|My solution: clone Bob Woodward.|
The fast and the furious scandal, allegedly centered on a botched ATF sting operation, has been the talk of the squabbling political class lately. The scandal has triggered a dispute over executive review and massive turmoil within the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The right, predictably, has already come up with a parallel conspiracy theory: the Obama Administration let the guns into Mexico on purpose in order to foment more gun violence, in order to press their (yet to be exhibited in real life) crusade against the Second Amendment (and grandmas, and apple pie). I think it's worth noting that this wild theory is not only being propagated by loonies, but Darrell Issa, the chair of the relevant House Committee.
But even setting the conspiracy theory aside, there's a bigger problem: no "sting" ever happened.
The real sequence of events, per the Fortune (left wing rag?) investigation:
(1) ATF agents build a case against gun purchasers (apparently poor American kids) who work for Mexican drug cartels.
(2) Incredibly protective Arizona gun laws prohibit prosecutors from indicting even individuals who purchased hundreds of weapons in a sixth month span with cash. Guns that had been proven to pass into Mexico within weeks of their purchase.
(3) ATF agents, frustrated by the prosecutors' unwillingness to move on the case, determine that they can only prosecute if they allow the guns to move, track them, and survey the actual transfer of weapons. They write a memo to this effect.
(4) Not all weapons are successfully tracked. Some make their way to Mexico. And so on.
(5) Pissed off ATF agent leaks memo to press. Widespread outrage. Conservative blogs pick up the story. CBS picks up the story (this isn't a pure tale of "silly right wing media," by any means). Fox News decides to turn the story into the center of its news coverage for weeks.
(6) The Obama Administration, hesitant to engage in a fight over gun rights during an election year, rolls over.
There's lots of blame to go around. We could blame political hacks for engaging in a baseless witch hunt. We could blame President Obama (his concept of executive power seems to be "speak eloquently and bury your big stick"). We could blame America's insanely lax gun laws for allowing this sort of tragedy to occur in the first place.
But, ultimately, there will always be political hacks determined to create outrage from the ether. Presidents will always be overly sensitive to election year politics. And our messy democracy will produce messy laws that imprecisely navigate the hazy territory between civil liberties and good governance.
A passing untruth didn't became a national scandal because a pissed off DEA agent leaked a memo. It didn't become a national scandal because a hack Congressman decided to make it one. It didn't become a national scandal because Obama refused to do battle.
It became a national scandal because the national media allowed it to.
It's too easy to blame "the media." Both sides of the political spectrum do it all the time. But we can surely blame political journalism for allowing basic untruths to spread unabated. And for not calling the propagators of such untruths to account.
Journalism has the power to shape national political narratives. Journalism has the power to decide which accusations merit a story and which merit a fast track to the National Enquirer. Sometimes, in order to decide such merits, journalists will be required to (gasp!) investigate the veracity of a claim.
All too often, mainstream journalists simply provide quotes from a token member of each party and move on. They act as reporters, but rarely investigators, human microphones, but rarely human analysts. Mainstream political journalism has devolved, as Jonathan Chait has argued, into a sort of third party opposition research service.
We all know how the world works. The stories on Obama's conspiracy, or the failed "sting," or executive privilege claim, will garner thousands of re-tweets and Facebook shares. Behold the righteous indignation of the digital masses in comment streams and forums!
And quietly, somewhere in back page newspaper retractions, comparatively un-shared long form journalism investigations, and rarely read House Committee reports, the truth will stand, apparent but unnoticed.
I'll end with some contrasting Thomas Jefferson quotes:
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.And yet:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.