White House Pours One Out for All the Dead Journos, Waterboards the Living

The most recent article from The Nation's Jeremy Scahill profiled the imprisonment of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye. For covering American cluster bomb strikes in Yemen and the radicalization of Yemeni citizens and their support for Al Qaeda, Shaye has been beaten and tortured, imprisoned for two years and, at America's request, seen a presidential pardon from Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh indefinitely tabled.

You'd think that more bloggers would be furious about this. Extending a blithe imperial hand across the globe to support the torture and imprisonment of journalists is exactly the sort of half-assed fascism they were rabid about back when George W. Bush was exporting America's headaches to our Dracula in Cairo, Hosni "Drown People in Barrels of Shit" Mubarak.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. The Obama administration's boot-stomping journalists and whistleblowers is one of those polite misdeeds seemingly everyone prefers to ignore, like walking onto an elevator only one man is occupying and noticing that someone has farted. In fact, this topic was brought up in an even more dramatic fashion three weeks ago. And nobody really cared.

Back then, ABC News White House Correspondent Jake Tapper challenged White House Spokesman Jay Carney after what would normally have been a few inoffensive words of remembrance for journalists recently killed in Syria. Here's a condensed excerpt of the transcript, from Tapper's blog:

TAPPER: The White House keeps praising these journalists who are—who've been killed—
CARNEY: I don't know about "keep"—I think—
TAPPER: You've done it, Vice President Biden did it in a statement. How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court? ... There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don't want it in the United States.
CARNEY: ... I think we absolutely honor and praise the bravery of reporters who are placing themselves in extremely dangerous situations in order to bring a story of oppression and brutality to the world. ... As for other cases, again, without addressing any specific case, I think that there are issues here that involve highly sensitive classified information, and I think that, you know, those are—divulging or to—divulging that kind of information is a serious issue, and it always has been.
TAPPER: So the truth should come out abroad; it shouldn't come out here?
CARNEY: Well, that's not at all what I'm saying, Jake, and you know it's not.

Both on video and in print, it comes off like a politely irritated squabble, but after translating it from Sanitized Beltway Elite Discourse into English, it reads like two guys saying, "Hey, fuck you, buddy!" Which they probably are. Carney doesn't want to have to duck bottles heaved at him from what he thinks should be a sympathetic outlet (broadcast TV news—i.e. nice haircuts talking to the elderly), and Tapper doesn't need to sit there and be fed a bunch of sanctimonious bullshit about journalistic bravery from an administration that's used a WWI-era anti-spy measure to muzzle more whistleblowers in three years than every preceding administration combined.

So it's anyone's guess why this thing didn't blow up. Tapper's sudden impatience and urge to rock Carney onto his heels was akin to those reality TV episodes where the token "nice girl" in the group finally loses her shit with that season's token "asshole" and backs her Volkswagen Cabrio over his scooter. Glenn Greenwald (who also praised Scahill's Nation pieces yesterday) wrote in support of Tapper, and surely many establishment types handwaved that away as yet more of his whacko blogger respect for the rule of law. A few days later, the New York Times ran this thoughtful analysis from David Carr, but that too sank like a stone.

The incident's coverage surely played a role. Take the Huffington Post, which focused on it like another reality TV incident while shallowly summarizing the rest of the exchange. As with HuffPo, the verb "clash" featured in several headlines on Tapper's questions, with the newsworthiness of the event focusing on "Tapper vs. Carney: The Wordening!" rather than "Journalist Asks Mouthpiece of a Democratic Administration Why It's Using the Espionage Act to Terrorize Those Who Would Inconvenience It."

And maybe that's enough explanation for some. So much of Washington discourse is futile, dead-thought theater anyway, so why not this stuff, too? As TV Newser noted, Carney's wife is a colleague of Tapper's; Carney himself was also a Beltway journalist, and Tapper used to be a Capitol Hill staffer. It would hardly be the first time that two people, who once held the same jobs, engaged in inane kabuki for the sake of their newly adversarial positions.

Tapper's mode of attack even plays into that kind of interpretation. Carney opens with praise for journalists who died either via asthma attack or from being shelled in a war zone in Syria, and Tapper fires back with what is essentially a non sequitur about the current administration's contempt for aggressive journalism domestically. But, of course, these reporters were covering a Middle East issue. Also, clearly the Obama administration didn't give Anthony Shadid asthma, and it didn't shell Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik. The U.S. government had neither censured nor prosecuted any of them. Maybe Tapper had been stewing on the topic all day, but the absence of real parallels between the people involved, followed by a reductive question, actually vindicates Carney when he says, "Well, that's not at all what I'm saying, Jake, and you know it's not."

But, look, let's not veer too far in the other direction and feel sympathy for Jay Carney. First of all, when you're looking at him, you're not seeing him; you're seeing the job that devoured him. They don't pick you to ritualistically lie to the American people about things that are often self-evident if your soul hasn't been mostly picked clean. And even if Tapper inadvertently came out swinging too hard and throwing a loose analogy around, he's got an admirable record of intelligent and challenging opposition, to dominant press narrative and the interests of both parties. As entertaining as Beltway back-scratching might be, this was probably a missed opportunity.

Assuming it qualifies for that much. Even with the "White House Press Room Smackdown!" news pitch, nobody seemed to give a shit. The few editorials that mentioned the Obama administration's suppression of journalists and whistleblowers in the following weeks added it like an obligatory "harumph!"—like all the clones of Stan from Frisky Dingo expressing wordless echolalia displeasure. An outraged cry doesn't rate as a missed opportunity in a dark room filled with the deaf.

Photo via Getty.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.