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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lancing The Boil

by digby

One of the most interesting things about following the Connecticut senate race last summer was becoming exposed to the local media. One stand-out was Colin McEnroe, who has written the piece that should have been written by a top flight national columnist except they are so in the tank, that I'm not sure they even understand the issue much less have the integrity to write something about it:

During the trial of Scooter "I. Lewis" Libby, the notes of Cathie Martin were flashed up on a courtroom screen. Martin was an aide to Vice President Darth Vader, I mean Dick Cheney, and her notes concerned ways in which Cheney might combat the notion that the White House had not been honest about Iraq's nuclear capabilities. As option number one, Martin wrote "MTP-VP," meaning either that the Vice President should aim his Death Star at some hapless planet and "massacre their people" or, more likely, that the Vice President should appear on the program you are not going to watch today.

Martin then did a pros and cons notation about this strategy. On the pro side she wrote "control message."

Really? That's the best thing about sending Vice President Cheney on "Meet the Press?" That you can control the message you want to get out? Interesting.

But then there were more notes presented at the trial. These notes were taken by Libby himself about a conversation he had with Cheney adviser Mary Matalin about how to deal with that meddlesome NBC fellow Chris Matthews. "Call Tim. He hates Chris - he needs to know it all," was the advice from Matalin jotted down by Libby.

Hmmm. A Cheney adviser knows that NBC's Russert hates NBC's Matthews and that Russert will be helpful.

A couple of connectable dots involve Matalin's husband, James Carville, and Russert's son, Luke, who together launched a satellite radio sports talk show called "60/20," a reference to their respective age groups, apparently because the title "A Giant Talking Adder and an Unqualified Stripling With a Famous Dad Discuss Big Strong Sweaty Men" was already taken by the Sci-Fi Channel.

Tim Russert and Carville actually promoted the sports show on "Meet the Press" (where Carville and Matalin regularly appear) without revealing that Luke Russert was the second host, as if that somehow removed the taint of hand-in-glove favoritism from this plug.

So Russert gets his kid a fancy gig with a famous and wired guy like Carville. It hardly comes as a surprise to think that Carville's wife feels she has a little inside advantage in playing Russert for Cheney's benefit.

But wait. There's more.

When Russert was first subpoenaed, in 2004, to speak to the grand jury in the Libby case, he and NBC made a great show of fighting to quash that subpoena because, in the words of NBC News president Neil Shapiro, "The American public will be deprived of important information if the government can freely question journalists about their efforts to gather news." This quote appeared in a "story" on the MSNBC website about NBC's brave resistance.

Stirring words. Only one problem. It emerged at trial that Russert spoke freely to an FBI agent about this whole matter the first time he was ever contacted. The whole pageant of refusing to cooperate was kind of a charade. He had already cooperated. I mean, shouldn't the story MSNBC ran about NBC's commitment to the American public have explained that Russert compromised at least some of that commitment the first chance he got?

OK. Just a little more.

In his own trial testimony, Russert explained his own unique approach to the concept of "off the record" conversations with public officials. Russert said public officials do not have to ask to go off the record with him. They are always presumptively off the record. Then, if he wants to get them on the record, he revisits the point and asks them to go public.

This is a wonderful, generous strategy, and the only problem with it is that it represents a complete inversion of the standard operating practices of journalism. Every reporter who works at this newspaper, and pretty much every reporter professionally employed at any other reputable organ of the press has been instructed to do the opposite: assume that every utterance is on the record unless the utterer has explicitly gone off the record before uttering.

People who deal with the press are expected to know that.

You're not even allowed to say, "The U.S. government blew up Pluto in November of last year, but that's off the record," although some reporters will give you the NBA continuation rule if you don't pause for breath anywhere in there.

A gray area would be something like, "The real Zodiac killer was - and this is off the record - Andy Rooney." That's probably a legitimate off the record statement.

But Russert's policy is one of his own invention, and it's the kind of policy you'd have if you prized your cozy relationship with powerful people more highly than you prized your role as a reporter.

I mention all this because, here and there, you read comments about the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and how much he damaged the First Amendment by sweating a bunch of journalists. Please. It's more like he lanced some kind of infectious boil.

The reason why so many of us first amendment absolutists have come down on the side of the prosecution in the Libby trial has less to do with our desire to see him "nail Cheney" (although it would have been beautiful if he had) and more to do with this sickening Republican political and media establishment which suck their lifeblood from each other and in the process pervert and distort our politics.

