Belaboring the Obvious

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ah, Kremlinology....

Back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, everyone wanted to know (even those in the Soviet Union) what was up inside the Kremlin, despite the opaque nature of Moscow's doings.

Over time, people would try to divine what they believed to be the truth from who stood next to Brezhnev as he reviewed the May Day parade, which attaché attended the U.S. embassy's latest soiree, how many days in a row the General Secretary hid out in his dacha during a particular August.

It was a little like reading tea leaves, and about as accurate, even though there were times when there seemed to be a sense of urgency about such prognostications, particularly in those frenetic days and weeks and months after Brezhnev's death, when the Soviet Union seemed to change leaders faster than most people changed their shoes--Brezhnev followed by Andropov, Andropov by Chernenko, Chernenko by Gorbachev, all in the space of a very few years.

No such divinations were perceived as necessary in the United States, mostly because its political establishment and its press were firmly entrenched in the myth that the U.S. was an open society and its political dealings were for all to see, despite the fact that anyone and everyone who'd ever had a conversation with the President could invoke Executive privilege to remain silent, even under oath, about any matter discussed, even if it was what to have for lunch.

Over the decades, though, the press increasingly has come to engage in the White House version of Kremlinology, wherein White House sources dispense little pellets of innuendo or PR spin to reporters who, in turn, guarantee those sources anonymity. The latest of these bits of intrigue is Rahm Emanuel's apparent preening on the Washington stage, in which anonymity of sources figures prominently.

Of course, it's the first reaction and wholly appropriate to place the blame on those reporters who trade anonymity for access, in order to stay in the good graces of the ruling elite, but, that strikes me as little different than what Pravda did back in the day, and the White House's actions are certainly no different than the way the Politburo behaved. Any time a White House source will not go on the record, a good reporter should assume he or she is being spun for political effect, usually to benefit the individual or, as frequently, the occupant of the Oval Office, and yet, the practice continues with dreary regularity, even though the good reporter also should know that the ultimate beneficiary is not the public record, and, as well, the good reporter should know that he or she is being used to promote an interest that is entirely suspect and that the occupants of the White House cannot accomplish such ends without the complicity of the reporter.

Still, it goes on and on and on, and serves little purpose but to create some churn in the news cycle. How is this any different from Kremlinology, and what does this process say about the United States as an open society?


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