Who's Afraid of Going to Jail?

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So I’ve been thinking that all the ongoing obsession with off-the-record sourcing and White House leakery has to do with our post-modern, irony-fueled, all-too-knowing discomfort with marketing: the fact that we almost always see past the intended message and sense the machinery of mass manipulation grinding away.

We’re used to the idea that everything and everyone’s for sale, that everyone’s always selling something or trying to pull a fast one on us. So when journalists earnestly listen to the whispers of their double super-secret background sources -- whether Ahmad Chalabi (Mr. Weapons of Mass Destruction) or Karl Rove -- it seems so oddly old-fashioned, so retrograde. As if there were any objective narrators or reliable narrators, on- or off-the-record, left in the great American consumer/sociopolitical storyline.

We forget sometimes that journalism is just part of the larger infotainment-marketing ecosystem, wherein bits of information are being bought and sold to advance the sale of goods and services (in the traditional economy) or other bits of information (in the information economy). Journalists especially tend to be in denial about this, preferring to think of themselves as trafficking solely in The Truth, which is why, when they’re smacked out of their stupor upon learning of duplicitous, scheming sources, it’s always poignant and more than a bit pathetic. A journo’s job description often seems to boil down to choosing between being a compliant stenographer of on-the-record blather or being a daredevil who risks it all by putting some faith -- imagine that, faith! -- in off-the-record sources.

Step back for a minute, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the off-the-record source or the leaker as nothing more than a viral marketer: someone who is trying to bypass the usual channels of pontification -- formal statements, press releases and the like -- to attempt to get a message into the mainstream through a back channel. The problem is, if the official message is dubious, then the unofficial message is even more dicey. We’ve long ago learned that the spin, the counter-spin and the secret spin are all on the same perilously unreliable continuum. (Even Mark “Deep Throat” Felt is, in the current revisionism, not so much a heroic steward of democracy, but a careerist bitter about getting passed over for a promotion and therefore out to get Nixon.)

Since the rising consensus seems to be that journalists can’t have, or be trusted with, secrets -- only the government can (not counting Karl Rove) -- I’ve decided to tell all, even before I get subpoenaed.

You know why? ‘Cause I don’t want any secrets anymore. You can have your stinking secrets! For the next few paragraphs I’m going full-frontal regarding my confidential sources. You heard me: In a historic coming clean (for Media Guy, at least), my biggest secrets, revealed. Mostly because the Supreme Court and Norm Pearlstine say I can’t have any, but also because I don’t want to get sent to my room (at the Alexandria Detention Center) without dinner.

All the Things Karl Rove Has Leaked to Me:

  • Hillary Clinton? Total lesbo.
  • Robert Novak looks surprisingly good in high heels.

    Everything Robert Novak Has Revealed to Me:

  • Karl Rove looks surprisingly hot in lingerie.
  • Hillary Clinton? Total lesbo.

    And, because 17 years ago this month Carl Bernstein’s son Jacob told a fellow summer camper that Mark Felt was Deep Throat -- which effectively means, as noted, that Vanity Fair got “scooped by an 8-year-old kid” in 1988 -- I’m going to go ahead and tell you ...

    Other Stuff Jacob Bernstein Revealed to Me at Summer Camp:

  • Charles and Di’s marriage is on the rocks.
  • Bush is going to win the election this year. (Also, something about one of his sons being a drunk.)
  • The 49ers are going to beat the Bengals at the next Super Bowl.
  • You know that actor Tom Cruise from the movie Rain Man? He’s a total ... (I didn’t get the rest because we got called away by the camp counselor to make s’mores.)

    That’s it. Next week I’m switching to writing horoscopes and/or chronicles of the adorably precocious antics of Angelina Jolie’s new baby.

    (Oh, right, one more thing: Rove tells me that Brad Pitt is really taking to the li’l tyke!)

    ~ ~ ~
    The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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