We watched the press behave like a bunch of lapdancers for the Republicans for well over a decade. They wrapped their legs around Republican power so strongly that it finally led us into a circumstance that is killing people in large numbers. They were angry at Bill Clinton for "trashing the place" and it wasn't his place. They took out their childish pique on Al Gore and stoked the fires that demanded Bush be seated in the white house no matter what the legitimate outcome of the election in 2000. After 9/11 they put on a modern martial pageant that would have made Joseph Stalin proud.

They can weep and moan all they want about the verdict and help the Republicans twist themselves into a pretzels trying to explain why lying about the reasons for a war is less serious than lying about a blow job. Fine. But we know that these mediawhores have been exposed. They can pretend that none of this was important and they can keep the GOP spin machine going with a few more tired whirls around that pole, but the people who are getting the accolades and the pulitzers and who will be remembered for their excellent reporting during this period will be the ones who have had the chutzpah to speak truth to power.

I'll never forget Dana Priest on Meet The Press last year, breaking all the rules by exposing the spin for the spin it was --- and making William Bennet so mad I thought the top of his head was going to explode:

MS. PRIEST: Every time there’s a national security story they don’t want published, they say it will damage national security. But they—for one thing, they’ve never given us any proof. They say it will stop cooperation, but the fact is that the countries of the world understand that they have to cooperate on counterterrorism. And just like the banks that did not pull out of the system, other countries continue to cooperate, because it’s a common problem.

MS. MITCHELL: But, Dana...

MR. HARWOOD: Have you heard...(unintelligible)...are pulling out from this system? I don’t think so.

MS. MITCHELL: Dana, let me point out that The Washington Post, your newspaper, was behind the others but also did publish this story. And a story you wrote last year disclosing the secret CIA prisons won the Pulitzer Prize, but it also led to William Bennett, sitting here, saying that three reporters who won the Pulitzer Prize—you for that story and Jim Risen and others for another story—were, “not worthy of an award but rather worthy of jail.” Dana, how do you plead?

MS. PRIEST: Well, it’s not a crime to publish classified information. And this is one of the things Mr. Bennett keeps telling people that it is. But, in fact, there are some narrow categories of information you can’t publish, certain signals, communications, intelligence, the names of covert operatives and nuclear secrets.

Now why isn’t it a crime? I mean, some people would like to make casino gambling a crime, but it is not a crime. Why isn’t it not a crime? Because the framers of the Constitution wanted to protect the press so that they could perform a basic role in government oversight[emphasis mine], and you can’t do that. Look at the criticism that the press got after Iraq that we did not do our job on WMD. And that was all in a classified arena. To do a better job—and I believe that we should’ve done a better job—we would’ve again, found ourselves in the arena of...

C&L caught it on video.

If the trial did nothing else it showed the sickeningly parasitic relationship between many in the press and the Republicans. The Libby apologists in the media and the political establishment are screaming bloody murder about the trial because there was no "underlying crime" so Scooter shouldn't have even been been tried for lying to the Grand Jury. Forgetting their unbelievable gall in making this argument after their non-stop shrieking about the "rule 'o law" in the Lewinsky matter when the alleged underlying crime of sexual harrassment had been thrown out of court on the merits, their crocodile tears for the first amendment are especially rich coming from the people who wanted to jail reporters in stories that revealed current illegal and extra-constitutional policies on the part of the administration. Dana Priest and others are actually doing the work they are supposed to do which is overseeing government and they are vilified by the same Republican establishment that has otherwise wrapped itself in the first amendment to defend Tim Russert and Judy Miller and the Bush administration.

This isn't brain surgery. A reporter's privilege should not be used to help powerful people in government lie to the public about what it's doing or punish its enemies for speaking out against it. It exists to protect people who are risking their livlihoods by speaking out against those same powerful people. This is not hard for rational people to understand and yet in Washington they are so confused by their relationships with the powerful that they seem to be speaking in tongues on this issue.

The political press is not a monolith. There are incredible reporters like Priest who have done extraordinary work under very difficult circumstances. We can't do without them. But the insider culture of Washington that McEnroe describes in his piece above is a decadent and insular little circle of celebrity and power that has affirmatively harmed this country. The Libby trial opened up that fetid boil and did this country a favor. I'm not surprised that they are squealing as loudly as they can --- or that the rightwing freakshow is behaving as if they were born yesterday. After all, they all know they are compromised. They just didn't think we did.