Reactive Media

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Here’s a telling exchange from Monday’s White House press briefing, in which Scott McClellan, the top Bush flak, fielded charges that top administration officials had illegally leaked the name of a C.I.A. agent.

MR. McCLELLAN: Bill, if someone leaked classified information of this nature, the appropriate agency to look into it would be the Department of Justice. So the Department of Justice is the one that would look in matters like this.

Q You’re saying the White House won’t take a proactive role? … Would you not want to know whether someone had leaked information of this kind?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has been — I spoke for him earlier today — the President believes leaking classified information is a very serious matter. And it should be…pursued to the fullest extent…by the appropriate agency. …

Q Why wouldn’t he proactively do that, ask people on the staff to say that they had not leaked anything?

There’s an irony here, and it’s at the expense of the Washington press corps. This story has been out there for months but reporters have been less than “proactive” in pursuing it. As best we can tell, some person or persons in the Bush administration passed the name of the agent, Valerie Plame, to six journalists, to punish her husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for publicly scoffing at its claims that Saddam had bought uranium from Niger. In July, Robert Novak, the conservative comentator and one of those six journalists, wrote in a column that “two senior administration officials” had cold-called him with the dirt on Plame. The story is resurfacing now only because a riled George Tenet, the C.I.A. chief, has asked the department of justice to look into the leak. The White House has some explaining to do, no question. But so does the media.

Let’s start with the the rights and wrongs of Novak’s revealing the name of an undercover agent, thereby endangering her sources and hurting her career. Where was the outrage? Or at least the hand wringing? As Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post noted on Monday, Novak’s bombshell “barely caused a ripple.

Then there’s the news, passed along to the Washington Post by an unnamed administration official, that five other journalists were fed the same leak as Novak. Why did they sit on it? Scruple, either their own or their editors’, at blowing a C.I.A. agent’s cover? After Novak’s column, Plame’s identity was in the public domain, and the damage was done. Allegiance to the White House? Did they lay off because they realized the White House had made an enormous political miscalculation that could backfire badly? If so, did they come to that decision alone, or after a word from their editors?

More broadly, why did it take a news hook (Tenet’s DoJ request) to get this back in the headlines? Why did reporters, having read Novak’s column, not follow up on his sourcing. You might think that “two senior administration officials” leaking the name of a C.I.A. agent, a federal crime punishable by up to ten years in prison, is newsworthy in its own right. That they did so in a transparent act of political revenge is nothing short of sensational. And yet, nothing.

A noble exception to the rule of media passivity was The Nation‘s David Corn, who called the leak, among other things, “an ugly act”:

“Will there be an investigation into whether Bush administration officials violated the law and undermined national security in order to mount a political vendetta? …

Wilson is convinced it was arranged by the White House to intimidate others who might consider disclosing information troubling for the administration. If Bush officials did purposefully destroy the cover of a government employee combating WMD proliferation in order to punish Wilson, certainly an accounting is deserved and punishment warranted.”

Kurtz, the Post‘s media reporter, joined an online discussion on Monday. A reader asked:

“Why did it take so long for the story about White House officials allegedly illegally exposing a C.I.A. operative to become big news? It seems that the mainstream press is too reactive….”

Kurtz replied:

“I’m frankly surprised that it took this story so long to hit the fan. All we know now that we didn’t know back in July is that the C.I.A. has asked Justice to look into the matter. Chuck Schumer certainly tried to make an issue out of it, and Joe Wilson got to air his allegation on programs like “Today” and at the National Press Club. The truth is, the press blew it on this one. The story was out there and very few picked up on it.”

(Nor, it’s worth mentioning, did a certain famous media reporter from a large Washington D.C.-based paper pick up on the fact that they didn’t pick up on it.)

It’s likely that, had that alert reader not raised the issue of media reactivity, Kurtz wouldn’t have given it much thought. He wrote a piece in Monday’s Post titled “Media Review Conduct After Leak,” which focused on the ethics of publishing Plame’s name. Important, no doubt, but not the whole story — not from a media criticism standpoint. Kurtz ambled across the newsroom to ask Fred Hiatt, the Post‘s editorial page editor, what gave Hiatt’s reply:

“[I]n retrospect, I wish I had asked more questions. If I had, given that his column appears in a lot of places, IÕm not sure I would have done anything differently. But I wish we had thought about it harder. Alarm bells didn’t go off. … We have a policy of trying not to publish anything that would endanger anybody.”

Kurtz also got the columnist’s side of the story, though in no great detail. “I made the judgment it was newsworthy,” Novak said. “I think the story has to stand for itself. It’s 100 percent accurate. I’m not going to get into why I wrote something.”

If the story is, as Novak claims, 100 percent accurate, that’s all the more reason to go after it. But at present, thanks to media inaction, we have only Novak’s word for it.

Why Novak wrote what he wrote is, of course, only one of several fascinating questions arising out of this flap. Another is why the other five journalists didn’t take the bait, and why they aren’t now coming forward with information. Again, an alert reader, this time from media critic Jim Romenesko’s site at the Poynter Institute:

“Speaking merely as a consumer of the media, I have a question. Recently, it has come to light that at least six Washington journalists were contacted with the information that Valerie Plame was a C.I.A. agent. I cannot imagine that too many of these people were unaware that this was illegal and certainly highly immoral. Given that only one person, Robert Novak, ran the story, I would imagine that the others contacted realized that the story was being offered “purely and simply for revenge”, to quote the always ephemeral “senior administration official” in the WaPo story.

So, I ask the collected media here: is it not the responsibility of these contacted journalists to divulge the names of those who broke the law? What journalistic maxim is being protected here? This is not the Pentagon Papers. This is not someone risking their career to tell the media of something that the public needs to know. As best I can tell from the current reporting, this was an act of pure spite. acted out against Joe Wilson, with the intent to deter future people from revealing information deleterious to the administration. Is the idea of protecting one’s sources so mindlessly adhered to that we cannot distinguish between the beneficial and the malevolent? Is it not time for a reassessment of the anonymous source when the media is being used as a tool of intimidation? A crime has been committed here, that is clear. There are at least six people who know who did it. It is, I thought, the job of the media to inform the public, not to protect lawbreakers in our government. What do others think?”

It’s a good question, and one that the media should add to the lengthy list. To recap:

1. Why did reporters not follow up on the allegation that senior administration officials, for transparently political reasons, had broken the law by blowing the cover of a C.I.A. agent?

2. Why did the five other journalists sit on the information even after Novak had spilled it? To protect the administration from its own stupidity? Or because they didn’t want any part in a vendetta?

3. Why did Novak bust Plame to begin with? To do the administration a favor? To do the administration harm? (Novak opposed the war in Iraq and has been critical of the administration.)

These are urgent questions. The wonder is that we’re looking at them only now, two months after this story broke.


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