Libby, Bush and the lapdog press

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The Scooter Libby leak investigation has shamed the Beltway press corps for four years running. From the moment in July 2003 when syndicated columnist Robert Novak recklessly printed the name of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame, to Judith Miller's jail time, to Bob Woodward's playing dumb, to Tim Russert's forced courtroom testimony, the media elite managed to embarrass themselves at nearly every turn, often revealing themselves as lapdogs, not watchdogs.

The Scooter Libby leak investigation has shamed the Beltway press corps for four years running. From the moment in July 2003 when syndicated columnist Robert Novak recklessly printed the name of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame, to Judith Miller's jail time, to Bob Woodward's playing dumb, to Tim Russert's forced courtroom testimony, the media elite managed to embarrass themselves at nearly every turn, often revealing themselves as lapdogs, not watchdogs.

So it was fitting that in covering the final chapter of the Libby saga, the press, as if on cue, badly bungled the commutation story last week by often downplaying its significance, reading off White House talking points, and leaving gaping holes of context for news consumers trying to make sense of Bush's audacious power grab.

The media's performance simply highlighted scores of unflattering newsroom deficiencies that have become calcified during the Bush years.

For instance, on July 4, The New York Times tried to shed some light on how Bush came to the decision to wave off a convicted felon's jail time. The news article was headlined "Bush Is Said to Have Held Long Debate on Decision," and in it readers learned that a deliberative Bush had "delved deeply into the evidence" of the Libby trial, consulted with aides, and oversaw "almost clinical" dissection "with a detailed focus on the facts of the case" that had stretched out over several weeks. How did the Times reporters know that Bush had done his due diligence? Because anonymous Bush aides and Republican sources told them so.

Let's put a very fine point on this: The New York Times has no idea how Bush came to his decision to commute Libby's sentence. None. The decision was arguably the most momentous political verdict of Bush's second term and Times reporters were absolutely clueless -- lacking a single independent source -- as to how Bush came to it, and what went into the White House deliberations.

Their only insight was provided by obviously partisan aides who painted for the Times a portrait of a serious and thoughtful Bush poring over his legal options, which the Times gladly printed as fact. (Read Newsweek's similarly lame, anonymous-only, "behind the scenes" account, featuring a deeply "conflicted" Bush.)

Think about it. More than 70 months after Bush took office, Beltway reporters are still clinging to anonymous Bush aides for the most basic information and granting them anonymity in exchange for providing so-called inside (i.e., fawning) details. This is the box the press corps finds itself trapped in after allowing the Bush White House to re-write the news media rules when the administration first set up shop in 2001. That's when Bush essentially walked away from press conferences, his staff short-circuited traditional back-channel communications with the media, and his senior advisers made it known that they viewed the press corps as just another special interest looking for access.

In other words, Bush stiff-armed the press, and the press rolled over. So much so that by 2007, when a big White House story broke, reporters had no choice but to allow Bush aides to narrate the story without interruption, just as the White House had hoped.

Of course, the Times and Newsweek were not alone in playing the role of court stenographer. Journalists all across the Beltway couldn't even find out whether Vice President Dick Cheney had weighed in on the Libby topic, let along whether he'd urged Bush to free Cheney's former chief of staff.

In fact, one moment of unintentional humor last week came during a White House press briefing given by Tony Snow. When asked about what role Cheney played, Snow pleaded ignorance: "I have no idea, and I'm -- you'll have to ask the vice president's office."

The dark comedy revolved around the fact that for all practical purposes the vice president's press office stopped returning reporters' phone calls -- or at least stopped giving serious answers to substantive questions -- sometime around 2005. The truth is there has ceased to be a continuous flow of useful information between Cheney's office and the press. Indeed, reporters for the first time in modern history often cannot even find out where the vice president is physically located on a day-to-day basis. Why does Cheney's office function that way? Because it can. Because the press corps has allowed Cheney's office to disappear into the ether, behind an unprecedented cloak of secrecy.

So much so that by 2007, when a big White House story broke, reporters could not even get the simplest questions answered about the vice president's role in it.

Valerie Plame was not covert, right?

Another recurring newsroom ailment on display last week was journalists allowing conservatives to spread purposeful misinformation. We heard that during NPR's Talk of the Nation on July 3, which featured as a guest Stephen Moore, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, which has defended Libby's role in the Plame saga for years, often by misstating the facts. Sure enough, on Talk of the Nation Moore made up central facts about the Plame investigation. And sure enough, the NPR host did nothing to challenge Moore when he made up facts about the Plame investigation.

Specifically, Moore announced Plame "was not a covert agent" at the CIA, and that "under the statute of that law, she was not a covert agent." (WSJ columnist James Taranto went on CNN last week and spread the same tale.)

