"Media Matters," week ending July 29, 2005; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Two weeks after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) revealed that White House senior adviser Karl Rove's conversations about CIA operative Valerie Plame with columnist Robert D. Novak and journalist Matthew Cooper likely violated a nondisclosure agreement Rove had to sign to gain access to classified information, The Washington Post still hasn't mentioned the nondisclosure agreement. Nor has USA Today. Other papers have been similarly silent, and The New York Times has made only passing mention of the agreement.

Week ending July 29, 2005
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This week:

From the National Association for the Advocacy of Simultaneous Walking and Gum-Chewing: Where are the Rove/Plame updates?

Confidential to Wash. Post, Chris Matthews: Maybe Senate Democrats are just trying to do their job

Durbin's question draws criticism; similar question by Republican senator doesn't

Karl Rove seeks asylum in Scarborough Country, and other miscellany

From the National Association for the Advocacy of Simultaneous Walking and Gum-Chewing: Where are the Rove/Plame updates?

Two weeks after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) revealed that White House senior adviser Karl Rove's conversations about CIA operative Valerie Plame with columnist Robert D. Novak and journalist Matthew Cooper likely violated a nondisclosure agreement Rove had to sign to gain access to classified information, The Washington Post still hasn't mentioned the nondisclosure agreement. Nor has USA Today. Other papers have been similarly silent, and The New York Times has made only passing mention of the agreement.

As we explained last week, either Rove signed the nondisclosure agreement, or he didn't. If he signed it, his conversations about Plame almost certainly violated that agreement, the consequences of which include "the likely loss of the security clearance." If Rove didn't sign the agreement, he should not have had access to classified information -- in which case his participation in the White House Iraq Group, which "sift[ed] through classified evidence" in a "secure National Security Council conference room" surely merits investigation.

Why, then, are the Post and the Times and USA Today and virtually all of the nation's news outlets ignoring Rove's nondisclosure agreement? One way or another, reporters should have a great story on their hands -- either President Bush's top political aide violated his nondisclosure agreement, or he had access to classified information he should not have been privy to.

And yet ... silence. The Post has run only two substantive articles about the Plame matter this week. USA Today has mentioned Rove's name in only three articles this week -- one guest column, one article about poll results, and one blurb about "Doonsebury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau's use of the phrase "Turd Blossom" -- the nickname President Bush famously gave Rove -- in a recent comic strip. If the Post and USA Today and others are looking for a substantive story to fit in amid the pressing news of the latest "Doonesbury" strip, how about telling readers about the nondisclosure agreement Rove apparently signed -- and what it means if he didn't?

Of course, one reason for the recent lack of quality coverage of the Plame matter is that, as we noted last week, the White House successfully distracted attention from the case by moving up the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court.

Binghamton, New York, Press & Sun-Bulletin associate editor David Rossie offered a blistering critique of the conduct of national news outlets, particularly The New York Times, accusing the White House press corps of being "incapable of dealing with more than one major story at a time":

If you think the timing of the announcement of Roberts' selection wasn't a carefully planned distraction, try to recall the last time a president demanded and got prime television time to make an announcement that ordinarily would have been a 10-minute turn in the Rose Garden, weather permitting.

Six administrations ago, condescending Democrats used to joke that Gerald Ford couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. Someone in this White House, perhaps Rove himself, knew the same was true of the White House press corps: It is incapable of dealing with more than one major story at a time.

Within 24 hours of Roberts' introduction, Rove had become as distant as the Martian Rover and remained so for another 24. And not a moment too soon. The Gerbil, required to dissemble -- or disassemble if you prefer his nominal boss's brand of pidgin English -- as a condition of employment, had been taking such a relentless pounding by the media jackals that it led Jon Stewart to speculate that the White House press corps had been replaced by real reporters.

