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Hullabaloo


Saturday, October 29, 2005

 
No Hero

Now that Tim Russert has finally told his story --- and it appears to be central to the case --- a lot of people are saying that we owe him an apology for giving him grief.

While I certainly agree with Atrios that this notion of default confidentiality any time you speak to a government official is mind-boggling (and I give Russert some credit for not being a total Bush toady on this) but I don't think Russert gets any kudos for his behavior. I know that Fitzgerald asked him to keep quiet, but I don't think it's any more ethical for a reporter not to report what he knows for that reason, than if he kept quiet because he allowed Scooter to assume that he had confidentiality. There is no secrecy required for Grand Jury witnesses and there certainly is no secrecy required for discussions with the prosecutor. Where there is no secrecy required, which should be a little as possible, reporters should report. We are all better off if these people don't go around deciding whether the government is doing the right thing by keeping secrets. We the people are the government and we have a right to know.

NBC put put out a lawyerly press release which turns out to be pretty much the extent of Russert's testimony. In the context of the case it became ripe for parsing, using such words as it did about"the name" and the word "operative" which had been discussed in great depth in the context of Novak's column. By never clarifying what he meant by those words --- by never ever even addressing them --- he allowed misconceptions and speculation to simmer for months. He failed in his job as a journalist by not clearing that up.

But Russert's biggest crime was consistently discussing this case, and grilling those involved, without ever mentioning his own involvement. For two years he has been reporting this story and leaving out relevant information (as it turns out extremely relevant information) about this case. He grilled Joe Wilson like a criminal, he never challenged the Vice president, he had Bob Novak right in front of him and he talked about the case and speculated grandly while never (except in one very bizarre instance) coming clean about what he knew.

Here's the one bizarre instance from July 25, 2005:

MR. GREGORY: ... There's a political problem and then potentially a legal problem because I think what the special prosecutor is looking at right now is who might have actually blown Valerie Plame's cover, or did somebody lie, in their testimony, about their conversations with reporters? The White House defense has been that they learned about Valerie Plame from reporters. There is now information, including a classified State Department memo, that may contradict that. There at least is the potential that White House officials were aware of who she was, what she did and her role in sending her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger to investigate this uranium-Iraq thing.

MR. RUSSERT: There has to be an original source, somebody.

MR. GREGORY: Yes.

MS. TOTENBERG: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: Even if it came from a reporter...

MR. GREGORY: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...the reporter got it from someplace.

MS. TOTENBERG: Right. And...

MR. RUSSERT: But I was asked what I said. I did not know.


I have no idea what he meant by that, but it certainly didn't inform the discussion. (And, of course, nobody followed up. Russert is godhead.)

Unless Russert had an explicit legal obligation to stay quiet, he should not have done it. His job is to inform the public of what he knows, period. By not clearing up the press release and speaking up in various roundtables and interviews he passively misinformed the public for months.

The bottom line is that a reporter's obligation is not to the government, it's to his readers or viewers, whether the government is represented by Scooter Libby or Patrick Fitzgerald. They are the Fourth Estate, empowered by a heavy duty constitutional right --- freedom of the press, which was not put in the bill of rights so that reporters could get delicious gossip about people with whom they socialize along with their tasty official propaganda. It also wasn't put into the Bill of Rights so that they could help prosecutors. Our democracy will not function if they do not operate in a separate sphere of responsibility from the government they cover.

I'm reminded of this little exhange between Russert and the Dean from a few months back:

Russert: David Broder, explain to our viewers what you have observed, and why journalists have this code where they simply will not divulge their sources.

Broder: The principle is pretty simple. It is the government’s responsibility to keep the government’s secrets secret. It is not the press’ responsibility. Our inclination, once we have information, is to try to verify it, to amplify as much as we can, the background and the context. But our basic obligation, then, is to share information with the public.


It seems that many members of the Washington press corpse believe that the story stops with printing what their favored confidential sources feed them. Then they go back for more. They've been doing this for a long time and the result has been a disasterous kind of incentuous amplification of the political establishment's efforts to guide the discourse in the direction they choose.

In this case, even after all this manipulation and lying on the part of the administration, even blaming reporters for their own misdeeds and using the threat of betraying omerta to silence them, the press is still serving as little more than conduits for the target's lawyers' public relations roll out. Their reporting on the underlying issues about the war is perfunctory at best, thrown in at the end of each article like so much filler, and calling it "context."

I heard John Dean last night on Keith Olbermann make an interesting claim: that the Nixon administration as part of their Stonewall Defense had wanted the case to be investigated in the Grand Jury because of the secrecy requirement. (Remenber Nixon's famous words on the tape: "I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment; cover-up or anything else, if it'll save it; save the plan.") Dean said that if congress hadn't investigated Watergate, it would have died behind the wall of Grand Jury secrecy and the facts behind this case may die there too.

However, there was at the time, some intrepid reporting taking place as well, some of which was aggressive interviewing of reluctant Grand Jury witnesses --- former employees of CREEP and the like. Reporters worked hard to get them to tell their tales and it was the constant revelations coming out in the Washington Post, informed by Mark Feldt but reported with shoe leather investigative work, that propelled the congress to act. Today, we have reporters who are actually part of the story refusing to tell their tales all because they are protecting, in one way or another, the government.(Andsadly, one of the reporters involved in that story is now a total whore for the Bush administration.)

This is one of the most perverse aspects of this entire story. The culture of Washington has become so insular that reporters are in the business of protecting the government's secrets on a constant basis. (The only secrets they refuse to keep are lurid tales of people's private sex lives.)

I'm glad that Fitzgerald was able to make a perjury case against Scooter Libby, since he is obviously covering up something bigger than gossip or he wouldn't have done something so uncharacteristically dumb.("Stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment; cover-up or anything else, if it'll save it; save the plan.") He deserves to be prosecuted. But I can't help but wonder how I would look at this if the prosecutor were Ken Starr and Tim Russert had helped him rather than do his job.

Oh wait, I forgot. He did.



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