The fact remains that Plame testified under oath before Congress that she was covert, the CIA first asked for a leak investigation because it considered Plame to be covert, and in a court filing in May, Fitzgerald spelled out why Plame qualified as a covert agent at the time of the administration's 2003 leak, writing that the CIA "declassified and now publicly acknowledges the previously classified fact that Ms. Wilson was a CIA employee from 1 January 2002 forward and the previously classified fact that she was a covert CIA employee during this period." Moreover, according to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), CIA director Michael Hayden approved a statement given by Waxman at the hearing in which Plame testified, saying, as The Washington Post reported, that "Plame worked in a covert capacity at the time of Novak's column and that her employment status was classified under an executive order."

Yet, incredibly, that discredited claim about Plame's status remains the linchpin for the conservative argument for why Libby should go free -- no real crime was committed. Libby apologists are able to repeat their invented claim about Plame's status because so few journalists question it, which is why -- to close the loop -- it remains the linchpin to their argument.

Indeed, as the Daily Howler noted, on Talk of the Nation, it was listeners calling in -- everyday citizens -- who were forced to do what NPR journalists would not: point out that the claim made by Moore has been rebutted by the CIA.

Elsewhere, media elites seemed to shrug their shoulders over the Libby story. On CNN, host Anderson Cooper framed the story as just more partisan sniping: "No matter what the Democrats do on the Hill, Scooter Libby won't go to jail. Much of this is political theater. Some might even say 'politics as usual.' " Just days after the Libby story broke, readers visiting Newsweek or Time online had to scrounge around the websites in order to find the Libby-related coverage.

For the Beltway press, the Libby commutation was, at best, a three-day story. Yet try to imagine if, in 1995, President Clinton had stepped in and tossed out the 21-month jail sentence for Webster Hubbell, his senior aide and minor Whitewater player who was convicted of tax evasion. Would the press have treated that as a two- or three-day story?

Perhaps nowhere last week was that collective shoulder-shrugging more apparent than on the nightly network newscasts. NBC's Nightly News aired just three reports on the Libby story -- one on July 2, one on July 3, and a very brief 30-second update on July 5. Not one NBC story quoted a Democrat on-camera reacting to the Bush commutation. The same with ABC's World News -- just three Libby reports last week, none quoted a Democrat on camera. CBS's Evening News also produced three stories and quoted just one Democrat.

Back in the winter of 2001, when President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich became controversial, those same ABC, CBS, and NBC network evening news programs aired more than 80 reports on that story.

Also, note that none of those nine network news reports about Libby last week ever addressed the fact that Bush ignored Department of Justice guidelines in making his Libby decision. (For instance, candidates receiving commutation are supposed to have served some jail time; Libby served none.) The network reports also failed to note that Bush had ignored protocol by not consulting with anyone at the Department of Justice about the Libby case.

Meanwhile, all of the Nightly News and Evening News reports failed to report that polls indicated a vast majority of Americans opposed the idea of Bush shortening Libby's prison sentence.

Indeed, there appeared to something of a boycott among journalists covering the Libby story, a concerted effort to ban any reference to polling data that could give news consumers some context about the Bush's decision as well as the public's response. Based on the polling information, the commutation was, in the very real sense, radically unpopular. Indeed, it was an extreme act. But the press consistently looked away, maintaining one of its cardinal rules of reporting for this administration: Never portray the Bush White House as radical.

Note that Libby polling data from the spring was both readily available and overwhelming in its findings; a bipartisan majority of Americans wanted Libby to serve jail time and were opposed to any effort by Bush to alter Libby's sentence.

More recently, a June Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that only 20 percent of the public favored pardoning Libby. And last week, a SurveyUSA poll taken immediately following Bush's announcement found that a strong majority, including an amazing 40 percent of self-identified Republicans, wanted Libby to serve his full prison term.

Searching the Libby coverage last week among the country's major metropolitan newspapers, I could only find three -- The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and The Dallas Morning News -- that even made passing reference to polling results that helped put Bush's action in context. I could not find any newspaper that dwelt on the fact that Bush's controversial reprieve was so clearly at odds with mainstream public opinion.

In fact, on July 3, a Washington Post article reported that "there is "comfort" at the White House that the decision will not hurt [Bush] politically despite the Democratic outcry." That Post article failed to mention any polling data that would have raised serious doubts about the "comfort" claim. The same article referenced the "avalanche of criticism" the Bush decision had ignited, yet did not quote a single Democrat. It did however, quote four Republicans.

Writing in the July 6 Washington Post, columnist E.J. Dionne, cutting through the Beltway clutter, expressed his outrage and wondered if others felt the same way. "We spent months talking about Clinton's pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich. This [Libby] commutation is an even greater outrage because it involves the administration taking steps to slip accountability for its own actions," Dionne wrote. "Are we just going to let this one go by?"

Sorry, E.J., but the press already has.

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