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Refreshing Independence

Refreshing Independence

March 10th, 2010  |  Published in Uncategorized

I’m not at all sure that blogs will replace journalism as we know it.  I am sure that the best independent journalists provide a view that has become institutionally difficult or impossible for ‘professional’ journalists to supply. I think of how war reporter Michael Yon allows emotion to enter into his reporting in a way that improves our understanding of what troops go through in war and by extension our understanding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I ran into a more granular and subtle example in a long piece by Michael J Totten entitled Twenty Years after the Fall of the Tyrant about present day Romania. In it he describes Vice Presidents Joe Biden in a way that probably would be edited out by orthodox standards. Please indulge my long excerpt, including the photo by Totten, because the point I want to make only stands out in context:

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once described Poland as a “geopolitical spa,” a place he liked to go to get away from the unrelenting anti-American bitchfest in Western Europe after the terrorist attacks on September 11. He just as easily could have been describing Romania or almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe other than Serbia.

“People here liked President Bush more than people in other places,” Voinescu said, “but they now love President Obama. Romanians are ready to embrace any U.S. president. There is a certain kind of emotional attachment to whatever the Americans decide about their own country. I think people liked President Bush because they liked his toughness on certain issues. You know that in this part of Europe, after the whole communist era, you need sometimes a stronger approach when you talk about various issues. On the other hand, they like Obama because, you know, his charm is seductive everywhere.”

I don’t know if President Barack Obama reciprocates that feeling of affection, but I think Vice President Joe Biden probably does. He visited Bucharest at the same time I did to discuss a missile shield the administration hoped to install there instead of in Poland. He and the Romanian president addressed local journalists at a press conference which I also attended. What he said might read like diplomatic boilerplate, but I was barely twenty feet from him when he spoke, and judging by his body language and the tone of his voice, he’s either an exceptionally skilled political actor or he’s absolutely sincere.

Joe Biden in Romania
Vice President Joe Biden in Bucharest, Romania
“We serve together in Afghanistan,” he said, “in the western Balkans, and in Iraq. And I feel obliged to tell the Romanian people how grateful President Obama and I and the American people are for the Romanian troops that are in Afghanistan. Our troops—and I mean this sincerely, my son just got back from Iraq after a year as a captain in the United States Army—our troops are proud to serve next to Romanian troops because you are incredibly competent. Your kids—I wish you could all see, as I got to see, just how incredibly competent they are. You should be proud. And to all the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives of those 1100 Romanians that are stationed in Afghanistan, I mean this sincerely, as a parent, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

This is the same Joe Biden who is usually depicted  as the Democrat’s  version of Dan Quayle – known for his verbal maladroitness. So established is this meme that a sharp opposition columnist like Jonah Goldberg could play off Biden’s recent overreach in giving  Obama credit for the outcome in Iraq by claiming it didn’t really count until another administration spokesperson defended the assertion.

Initially, I ignored Biden’s comment because, well, he’s Joe Biden. As critical as I may be of the Obama administration, holding it accountable for Biden’s mouth seems grotesquely unfair.

Both Biden’s assertion and the journalistic response is business as usual – political and journalistic. Totten’s description of Biden in a moment of sincerity is different and refreshing. Not only does Totten break the ‘mouth meme’, he breaks the taboo against inserting himself directly into the story. But it is exactly his personal reading of Biden that shows how overly institutionalized professional journalism has become and a key strength of independent journalism.  I hasten to add that this is independent journalism at its best, not its worst, and that Michael J Totten is also an educated professional journalist with a keen and discriminating eye for when he can break the established conventions. Bottom line:  I read Michael J Totten because he has a knack for finding both major stories that the fall below the MSM radar (Lebanon, Ukraine, Romania and others) as well as little details that smack of authenticity precisely because they give relief from the meme ridden mainstream product.

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