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Think Again: Why Were Pundits All In on ‘All In’?

General David Petraeus

SOURCE: AP/ Michael Gottschalk

Initial positive coverage of the General David Petraeus's biography reflects many journalists’ willingness to suspend their critical faculties when it comes to the military.

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If you click on the Amazon.com page for the unfortunately titled Paula Broadwell/Vernon Loeb tome All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, you’ll see an interesting disjunction. According to assorted Washington muckety-mucks, the book is:

  • A “riveting, insider’s account of his life and education [that] is at once instructive and inspiring.” (“NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw)
  • A “majestic biography [that] will set the standard for all future works about General Petraeus” (author Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • “… masterfully [told], providing especially rich detail and insight into his Afghanistan mission. This book helps us understand how Petraeus has become the living legend he is.” (author David Gergen)

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, adds, “No one gives a truer picture of the war, or of the finest general of this era and one of the greatest in modern American history.” And here’s my favorite, from author Thomas E. Ricks: “I’ve known David Petraeus since he was a colonel and written two books in which he appeared, but I still learned a lot about him from this book. All Infeels at times like we are sitting at his side in Afghanistan, reading his e-mails over his shoulder.”

Now look at the Amazon.com customer reviews. Apparently, the book stinks. What’s more, it stinks for some pretty obvious reasons. Way back in February, a reader named Robert J. Alberts noted, “Paula is obviously a fan and didn’t have any objectivity in the book. Petraeus is either awesome or super awesome. OK. Got it. Next? There is no more depth.” Someone who may or may not really be named Adam Smith also wrote in February, “You’ll love this book if you like bureaucratic history and thinly veiled hero worshiping.” Another reviewer adds, “More than a little over the top for hero-worship of [Petraeus.]”

Overall, the book receives an average of fewer stars from its readers than the four that adorned the general’s uniform.

Of course, we now know just what lay beneath the hagiographic portrait painted by Broadwell and her “ghost-writer” (as he describes himself) Vernon Loeb. Broadwell was literally in love with Gen. Petraeus, and it’s not as if there weren’t clues that the general picked her with something other than her scholarly, journalistic, or literary qualifications in mind. Indeed, hers was an obsessive love, the kind known to drive people to behave in bizarre, inexplicable ways.

She was clearly unqualified for the task, having never written anything longer than a term paper. What’s more, she behaved, as we have now heard, in a flagrantly inappropriate manner in the general’s company, flaunting her access in myriad ways, bragging about her ability to read classified information, and dressing with a culturally inappropriate lack of modesty in Afghanistan. The fact that Gen. Petraeus’s biographer needed a “ghost-writer” speaks volumes about her lack of qualifications for the task at hand—save for the fact that Gen. Petraeus could be absolutely certain that every word would be favorable, if not worshipful.

Jon Stewart made a little fun of himself for falling into the same trap during his January interview with Broadwell as so many smarty-pants Washington insiders. But Stewart is a comedian, not a journalist, who is famously polite to his guests no matter how profound his disagreements are with them. (Watch his discussion with former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AK), for instance, later in the same program.) But many journalists have already admitted that they were members of “the cult of General Petraeus.”

What’s remarkable is how easy it all was. And if you think this is a unique case, because Gen. Petraeus happened to be such an unusually magnificent and inspiring leader, then recall Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s no-less-remarkable and protective relationship with the media that revealed itself when that general engaged in inappropriate behavior of a decidedly different sort. (And the journalistic hero of that story, Michael Hastings, has a story on BuzzFeed in which he lists some of the many stories in which Gen. Petraeus has received more than his fair share of the benefit of the doubt from virtually the entire journalistic establishment. Naturally, this inspired a nasty Politico takedown.)

But this returns us to our original question. Look again at the names attached to those Amazon blurbs. Each one is either a famous author, journalist, or public-minded scholar with a significant reputation, and a mini-celebrity in his or her own field. (I did not include all of those on the page, but the other blurbers—Mark Bowden, Nathaniel Fick, and Mackubin Thomas Owens—are no less laudatory.) And yet each one of them offers nothing but praise for a biography written by an entirely uncritical author who could hardly be more compromised if she were the subject’s secret alter ego. Where were their critical faculties before issuing these quotes? Did they even read the book? How can they offer up such unambivalent praise for so fundamentally flawed a journalistic enterprise?

Clearly, as with the “cult” member journalists, what was at work was a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties when it came to the military. (The other, apparently endless complications of this story point to a similar tendency.) And as with the embarrassing McChrystal saga, the notion that the so-called “liberal” media are in any way hostile to the military is clearly belied by this entire sordid story. Gen. Petraeus, you will recall, is not only a general but also a conservative Republican who was being recruited by some as a potential presidential candidate.

“Any biography of a living, breathing and active figure who’s still at the height of his powers is going to have to strike a delicate balance between access and objectivity,” Tim Duggan, executive editor at HarperCollins, told The New York Times. All In was unbalanced in almost every way imaginable, save its authors’ and subject’s ability to sing its praises and ignore its obvious flaws—not unlike, as it happens, the moral, political, and, quite obviously, literary values of life in our nation’s capital.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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