The Ministry of Truth
Recently, I had the good fortune to be invited by NPR to submit an essay on a favorite thriller of mine. I decided to write about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is both an excellent thriller and an increasingly powerful and relevant political warning — a combination readers of my latest novel, Inside Out, will know I find appealing.
Though I’m of course pleased that NPR decided to run the essay (which you can find here, along with an unrelated radio interview I did with Michelle Norris on All Things Considered), I’m also disappointed that NPR insisted on watering down the essay through successive drafts. The NPR editor I was in touch with, Miriam Krule, found the first three drafts “too political” (my response — that an essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four that’s too political is like an essay about the Bible that’s too much about God — was unpersuasive), and though Ms. Krule didn’t articulate the precise nature of her objections, the parts of the essay that had to go nicely demonstrate what in this context “too political” really means. Here are two versions of the offending penultimate paragraph, neither of which NPR deemed acceptable:
NPR wasn’t objecting to my argument (Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s political warning is relevant today); they were objecting to my evidence (Tom Friedman et al’s mistakes are disposed of as though via a memory hole; NPR and other named organizations are using government-approved Orwellian language). This matters not only because an argument’s persuasiveness depends (at least to a rational audience) on what evidence is offered in support. It matters too because preferences like the ones Ms. Krule expressed tend to reveal an otherwise hidden media ideology, one more important and insidious than the left/right labels that are the dominant — and distracting — prism by which we generally classify people’s politics. If you want to understand the politics of NPR and other such organizations, forget for a moment left/right, and focus instead on what might loosely be called an establishment ideology, for NPR is an establishment media player following establishment media norms.
What do I mean by “establishment media”? Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, in the course of declaring himself an establishment journalist, put it well:
At the government’s urging, NPR has adopted Orwellian speech. It prefers to suppress this decision rather than debate it. It extends its injunction to similar decisions of peer organizations — specifically, the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. No matter how outlandishly wrong and destructive a pundit’s predictions have been subsequently proven, NPR believes it unacceptably indecorous for the pundit in question to be held accountable by name. Generally speaking, NPR is okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as “what,” while being not at all okay with evidence that might loosely be classified as “who.” I can’t think of any media behaviors more revealing than these of an establishment ideology and bias.
Before the rise of the blogosphere, a writer had no real means of rejoinder to editorial decisions like NPR’s, and even now, relatively few readers will come across the larger context within which my NPR essay was edited. Still, there’s no question that the Internet, by democratically distributing a megaphone previously held exclusively by an establishment media which behind the left/right facade marches in ideological lockstep, is permitting unprecedented means of media accountability. Speaking of which: I just finished an advance reading copy of a superb critique of media bloviators: Barrett Brown’s Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America’s Chattering Class, which, by coincidence, includes chapters about some of the stunningly failed pundits whose mention in an essay NPR found “too political.” I highly recommend this horrifying, hilarious, devastatingly persuasive book, which as Brown notes in his epilogue could not have been written in the absence of the Internet. And for another example of the increasing power of the Internet to foster media accountability, here’s a video challenge from Brown to TNR’s Rich Lowry, who could easily have provided the basis for an additional chapter in Brown’s book:
Now, I don’t mean to be too hard on NPR. First, as an establishment media organ following establishment media rules, NPR is hardly unique, as I hope the many other examples NPR edited out of my essay will demonstrate. Second, NPR has a lot of good and sometimes eclectic coverage, including their current “Vote for the 100 Best Thrillers Ever” campaign, in which, hint, hint, you can find my novels Rain Fall and Fault Line among the nominees, and vote accordingly.
A number of people whose counsel I value urged me not to write this post, lest NPR blackball me from future coverage. Obviously, I decided to take that chance. If I keep these thoughts to myself because I know where my bread is buttered, then by my own standards I’m part of the problem rather than the solution. And besides, at heart, I’m an optimist. I want to believe that eventually, media institutions like NPR will come to understand that public discussion of their pro-establishment ideology and practices will benefit not just their journalism, but their bottom line. After all, in the long run, media organizations perceived as subservient to the powerful, unwilling to debate their practices, and devoted to concealing the shortcomings of other establishment players, will be eclipsed by the blogosphere, which today engages in debate and accountability to which the establishment media seems not yet to aspire.
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If you’re curious, here’s the unedited Nineteen Eighty-Four piece:
A lone man hunted by faceless government spies. A doomed love affair, its urgent moments stolen against a backdrop of terror and war. Surveillance, capture, torture, betrayal. If this doesn’t describe a thriller, the thriller doesn’t exist.
I’m talking, of course, about Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell’s novel makes for such devastating political commentary that in spite of the classic elements I mention above it isn’t usually recognized as a thriller. This is a shame, because in addition to its many other virtues, Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates the potential power of the form to deliver a dire warning in the guise of entertainment.
I first read the book in high school, and at the time thought of it almost as science fiction: commentary about events set in a remote future that hadn’t come to be. There was no Big Brother. Certainly no one was staring back at me while I watched television. And relatively speaking, the country was at peace.
Of course, that was a long time ago. Now we have a civilian population eager to believe the president is “our” Commander-in-Chief, increasingly pervasive government surveillance, and a “long war” against a shifting global enemy so ill-defined it might as well be Eurasia and Eastasia.
Most of all, we have the language—the “newspeak”—Orwell predicted. No, there’s no Ministry of Truth, but such an institution would anyway seem superfluous given that The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all now refuse to use the word “torture” to describe waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation of prisoners, adopting instead the government-approved phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as Chris Hayes of The Nation has observed, this is like calling rape “unilateral physical intimacy”). Even NPR, alas, has banned “torture” from its reporting. Escalation in Iraq is a “surge,” prisoners are “detainees,” assassinations are “targeted killings,” and the 60,000 barrel-a-day ongoing undersea oil eruption is nothing but a “spill” or “leak.” As bad as it is, imagine how much worse it might be if Orwell hadn’t warned against it.
It’s interesting to consider that Orwell addressed the major themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four a few years earlier, in his essay Notes on Nationalism. And yet Notes, as excellent as it is, is read much less widely. Why? Because certain themes resonate more powerfully when presented within the structure of a thriller—when brought to life in the conflicts and confusion of characters on the page. For readers, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning. For thriller writers, it’s something to aspire to.