I’m reading through the Post‘s front-pager on how the Bush Administration screened political appointees for jobs in post-invasion Iraq based on loyalty to Bush and the conservative agenda. It’s another one of a string of reports in recent months that fall into a strange category of news-gathering: stories already known to be true but for which the specific facts weren’t yet available.
I know that sounds flip, but there really is something going on here worth noting. For instance, any reasonable person’s reaction to the Post story will be a variation on, “Duh!” Bush placed a premium on political fealty rather than competence and effectiveness? Who is surprised by that? No one. So you read the piece for the anecdotes, like the fact that the Pentagon official responsible for screening political appointees is Jim O’Beirne, husband of conservative commentator Kate O’Beirne.
Isn’t it usually the other way around? Reporters, and their readers, look for the facts in order to construct a larger picture. Ideally the facts are pieced together into a mosaic in which discrete bits of information that may otherwise be meaningless standing alone now contribute to a greater level of understanding.
Not so with many Bush era stories. The President’s modus operandi is so well established, but the cloak of secrecy so tightly closed, that the broad outlines of a story may be known months or years before the particular facts are uncovered to flesh out the details. The closest thing I can compare it to is reading the next day’s sports story after watching the game. You read not to learn who won, but for colorful anecdotes, and at some level to confirm what you have already seen and know to be true.
Of course this Administration’s record–or, more precisely, the recording of that record–is a far more serious undertaking than a ballgame. The effort is similar in some respects to what people grappled with in the 1990s in post-communist Eastern Europe and post-Apartheid South Africa. There is something fundamental about knowing the details. I’m not sure that journalism as we now know and practice it is particularly suited to filling in the details well after the fact, but I don’t think we can afford to wait for the historians.