Edited by Sam Thielman
TODAY IS THE WORST DAY in any newsroom of the entire year.
I don’t mean the worst day in terms of news production. There will be bad journalism produced every day of every year, meaning competition is fierce and the winner determined retroactively. Nor do I mean the worst day in terms of news distribution. That’s a tie: every single day in the age of the social media oligopoly. Imagine shipping your product in a container coated with a corrosive. Every day it weakens your product’s structural integrity.
The first day after the New Year is the worst day because it sits at an intersection. You don’t want to work and you have no ideas. For 15 years, the period when my job has primarily been to report, I typically stumbled dead on my feet into the holidays, grateful to be doing anything besides “national security” reporting. The time between Christmas and New Year’s was a detox week, my time not to think about my job.
But come that first Monday, it turns out you were expected to have ideas for important stories. Worse, you’re going to talk about them with your editors and fellow reporters. I usually don’t sleep on the second of January because of the way the whole structure—and certain editors—tells you you’re derelict if you come in Monday morning without knowing what you’re working on. The best way to generate story ideas is to talk to people. I’ve just spent more than a week not talking to people and not expecting them to talk to me. The second best way to generate story ideas is to think creatively about significant unresolved questions that exert an influence over something you cover. I’ve just spent a week desperate not to think at all.
Or I did early on in my career. For the past decade most of my holiday week was conquered, year by year, by intrusive thoughts about surveillance, torture, detention, war and so forth. Very rarely did these thoughts help me come up with answers for January third story conferences, because they weren’t ideas, they were mental nazgul, arriving to make me despair about all the ways I did my job badly over the past year, and would continue to do my job badly in the year to come. I would arrive in the newsroom hoping for spot news—a discrete newsworthy event, or at least some bullshit on a CNN crawl—that would distract editors and buy me time. On the January thirds when that didn’t manifest, I would simply do deadline journalism in response to an editor’s usually stupid fixation, resulting in what in retrospect is probably trivial or undernourished reporting.
And so, today, I’m giving it 35 percent.
I have some ideas for what I want coverage to be over the next several weeks. Absolutely none of them can be thrown together for today. Most won’t be thrown together this week, because they’re not really thought through. My brain isn’t in this yet, and until it is, I’m not going to produce material up to my standards. For most of my adult life, I would despair about this, moving into anger when pressured by an editor, and in that despair, try to force myself back to 100 percent.
But today, I’m giving it 35 percent. I’m stretching before I run, and really, this is going to be more of a walk on the treadmill than anything brisk. I’m remembering that overexertion this early on will ensure that performance deteriorates. I’m trying as hard as I can to be healthy.
This could only happen because this year is the first in my adult life that no one can fire me. That’s an evil way for the world to be.
FOREVER WARS is part of the Discontents Substack cartel, and with cartelization comes benefits. Subscribe to Forever Wars for a year and receive six FREE months of two of our affiliated newsletters, Welcome To Hell World by Luke O’Neil and Derek Davidson’s Foreign Exchanges. Both of them are excellent, and you’ll get them both at the subscriber tier. Subscribe today! And remember: REIGN OF TERROR is available now!
CAROL ROSENBERG, DEAN OF GUANTANAMO reporters, had a piece recently about an expansion of the secrecy blanketing the Guantanamo military tribunals. Guantanamo is already inaccessible as a deliberate feature of what pantomimes as justice there. But the Pentagon is building a new courtroom at Guantanamo, and this one will not have a gallery where the already very few members of the public approved to observe the proceedings can observe the proceedings.
The Pentagon’s explanation is that it’s a cost-savings measure. And the logic isn’t hard to perceive, given everything mentioned above about how few people can observe any given commission proceeding. Visibility to the public will come through constructing what Carol reports as a “virtual gallery,” another spot where people approved by the Pentagon—reporters, human rights observers, interested bureaucrats and the occasional relative of someone killed in an act of terrorism—can watch on a 40-second delay.
This is how rationalizations work: along the path of institutionalization. On Jan. 11, Guantanamo will celebrate its 20th anniversary as a forever prison, a place on earth occupying a quantum position in terms of law, a physical instantiation of a state of exception. It’s obscene to construct any new courtroom at Guantanamo Bay at all. The longer the detention facility is permitted to exist, the greater the likelihood that some president will use it to its potential. At that point the restricted secrecy of this latest move will feel like a trivial concern.
HOW I WISH I COULD tell my teenage self that Bernie Kerik, one of the pieces of shit Rudy made his NYPD commissioner, isn’t just going to go prison for corruption and fraud, but a decade after he does, he will provide a congressional committee investigating a coup attempt with a document called “DRAFT LETTER FROM POTUS TO SEIZE EVIDENCE IN THE INTEREST OF NATIONAL SECURITY FOR THE 2020 ELECTIONS.”
I RECENTLY GOT NOTES BACK for my first comic book script—Evan Narcisse and I are writing a Suicide Squad miniseries for DC/Black Label that will appear in 2022 —so part of what I’m thinking about at the moment is page composition. There could be no greater tutorial than this interview the Cartoonist Kayfabe guys conducted with Dave Gibbons about Watchmen #12.
And if you’re an X-Men person, I should mention that later this month, you’ll hear me and Connor Goldsmith talk about Callisto on his Entertainment Weekly-blessed podcast Cerebro. Cerebro is my Krakoa—if that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it—and there you’ll hear me talk about a lot of the stuff I discuss in this newsletter as it applies to Beast, Magneto and Professor X. The Callisto episode is going to be a lot like those earlier ones.
IN FOREVER WARS’ LAST EDITION, I mentioned that I’d appreciate purchasers of REIGN OF TERROR refrain from buying the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. until the bookstore recognizes its union. This morning the union announced that the store has agreed to recognition, and is moving forward with negotiating its first contract. Congratulations to the P&P union. Buy my book at their store. They’ll be selling the book at the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington on Jan. 27, when Wajahat Ali and I will be talking in person about our books with WAMU’s Jenn White. Come say hi if you’re there, but if you're going to be an asshole, I'm not going to have any patience.