And Bush himself, a man of his word, we're repeatedly told, was forced to come up with a new dodge. Whereas he'd said earlier that he'd fire anyone in his employ found to have leaked information about Joseph Wilson's wife to the media, his new line was that he'd fire anyone convicted of illegally leaking information.

In some quarters, that would be called flip-flopping, a term we heard used repeatedly last year to describe John Kerry. When Bush does it it's called clarification.

[...]

Last Friday, The New York Times, which has addressed this issue with all the enthusiasm of a man attempting to defuse a bomb, returned to its coverage, which has consisted mainly of rambling interviews with anonymous sources bent on portraying Rove and his accomplices as sympathetically as possible.

The Times' reporters appear to have access to several leakers of grand jury information, all of them, not surprisingly, eager to portray Rove as favorably as possible. And in what may be a late addition to The Times' stylebook, any sentence that contains a reference to Wilson, his wife and Rove must contain the notation that Rove didn't mention Wilson's wife by name in outing her.

Of course, Wilson had only one wife working at the CIA as far as we know, but every little bit helps when you're trying to stay on the good side of this administration, as The Times has labored mightily, not to mention slavishly, to do.

When it comes to slavish attempts to stay on the good side of this administration, it's hard to top the non-stop chorus of conservative columnists and pundits who have argued, in the face of all available evidence, that Plame wasn't really covert. Writing at Salon.com, Joe Conason demonstrated the weakness of those claims -- and that was before this week's revelation that a former CIA spokesman testified to the grand jury that Plame was, in fact, undercover:

[Bill] Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.

Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.

Further reading: Media Matters continues to debunk false claims about the Plame outing; the blog of the magazine In These Times offers some suggestions for reporters who want to dig a little deeper than the latest "Doonesbury" reference to "Turd Blossom"; Think Progress raises questions about John Ashcroft's involvement in the "12 hour head start."

Confidential to Wash. Post, Chris Matthews: Maybe Senate Democrats are just trying to do their job

John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court continues to be the topic of misleading and inaccurate news reports, many portraying any effort to find out basic information about the man who would gain a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court as nothing more than a partisan political ploy.

At least three times since Roberts's nomination was announced, The Washington Post has portrayed the Democrats' desire for documents produced while Roberts was a government lawyer under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush as little more than a partisan fishing expedition. The Post "reported":

The mushrooming fight over documents represents the first battleground in the confirmation struggle since Bush chose Roberts, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, last week to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. With Roberts's legal credentials not disputed and his views on the most sensitive issues facing the court hard to pin down, Democrats have chosen for now to make the issue of document disclosure their focus -- hoping to find ammunition to derail the nomination or to wage a public battle over the administration's refusal to turn over files.

Though the Post stipulated that Roberts's "views on the most sensitive issues facing the court" are unknown, the paper ignored the possibility that Democrats are merely trying to find answers to those questions. Instead, the Post presented it all as a partisan political tactic on their part, rather than a sincere desire to (gasp!) consider the qualifications and positions of a Supreme Court nominee. The Post could just as easily have reported that Republicans are guilty of playing partisan games by withholding the documents and trying to sneak Roberts through the Senate without a thorough examination of his background.

The Post wasn't alone in its cynical portrayal of Democratic requests for documents. On the July 28 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert joined in:

MATTHEWS: Bob, I want to start with you on this. It seems to me that the liberals are a bit desperate right now. They're looking around for paper. They're trying to -- they're basically going on witch hunts, or, rather, what do you call them? Fishing expeditions is the political term, trying to find some dirt on this pristine, apparently pristine, nominee of the president for the Supreme Court, John Roberts.

HERBERT: The desperation started on the last election night, the presidential election.

Democrats are on a "witch hunt" and "looking around for paper," Matthews says. Imagine that: They actually want to look into the background, qualifications, and positions of a Supreme Court nominee! What does Matthews expect to happen during confirmation hearings? A ping-pong tournament, with the winner elevated to the highest court in the land? Wouldn't it be far more newsworthy if members of the Senate didn't want to examine the legal writings of a Supreme Court nominee before confirming him? We shudder to think how Matthews must decide who to vote for; apparently, records and positions are off-limits. Maybe he goes by eye color?

