesn’t matter if the worker who made such an utterance believes the utterance; it’s the environment in which the statement was made. I’ve struggled with this since it happened, for journalists themselves have benefited from this practice, and it seems hypocritical to then turn around and use it for a notch on the gun belt. To me, it’s just more fuel to the fire of why we’ve lost (and continue to lose) the public trust.

    • Andy Freeman

      > There is legal precedent in the McChrystal case that I’ve not heard mentioned. In the dynamic between labor unions and management, there is a category of “commentary” that is protected for workers.

      It isn’t mentioned in this case because it isn’t relevant in this case for at least two reasons.

      Journalists aren’t bound to not report “shop-talk”. The obligation is on management to not act on it.

      And in this case, “management” isn’t bound by the doctrine anyway.

  • digs

    Jeff, I have to agree with many of the above commentors. This isn’t about having opinions. We assume that everyone has an opinion. But sharing your opinion is not always the best or right thing to do.

    For example, if a doctor diagnoses your cancer and says “It’s a grade 2 tumor” he may be thinking, “but given your weight and age, I think you’re a goner even though we haven’t found the grade 5 tumor cells yet” that would be akin to malpractice. It’s an opinion based on a personal inference based on superficial information. Given that a patient’s beliefs about his cancer can harm or aid his recovery, a doctor sharing such an opinion might be committing malpractice.

    Likewise, a military commander who relies on the respect of his authority because lives are at risk cannot throw around his opinion the way a blogger or tweeter might.

    Your ideas may apply to journalism but there are many areas of life and work where they don’t match up.

  • Brian O’Connell

    The more interesting thing about the David Weigel story- to me- isn’t the offhand insults, but the other things that go on in the secret Journolist. A widely quoted snippet of Dave’s from that listserv, referring to Scott Brown’s win over Martha Coakely in MA:

    “I think pointing out Coakley’s awfulness is vital, because it’s 1) true and 2) unreasonable panic about it is doing more damage to the Democrats. I don’t think the party has gotten up off the mat yet. And it’s been a month!”

    Vital to what? The Democrats’ interests? Context is everything, as they say, and Dave’s posted the (full?) email on his blog, so see for yourself.

    If a reporter is advocating, behind the scenes, that his fellow reporters report a story in a certain way, in order to benefit a specific group or policy, that’s something I’d want to know about that reporter. The worst case scenario here is news that’s produced (or spun) like the food in the foodcourt at Springfield’s South Street Squidport: it’s all the same stuff stored underground, and distributed to differently branded outlets as if it wasn’t.

    That talking point about Martha Coakely was so widely repeated than even SNL mocked it. The extent to which Journolist and David Weigel is responsible for that must remain unknown.

    One can make that argument about MSM news without Journolist of course. We’ve heard the tales that the NYT and the WaPo share headlines before publication and that the majority of MSM news takes its cues from the NYT.

    I wonder if part of the Washington Post’s problem, as they see it, is that control of the narrative was moving from their editorial board to a private listserv run by their employee Ezra Klein. Did the WaPo play a role in Klein’s decision to shut it down?

    Seems to me there is an institutional conflict there. All the bad stuff Jeff ascribes to Big Journalism- privacy and secrecy, and the lack of transparency, publicness, and sunshine- applies to independent Journolist too. Maybe they’re fighting about control, kind of like the king and the nobility round the time of the Magna Carta. We serfs aren’t a party to that dispute. :)

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  • Jeff, you cannot seriously think that the internet is ‘each individual (being) utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.’ can you ? You see yourself as an internet cheerleader but not even the most one-eyed evangelist would subscribe to this idea.

    I think the situation is more nuanced. McChrystal would have been sacked at any time in the last century, the interview was in print, don’t forget. Soldiers are asked to do difficult, unpleasant and dangerous things and they must have no doubt that what they are doing is right. That is why disharmony among their leadership is so damaging, it foments doubt among the people carrying out their orders.

    As both you and Michael Walsh identify the central issue is trust. What the great social change of the 60s began and the ‘open’ internet has accelerated is our power to decide who we trust and why. We no longer automatically trust institutions of any kind and build ourselves a network of trust dependent on our own experiences and those of other people we trust. The internet enables us to build this network in a way that is impossible without it but it does not follow that transparency will lead to a golden age of truth and justice. Apparently, if a liberal source produces a seemingly damaging fact about Sarah Palin, this actually increases her support among some conservatives. We are not solely rational beings.

  • Ken

    The American public has tolerated the era of blandness for so long, that it has become the new status quo.

    Think of the answer to this question:

    “Candidate X, what is YOUR stance on abortion?” We all know it’s going to be followed by a long winded diatribe resulting in nothing that resembles an answer. We eat it up and call them an “elegant” speaker.

    What I really wanted to say here is thank you. Thank you GEN McChrystal for your sacrifice and telling the American people that Afghanistan is “unsellable.” We appreciate your frankness.

  • Richard Sambrook

    Jeff, I think you risk setting up a false myth to attack. The point about objectivity is it’s meant to ensure journalism is based on evidence, not merely opinion. I see media space awash with opinion but with very little hard evidence – one of the reasons in my view for failing trust. And Impartiality (different from objectivity) is not about denying opinion – it’s voluntarily submitting to a journalistic discipline designed to ensure accuracy, fairness and a diversity of views – rather than just ensure the views of rich owners dominate mass media. It’s not disingenuous as you suggest, it’s accepting a professional framework to try to improve quality in public debate.
    (But I realise I’m barking in the dark on this now…!)

    • Richard,
      We don’t necessarily disagree. I would put it on the Guardian’s terms: intellectual honesty. One reports that which might defeat one’s one views. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m addressing transparency: revealing those opinions so they are not hidden and recognizing that all journalists (and government officials) hold those opinions. By trying to hide them (impartiality model) or act as if they do not exist (objectivity model) one is committing a lie of omission, a mark of mistrust in the audience (as if it cannot still fairly judge one’s fair work).

  • Richard Sambrook

    You’re right – we don’t disagree. I buy the transparency argument. On this side of the water the debate is more often about relaxing broadcast regulation to allow free expression. But there is no market failure in provision of opinion (on regulated channels or press or web) – the problem lies in accurate, evidence based news and information.

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  • Car Share

    It’s just sensible to keep such ideas to yourself, we all have them but need to be politic about who they are spoken to.

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