Media Advisory Spinning the Libby Indictment - Pundits attack Wilson, downplay perjury
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
The indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in the CIA leak investigation was major news. Libby—who promptly resigned from his position as Dick Cheney’s chief of staff—is portrayed in the indictment as repeatedly, and deceptively, claiming he learned about Valerie Plame Wilson’s classified status at the CIA from reporters. This explains why special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was so adamant about getting reporters to testify.
After Friday’s announcement of the indictments(10/28/05), however, some journalists seemed to think that the story was not so newsworthy. On ABC’s Nightline, Ted Koppel devoted only a few minutes to the indictment before beginning a scheduled town hall meeting on disaster preparedness. Koppel offered the following explanation:
“Scooter Libby’s indictment today is indisputably a major story. It was the lead on all the television network news programs earlier this evening. It will be the object of banner headlines in all of your morning newspapers tomorrow. As for its real impact on the lives of most American, though, not much. Not really. That’s the strange thing about our business, the news business. Often, what seems so important to us, reporters that is, is of little or no consequence to many of you.”
Why Libby’s indictment is “of little consequence” is worth some explanation. Valerie Wilson’s job at the CIA was preventing the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; if blowing her cover jeopardized that work, then this story certainly does affect all Americans.
Koppel’s opinion echoed that of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who said (10/28/05) that “this is a media-driven story… If we go outside right here after the show, stop people and go, ‘Who’s Scooter Libby?’ They’ll go, ‘He’s one of The Little Rascals.’ They don’t know, all right, and they don’t care.” The argument that an uninformed public is an argument against informing the public is peculiar, to say the least.
Some reporters were diminishing the investigation before the indictments were handed down. CNN’s Lou Dobbs complained (10/26/05): “We are spending inordinate amounts of time creating great public distractions when this country is faced with some of the most profound issues in its history right now. Every man, woman and child in this country has far, far more important things for its chief officials to be focused on, it seems to me.” Surely one of the most profound issues facing the country right now is the war in Iraq—a war that is inextricably bound with the lies told by the Bush administration to promote that war, an issue that is directly connected to the Fitzgerald investigation.
Similarly, Washington Post reporter Jeff Birnbaum asserted on Fox News Channel (7/13/05): “Really, doesn’t this sound like an investigation that’s gone wildly wrong and is just wreaking havoc on anybody who got anywhere close to it? And it may be over, essentially, nothing. In fact, it likely is.”
—Hostility Toward Fitzgerald
This kind of hostility toward Fitzgerald’s investigation was widespread in the press. CNN’s Dobbs denounced Fitzgerald in a conversation with Judith Miller (10/4/05): “Frankly, I will not forgive Fitzgerald for what he did to you. I think it is an onerous, disgusting abuse of government power.” In the Washington Post, Jim Hoagland (10/20/05) wrote that Fitzgerald “has wielded his prosecutorial discretion like a bludgeon, with scant regard for the need for a balance of official candor and journalistic responsibility that serves the public good.”
Hoagland’s Post colleague Richard Cohen wrote a week earlier (10/13/05), “The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals. As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn’t one in the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized into some sort of coverup — but, again, of nothing much. Go home, Pat.”
MSNBC host Tucker Carlson observed (10/13/05) that Fitzgerald “looks like he’s about to do something very wrong, and that’s charge people with conspiracy, which is not the original crime. In other words—as always happens in these scenarios—a prosecutor, unfettered by anyone basically, gets in there, starts looking into stuff, ignores the original crime and indicts for something else.” Carlson added that “conspiracy is almost always a crock.”
—Libby’s Memory Defense
As it turned out, Fitzgerald did not indict Libby for conspiracy, but for allegedly obstructing justice, making false statements to FBI investigators and committing perjury before the grand jury through his insistence that he had first heard about Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment from journalists. Fitzgerald charged that numerous witnesses within the government, as well as the journalists themselves, show that these assertions are false.
Faced with detailed charges that Libby had put forward a story contradicted by numerous witnesses, some pundits sympathized with Libby as a purported victim of faulty memory. As Charles Krauthammer explained on Fox News Channel (10/28/05): “I’m always astonished at Senate hearings or any of these inquisitions, where somebody is asked about a meeting they had three years ago. I don’t know what country I was in three years ago. I’m just astonished. I mean, can you not be lying if you pretend that you remember?”
But Libby was asked about his talks with reporters just months after they occurred—during which time the subject of how reporters had found about Wilson and the CIA was an ongoing political firestorm. Krauthammer is suggesting that during those months, Libby could have forgotten about at least a half dozen conversations he had with other members of the administration about Wilson’s work—and then misremembered having learned where she worked from a reporter who says he never discussed Wilson at all with Libby. That would be a faulty memory indeed.
