An Old Spy Sees the News Media in Washington Behaving Much Like the Secret Police in Totalitarian Countries

Before Charles McCarry became a novelist, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Ohio and then was recruited into the CIA. He worked under cover, mostly in Geneva and Rome—his cover was writing features for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

After he left the CIA, he was the number-two editor at the National Geographic in Washington and then became a full-time novelist. Norman Mailer said that McCarry and John le Carre “are probably the two best writers of spy novels.”

In McCarry’s 11th novel, Second Sight, an old CIA spy, David Patchen, is walking in DC’s Georgetown when he is accosted by Patrick Graham, described as “a famous television journalist, one of the new breed who were part leading man and part Grand Inquisitor.” Patchen’s reaction to being ambushed by Graham:

In late twentieth-century Washington, David Patchen said blandly to Patrick Graham, a certain politicized segment of the news media exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries. They maintained hidden network of informers, carried out clandestine investigations, conducted interrogations on the basis of accusations made by anonymous witnesses and agent provocateurs, and staged dramatic show trials in which the guilt of the accused was assumed and no effective defense was allowed. They had far greater powers of investigation than the government.

The authority of the state to persecute the individual was defined and limited by the Constitution, whereas the media were restrained by nothing more than the rules of theater. Because their targets were usually thought by the best people to deserve the punishment they might otherwise have eluded, the media had no need to worry about the quality of its evidence; journalists were not concerned with the truth in any case, only with “accuracy.” That consisted of verifying the existence of their sources and confirming that they had actually spoken the words quoted, or something close to those words; nothing beyond that was required.

If one person denounced another, even if anonymously, that was reason enough to publish the charge. There was no requirement to question the evidence or the accuser’s motives, or even to identify the accuser; in fact the accuser usually spoke on the understanding that his anonymity would be preserved under all circumstances. Verdicts of “innocent” based on the rules of evidence were almost unknown. The sentence was degradation, shame, exile, and, usually, a lifetime of impoverishment resulting from the attempt to pay lawyers’ fees incurred in the vain hope of self-defense. Conviction in the media was sometimes followed by conviction in the courts, but the punishment handed down by judges, a prison sentence or fine or condemnation to a stated number of good works among the underclass, was regarded as the lesser penalty.

Hearing these outrageous statements, Patrick Graham stared dumfounded at Patchen—or rather into the pitch darkness through which they were walking. He could not actually see Patchen, only his silhouette and the dull reflection of the neon corona of the city in his eyeglasses. After trying all day to to get Patchen on the telephone, he had accosted him as he and his Doberman began their regular nighttime walk along the  tow path of the C&O Canal. Graham had hoped to conclude their business on the spot in a manner of minutes, but Patchen had plunged off into the shadows.

 

 

Comments

  1. Bob Cullen says:

    The analogy to the Inquisition occurs often to me, too. But to be fair to the media in the #MeToo era, their standards are a bit higher than McCarry’s character suggests. See the evidence amassed by the Post in the Roy Jones investigation.

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