These outcomes seem to be a function of appearances — Kerik’s household employee may have been an illegal immigrant; Mineta is a prominent Asian-American Democrat — rather than substance. Yet here, as in other areas of public life (cf., our abortive initial assault on Falluja), decisions based on appearances can have real consequences.
What drives the destructive public emphasis on politically-correct appearances is, largely, the mainstream press, which, as Robert Kaplan argues, derives much power from its ability to frame questions and hence issues. It also has an elitist, legalistic, statist and appeasement-oriented international power agenda that’s at odds with much of America’s public policy, if not some of its fundamental values.
The medieval age was tyrannized by a demand for spiritual perfectionism, making it hard to accomplish anything practical. Truth, Erasmus cautioned, had to be concealed under a cloak of piety; Machiavelli wondered whether any government could remain useful if it actually practiced the morality it preached. . . Today the global media make demands on generals and civilian policymakers that require a category of perfectionism with which medieval authorities would have been familiar. Investigative journalists may often perform laudatory service, but they have also become the grand inquisitors of the age, shattering reputations built up over a lifetime with the exposure of just a few sordid details. . .
One corollary of all this is that people like Bernard Kerik, who was probably an excellent choice to head Homeland Security (for some background on his success in another security bureaucracy, see this article about his reform of the NYC prison system), get derailed for reasons having nothing to with whether they can do the job. Another corollary is that cautious mediocrities like Norman Mineta (Supreme Court Justice David Souter is another good example) become politically valuable far beyond their deserts, simply because they habitually avoided saying, writing or doing anything for which the press might later take them to task if things didn’t work out.
I think Kaplan is too pessimistic, because he ignores the beneficial role played by the new media (including himself, in his highly successful role as an independent journalist and analyst whose work is widely read on the Internet) in serving as a check on old media. His diagnosis of the problem is thus part of the cure. Increasing numbers of citizens get their information from nontraditional sources and are becoming alert to MSM tendentiousness.
However, his discussion of the behavior of the old (“mainstream”) media is spot on. The MSM are powerful players in modern geopolitics, and pursue an agenda that is often hostile to that of open societies with totalitarian enemies. Western public officials, particularly American ones, have been slow to figure this out. It is extremely important that they learn better to use the MSM to advance their own agenda, and to counter the agendas advanced by the MSM themselves, and by media-savvy totalitarians for whom press manipulation is now a basic military tactic.