Other cable pundits seemed to have a problem with the very notion of perjury being prosecuted at all. As MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson explained to colleague Rachel Maddow (10/18/05):
“How is that different than if I go up to you and say, ‘Hey, Rachel, here take a hit of this joint.’ And you say, ‘I don’t smoke pot.’ And I say, ‘Rachel, come on. If you want to be cool, you want to be my friend, take a hit of this joint.’ You do, I arrest you. I’ve caused you in some way to commit that crime. I am culpable in that crime. That is a kind of entrapment… I’m not saying entrapment, but it’s like entrapment. It’s the investigation itself has caused the circumstances that resulted in the crime.”
Fox’s Krauthammer took a similar line (10/7/05): “If you don’t have a crime underlying, as I believe there isn’t, what you have is a system that essentially creates a crime in the search of a nonexistent crime. And that looks unjust to me.” After the indictments were announced, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward made the same point on CNN (10/27/05), saying that “some people kind of had convenient memories before the grand jury. Technically they might be able to be charged with perjury. But I don’t see an underlying crime here and the absence of the underlying crime may cause somebody who is a really thoughtful prosecutor to say, you know, maybe this is not one to go to the court with.”
—The War on Wilson, Continued
Some commentators took the indictments as another chance to express their dislike for Joseph Wilson, Valerie’s husband, whose comments to the media critical of White House WMD claims precipitated the leak and subsequent investigation. Fox host Brit Hume— after telling African-American colleague Juan Williams that “somebody needs to hose you down”— was still insisting on October 30 that Wilson was the one who wasn’t telling the truth: “So the smear that you describe is a case where this guy [Wilson] was lying about them and they were telling the truth about him. That’s not a smear.”
Deriding Wilson was not just for the TV pundits. Prior to the indictments, the Washington Post ran a piece (10/25/05) headlined “Husband Is Conspicuous in Leak Case,” which portrayed Wilson as hungry for publicity, having a “flamboyant style and a love for the camera lens.” The Post claimed that “beyond dispute is the fact that the little-known diplomat took maximum advantage of his 15 minutes of fame,” since “Wilson has been a fixture on the network and cable news circuit for two years.”
This description is, in fact, subject to dispute—a search for Nexis transcripts where Joe Wilson is listed as a guest turns up exactly four appearances in 2005—but the larger question is why the Post believes such actions “have complicated his efforts to portray himself as a whistle-blower and a husband angry about the treatment of his wife.” What is complicated about a “whistle-blower” seeking media coverage of his case, when the very word implies making noise to attract attention?
After Libby’s indictment, some commentators were quick to denounce Democratic gloating. Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly (10/28/05), during a segment ostensibly dedicated to how partisans on both sides were reacting, predictably saved his anger for one side: “No American should be happy that Lewis Libby’s life is destroyed right now. Period. These people are on the left. They’re despicable.”
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned (10/30/05) of the same danger: “Democrats should wipe the smiles off their faces. This is a humiliation for the entire country, and their glee is unseemly.” No specific Democrats were cited for exhibiting unseemly glee.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz conveyed a curious outlook on the media’s role in the Fitzgerald investigation, writing that “journalists face a minefield of potentially explosive questions: Are they enjoying a bit too much the spectacle of Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, having to resign over the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice? What happened to the normal journalistic skepticism toward a single-minded special prosecutor, as was on display when Ken Starr was pursuing Bill Clinton?”
The idea that media displayed “normal journalistic skepticism” toward the Starr investigation is absurd; the media’s reporting on Whitewater was credulous in the extreme (Extra!, 11-12/96). When Starr exposed Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, media eagerly embraced the scandal (Extra!, 3-4/98)—in sharp contrast to the anxiety expressed over Fitzgerald’s probe.
Kurtz warned, “If the media pound Bush over the Fitzgerald probe for months, they risk a public backlash.” Given that Clinton’s job approval rating during the height of the Lewinsky scandal was nearly twice what Bush’s is now, it’s an odd warning to make now rather than back in 1998.
Kurtz wrote that “the leak prosecution is shaping up as a test of media fairness and responsibility in a polarizing age,” pointing to liberal critics like Arianna Huffington as evidence that “the wounds still haven’t healed” about the drive to war in Iraq. Given that the Iraq War continues to inflict real wounds on thousands of people on both sides of the conflict, it’s unclear why one would expect any metaphorical wounds to have healed.
Kurtz did provide an inadvertent lesson in mainstream media priorities, however, when he wrote that the manipulation of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD “is arguably more important than the Clinton-era debates over whether oral sex was sex.” One would hope that reporters would by now see the issue of lying the country into war is not “arguably” more important than Clinton’s sex life— it is obviously and immeasurably more important.