Speaking of document disclosure: the July 26 Washington Post reported:

The White House will make public the bulk of documents related to Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s service as a lawyer in Ronald Reagan's administration but will withhold papers generated during his time as deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush to preserve privileged internal deliberations, officials said last night.

The Post went on to present the White House's spin in support of its decision:

Senior administration officials outlining their response last night said the partial release should be sufficient. "This is an effort by the administration to give all the documents that are appropriate to the Congress to help make sure they have the information they need to move through the nomination process," one official said.

But nowhere to be found in the article was a response from Democrats. A close reading revealed why that was the case: The Post essentially agreed not to seek a response:

But the White House clearly does not expect Democrats to agree. The officials disclosed the new policy under ground rules requiring anonymity and an embargo until midnight, too late for Democratic reaction.

The Post got the information from White House officials in time to write an 850-word article, quote White House sources, offer up the official spin -- but they agreed not to call a single Democrat for comment. It's not surprising that the White House would want one of the nation's leading newspapers to print their side of the story and only their side of the story. But why on earth would the Post go along with such ground rules?

And is this an emerging trend -- Republican operatives offering reporters partisan spin, on the condition that they not get a response from Democrats, and reporters going along with it? A July 27 Roll Call article (subscription required) about television ads the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) plans to run against Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) certainly looks suspicious: 600 words, quotes from an NRSC spokesperson, details about the ads -- but not a single word of response specifically regarding the ads from Byrd, his campaign, or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Did Roll Call agree to NRSC demands that they not get a response, or did they just not bother? We can't be sure. But either way, if this is how Roll Call is going to "report" the news, it may as well just reprint NRSC press releases.

Durbin's question draws criticism; similar question by Republican senator doesn't

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) just can't catch a break. His recent comments that invoked the Nazis turned into a mini-scandal, while his Senate colleague Rick Santorum (R-PA) largely escaped criticism for his similar, but arguably far worse, comments.

Now Durbin faces a similar situation: he's been accused of "slander" by The New York Sun and criticized on Fox News and CNN and in The New York Times and The Washington Times. Why? Because he reportedly asked John G. Roberts Jr. a question about Roberts's Catholicism and how those beliefs would affect his rulings.

Coincidentally, according to the Associated Press, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) asked Roberts a question, too:

Coburn said he and the nominee discussed issues ranging from Roberts' faith and his relationship with his wife to how he might change as a member of the country's highest court. He said Roberts declined to answer a question about how his Catholic faith influences his life and work.

"He said, 'I'm very uncomfortable talking about that,"' Coburn said.

Coburn said he planned to ask the questions Roberts wouldn't answer again at their next meeting. The senator said he hoped that meeting would be one-on-one.

Curiously, the media conservatives who have attacked Durbin for his question don't seem to have a problem with Coburn's strikingly similar question.

Karl Rove seeks asylum in Scarborough Country, and other miscellany

  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman Ken Tomlinson continues to be his own worst enemy.
  • On MSNBC's Hardball, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) grossly misstated the growth in federal tax burden for the average family over the years -- and his false claims won quick agreement from host Chris Matthews.
  • The Wall Street Journal claimed in an editorial endorsing legislation that would limit liability for gunmakers that Smith & Wesson has seen its stock prices suffer due to "legal uncertainty." But that isn't true: Smith & Wesson's stock prices have increased over the past four years, even as the stock market as a whole declined. Which raises the question: If we can't trust The Wall Street Journal to get stock prices right, what can we trust them for?
  • Eric Alterman argues that The New York Times is lurching rightward under the weight of constant assault from conservatives.
  • And finally, Karl Rove seeks asylum in Scarborough Country.
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