Earlier this month, the sixth season of CBS’ Big Brother premiered with the subtitle “Summer of Secrets.” The reality show, premised on the hypervisibility of a tightly controlled domestic space, must’ve realized that voyeuristic pleasure in total surveillance was no longer satisfying. Consequently, they distributed a variety of “zones of imperceptibility” into their game: hidden rooms, clandestine pacts, and covert operations/rules. Little did the producers of the show know just how prescient they were in capturing the zeitgeist of Summer 2005.
Take, for instance, the “Secret Group of Al-Qaeda in Europe” (the “organization” that originally claimed responsibility for the London bombings). The name speaks volumes. Why call it the “secret” groupis it opposed to the “public” group? If it were more in tune with the times, it whould be called the Super-Secret Group. The moniker sounds like an unintended effect of Western cultural imperialism; namely, too many comic book-inspired movies. What next, “The Fantastic 4 Allah”? It all sounds like a continuation of 2003’s Legion of Doom-named Iraqi villains, “Chemical Ali” and “Dr. Germ”. It makes one wonder if Stan Lee is now working for the Rendon Group!
Downing the Rabbit Hole
One of the biggest mysteries of the early summer was eventually lost amid the shuffle of other major stories. The Downing Street Memo (DSM) was remarkable not for its content but for the fact that so little attention was paid to it by mainstream media. Pundits spent more time dismissing the memo than following up on it. Christopher Hitchens, that neo-centrist perception manager, added to his portfolio on dissent-bashing with a piece on the DSM as “conspiracy theory.”
It should come as no surprise that mainstream journalism didn’t set the agenda with the DSM. Looking back on the past year of state/press relations, how could corporate journalism do anything but? Oh, Bush Administration, you want to consistently lie to us humble journalists in order to start a war? Well we just might have to write an indignant all-too-late op-ed piece and then come back for some more abuse! Tightly control press conferences with pre-selected questions? Well, we appreciate any access, so I guess that’s the best we can get right now. Manipulate our reporters with anonymous leaks and dirty tricks? Ok, we forgive you, but you watch out next time, ya big lug! Plant a fake journalist among our ranks? Naughty, naughty, but thanks for giving us a diversionary homoerotic titillation!
How many more mea culpas can we tolerate from these lapdogs? When our own friends end up repeating self-destructive behaviors (going in and out of addictive drug-hazes, returning to a toxic and abusive partner) we will draw a line. Why do we allow these guests, who are supposed to be working in our name, to get away with more? We’ve been extremely patient during their bouts of recovery. It’s about time we recognize the decades-long exodus of journalistic consumers not as “apathy” but as the self-affirming popular decision to stop sticking around a user. No need here for a collective intervention: professional journalism should be shown some tough love and the door.
Embedded journalism, from this bitter-medicine perspective, was corporate journalism’s last gasp to purify itself. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but I’m just updating Jean Baudrillard’s insights on Disney: embedded journalism exists to make us think that the rest of mainstream journalism is not embedded. So let’s not look to these dependent dinosaurs for our hope or moral edification. We should begin with the assumption that all mainstream journalism is embedded journalism until it can prove otherwise. Without this symbolic dependency, we can begin candidly assessing journalism’s relationship with secrecy.
The Plame Game
Calls for Karl Rove’s firing for leaking Valerie Plame’s name have been met with Republican Party line retorts that no “clear evidence” can be found. After much evasion and prevarication by press secretary Scott McLellan, Bush finally announced that the threshold of Rove tolerance would be juridical: Rove would have to have committed a crime in order to be axed. Drawing a distinction between legal and ethical standards seemed not to matter.
More than Rove’s actual legal status, we can begin asking questions about the nature of evidence in the court of public opinion. What is the status of evidence in a context of epistemological uncertainty? What can count as proof, and what effects does proof have? The Downing Street Memo shows that proof is itself contestable-what is evidence of evidence?
Crime and evidence have taken on new cultural functions. The US is rife with anti-lawyer sentiments, from the rise in lawyer jokes to the smearing of John Edwards’ vice-presidential campaign with charges that he was an “ambulance chaser.” Interestingly, these sentiments are primarily targeted at criminal defense attorneys or civil prosecutors, while overzealous criminal prosecutors rarely get scapegoated. The notable recent exception here is Michael Jackson’s legion of supporters, who themselves became the target of derision and insult.
More than humor, rightwing pundits now have taken on Defense Attorney status with the Bush administration in the court of public opinion. The party line on Rove was delivered with univocality, making the old Soviet Politburo seem like a teeming marketplace of ideas. As virtual defense lawyers, the rightwing apparatchiks may know their client’s guilt, but will act as apologists at all costs. Any criticism of their client, then, must be founded on prosecutorial evidential standards.
At the same time, other much looser standards are applied to make the case against official Terror/War enemies. Much ink has been spilled on the flimsy, fixed, and fabricated evidence of the need to invade Iraq. Insinuations, when strongly worded, repeatedly uttered, and widely distributed stand in as evidence of a “vague connection” or “some kind of link”. Take the scandalous story of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the newly elected Iranian president. Ahmadinejad was accused of being one of the hostage takers during the 1979 siege of the US embassy in Iran. Four days after his election, a handful of the former hostages (seemingly spontaneously, but actually with prompting from the oppositional “news” organization Iran Focus) reported that he looked exactly like one of their captors. Even while other former detainees and forensic experts denied the link, the power of suggestion was visually anchored through the side-by-side juxtaposition of two photos for over 24 hours. Ultimately disproven, the truth mattered little as the flood coverage secured an image-link. The effects are yet to be seen but we can speculate that defining Iran as a terrorist state in need of regime change just got easier.
