Several months ago, I invited one of the best of the up-and-coming journalists of the “new media”/“social networking” generation to address a class I teach on Congress. All went well until a student sought the guest's ideas on how civility might replace the partisan strife that characterizes so much of contemporary politics. "The first thing we have to do is get those 'baby boomers' both off the sets of cable news broadcasts and banished from both print and digital media," he said.
My first response was to treat his comments as a generational joke. "Watch it," I blurted out (most civilly, of course). The problem was that this fellow was totally serious. Giving no ground, he expanded his thesis. “Look,” he said, “you guys see a Vietnam in every military situation and a Watergate in every scandal.” For forty years, he said, the largest and noisiest generation in history has been trying to recreate the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s and all the changes they wrought. The Generation X-ers, he went on, were even worse. Having missed the main event, or lived it vicariously by observing their older siblings and cousins, they came of age trying to recreate the past. "Both groups should get a life," he said. "Those days are not coming back and their continuing to search for them blinds them to new realities.”
I have been thinking a lot about his words the past two weeks. A modern day Rip Van Winkle, who began his long slumber in 1973, would have recognized much of what glared at him from the front pages of two of the nation’s leading newspapers, even if he would have found the headlines of yesteryear more sensational. Indeed, the summer of 2010 may go down in history as the time of the “great dump.” The Washington Post, nostalgic for the days of Woodward and Bernstein ("Woodstein") weighted first. “Top Secret America,” its front page shouted out. As if anyone needed reminding, the paper informed its readers that the series that lay ahead of them was part of “A Washington Post Investigation.”
For three days, the paper ran page after page of impenetrable facts (Norman Mailer would term them “factoids”) with little analysis. The series' purported revelation was that more than eight years since the attacks of 9/11, more than 1,000 government agencies and nearly 2,000 private firms are engaged in counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence work in 10,000 locations and that 854,000 persons in their employ hold security clearances. Its authors, prize-winning reporter Dana Priest and erstwhile activist William M. Arkin, stopped short of concluding that the sheer size of the national security operation meant that it was ineffective. Nor did they say how many of these enterprises worked at cross-purposes or were duplicative in effort. Yet, they used the words “but nobody knows” frequently enough as if they constituted a new “smoking gun.”
Not to be outdone, the New York Times, the chosen recipient of 90,000 Wikileaks documents (no investigative journalism here), behaved as if it had another stack of Pentagon Papers on its hands. Networks obliged by putting David Ellsberg, the source of those original Pentagon Papers, on camera. Next came protestations from the president and everyone on down on the expected denials that the newspaper published nothing "we didn't know before."
Lost in the hype, no one thought to ask presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs why, if such was the case, these materials had been classified in the first place--or why the government invests so much time, effort, and resources in a clearance process that fails to guard the nation's secrets. Surely, among those 854,000 persons who hold security clearances are enough Ellsberg "wanna-bees" to keep Wikileaks supplied for some time. The real stories here might be those of over-classification undermining effectiveness and anemic enforcement. For them to see the light of day, writers, editors, and government officials will have to get over their “gotcha” mentality long enough to notice. Bring on the Millennials.