An even looser evidential standard comes via the metaphorical use of the classic incontrovertible identifying trace of a criminal: the fingerprint.
Immediately after the 7/7 London bombing, we were told that terror experts were looking for a “signature” or fingerprints to identify the perpetrators. Perhaps on a post-binge high after watching a CSI marathon, these Global Security forensic artists came up with some doozies. The flimsiest of details became proof: the targeting of “transportation” was seen as an Al-Qaeda fingerprint. Never mind that Europe has known mass transit to be a target at least since the 1980 bombing of the Bologna railway station (purportedly by the Red Brigades, but subsequently shown to have murkier origins).
Simultaneous bombings? “Must be Al-Qaeda!” sayeth the security sleuths. It’s such an ingenious method that not only could no one else have invented it, no one else could even mimic it! Instead of being glued to forensic drama television, these “trace” theorists would be wise to review virtually every action thriller film from the 1960s onwards, paying particular attention to the phrase “Let’s synchronize our watches.”
Perhaps the silliest, yet potentially sinister, bit of proof is occurring around the desperate search for Al-Qaeda links between 7/7 and the “failed copycat” bombings of 7/21. Plainclothes information officers came up with this Eureka: the suspects used the same brand of bookbag! Consumerist ideology now influences terrorism investigations, with their shared assumption that an individual’s uniqueness is expressed through consumer purchases. Are you a budding bomber but tired of generic rucksacks that easily tear, exposing your telltale wires? Want to stand out in the “transit-terror” crowd (but blend in at the same time)? No fear, Land’s End is here! And if you happen to own one of these for, say, school or travelling, never mind the “random” searches likely to come your way. Think of it as a value-added service (quasi-celebrity attention) associated with wearing the right label.
Public rhetorical tactics like these (loud insinuation, forensic metaphors, “expert” dependence) are effective because they are publicly irrefutable-they disguise themselves as evidence. What’s worse, the fingerprint metaphor rarely transfers to domestic skullduggery. False stories, disinformation campaigns, and hoaxes are perpetrated in US media (e.g. the Dan Rather memo, Jeff Gannon plant, Iranian president/hostage taker link). Rarely will anyone in corporate journalism utter the word “fingerprints” regarding Rove or any other psy operative. When the praetorian media guard proclaim “there are no smoking guns here,” they command top billing. Ultimately, it’s not about producing more evidence, but being able to determine the situations in which particular standards of evidence can be applied.
Karl, Kevlar Konsultant
Perhaps the problem is with the overreliance on evidence itself. Facts on their own have no necessary effects on an audience. For instance, what does evidence do for a people lacking will and memory? The same facts, which in one context are testimony to wrongdoing, can become evidence of invincibility. Without the proper circumstances of popular will and/or organizational channels, power absorbs these attacks as confirmation of its own unassailability. Rove’s mischief in the Plame Game, rather than being a telltale sign of perfidy, becomes proof of his ingenious craft of plausible deniability. Newsweek reporter Dana Milbank exclaimed on MSNBC that Rove was “too big to fail” (7/11). Other pundits noted that, good or bad, Rove was ‘Bush’s Brain’, insinuating that it would be an impossible extrication. To counter this impossibility, may we kindly recommend Anthony Hopkins’ surgical/culinary treat for Ray Liotta in the closing scenes of Hannibal.
The scandals that surrounded the Clinton White House (often coded through naturalizing terms like “cloud,” “climate,” or “fog”) were in large part due to incessant media attention. Not only is this natural haze not enveloping the Bush White House, thanks to “liberal media” it has morphed into armor. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon President, Rove is the Kevlar Konsultant. Actually, Kevlar doesn’t quite capture the process. In a world of techno-organic fusion, we might better look to a sci-fi image: an armor that absorbs and reintegrates artillery directed at it, leaving a bio-synthetic “scar” that hardens the material.
Rove’s fate is a watershed symptom, not the least for what it says about totalitarianism’s immune system. If he stays on, his power grows stronger after a failed attack. Like the staged assassination attempts of ancient regimes, it will further numb popular will, at least when it comes to electoral politics. If Rove is fired, he would likely stick around, withdrawing even further into “double supersecret background” where he could secrete influence from the protective cover of shadows.
Reliance on evidence in the court of public opinion is important, but excessive faith in it may also limit our strategies. It narrows our understanding of the current era to events in the public sphere. Guy Debord, that premiere analyst of the spectacle and secrecy, recommended that people “make use of what is hidden” from them. If we don’t expand our analysis to what might be called the “secret sphere,” we will continue to grope in the dark while believing everything is illuminated.
JACK Z. BRATICH is assistant professor at Rutgers University. He is currently writing a book on conspiracy panics, as well as doing research on public secrecy and popular occulture. His fingerprints are all over this essay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org