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Talking Points Live

Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Thursday, February 17, 2005; 2:00 PM

Have questions about the latest political news?

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal took your questions and comments on his latest columns and other political news.

Terry Neal (post.com)

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Terry Neal: Good afternoon everyone. Thanks for joining me for my regular weekly chat on politics. So fire away, and I'll get to as many of your questions as I can.

Terry

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New York, N.Y.: Mr. Neal, Do you think that journalists should be compelled to testify befor a Grand Jury when the focus is treason?

Terry Neal: My feeling is that journalists should never be compelled to testify. Well, I say never, and I shouldn't because there ae exceptions to every rule. But I'm not sure that's so in this Valerie Plame case. In this, the two reporters who face jail time, didn't even print what they were told.
The issue here is that confidentiality is an absolute necessity in this profession. And if that principle is undermined, journalism becomes much more difficult to do. And that hurts Democracy. I mean, if Deep Throat had been worried that Woodward and Bernstein might be have been dragged in to court and forced to give him up, we might never have had Watergate. That of course would be just fine with some people. But I think most people can see the problem here.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for the chat, Terry. I always enjoy them. Dean as DNC chair, huh? I just don't understand what this is trying to accomplish. What is the typical role of a party chair? Is it to fire up the base or is it to sell the party to independents and moderates in the other party? I would have thought the latter. And I think the liberal base, in this last election, was about as fired up as a base can get. Since they fell a bit short, wouldn't you think the party chair should be out minting new Democrats? Is Howard Dean, another northeasterner, able to do that in the states that will matter in 2006 and 2008?

Terry Neal: These are all very good questions. Thanks you.
A few things: Generally speaking, the job of the chair is to raise money and fire up the base. I don't think the parties generally see reaching out to independents and swing voters as the key responsibility of the party chair. The problem, though, for the Democrats is that they are so bereft of leadership now, the chairman role is taking on additional significance, and like it or not, that person is going to have to take on this added responsibility.
I think what will make this difficult for Dean is the extent to which he has been successfully caricatured by the right as some far-out, leftie, commie, pinko. Most Democrats will argue that this caricature is a gross distortion. But hey, politics isn't fair. And this will make Dean's job more difficult in that regard.
But I do think Dean has the potential to bring some excitement and energy to the job. He'll be able to raise money beyond the usual places. And I think he'll be able to energize the party's base in key states.
We'll just have to wait and see if it is, as the politicians say, a "win-win" for overall.

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Washington, D.C.: It was reported on Wednesday that two reporters, Judith Miller (NYT) and Matthew Cooper (Time), face prosecution and possible jail time for refusing to reveal sources in stories written about the outing of CIA operative, Valerie Plame. My question: Why isn't Robert Novak -- the reporter who actually first printed the leak -- ever mentioned? How does he escape prosecution while these other reporters do not?

Terry Neal: OK, I could be wrong about this, but my understanding is, we (as in the media) is unclear about what's going on with Novak, who has refused to discuss publicly his contact with prosecutors and the grand jury. And because grand jury proceedings are secret, we don't know what his status is, what his level of cooperation has been, etc. Reporters are still chasing details of this story. Stay tuned.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Terry, glad you're back! This may be more of a Howard Kurtz question, but here goes: Is what the bloggers are doing what fully-staffed news operations used to do? That is, digging and research? It seems to me a lot of the blowup has to do with the fact that news staffs have been cut back so much that there simply aren't the bodies available to do heavy-duty detective work. Meanwhile, there are lots of individuals with time on their hands and some Web experience willing to dig things up. As long as the facts are verifiable -- and that's a big caveat -- I would think reporters would be happy to have someone doing the time-intensive labor.

Terry Neal: This is a very good question. And I'm sure some people aren't going to like my answer, because it's nuanced, and in this world of angry, hyperventilating rhetoric, people hate nuanced answers.
Bloggers have dug up some good stuff that the mainstream media has missed in recent years, from reporting on the Trent Lott comments, to CBS/Dan Rather scandal, and a lot of other good stuff. I don't think it has so much to do with the fact that newspapers have cut back their staffs and that sort of thing as much as I think the MSM just has some blind spots, and in some cases just plain misses obvious stories.
But if it's one thing the bloggers are occasionally guilty of it's losing proportion. So yeah, the Eason Jordan comments were newsworthy. But I don't think it was the biggest scandal in the world. And the Gannon story is newsworthy. But I don't think because it's a sexy story about a ho who gets a White House pass and sheds light on how the administration tries to manipulate the media, it's more important than a budget deficit that could bankrupt future generations, or an ongoing war in Iraq that continues to kill American soldiers and now seems to be inspiring a whole new generation of terrorists, or the reform of Social Security.
And I think the MSM has done a very good job of covering those stories, which are important as well.
Now I know there are some sensitive people out there who will take this as an attack on the blogging community. Relax. It is not. Bloggers are keeping mainstream reporters on their toes and I generally think they are a good check and balance to the system.

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Virginia: While I certianly sympathize with your worries about the Miller/Plame case I feel I should correct the record on one thing. There is not now nor has there ever been a "reporter's privilege" at the federal level. Which means that Deep Throat DID have to worry that Woodward and Bernstein could have been compelled to reveal his name. The situation isn't any different now legally. The only difference is that the prosecutor is willing to pursue this farther than previous investigators (not suprising since during his tenure in Chicago public corruption was hiis hot button issue)

Terry Neal: OK, I'm not a lawyer (I just play one on TV)...So yes, you are right, there is no explicit constitutional right or federal law that grants unqualified reporter's privilege. I did not say earlier that reporters had unqualified privilege. The question was, do I think reporters should be compelled to testify before grand juries. And my answer was, no, I don't believe as a matter of principle that they should.
But there is plenty of legal precedence on this subject, and privilege is a principle that the courts have tried to respect as a First Amendment issue. I have been subpoenaed to testify once or twice in my career and each time the legal staff of my newspaper challenged it, and it was either thrown out or withdrawn (ok lawyers, I'm certain I'm using the wrong nomenclature, so don't jump all over me for that.)
That's why there have been relatively few cases (in comparison to the number of times this sort of case has come up) in which journalists have faced jail time for refusing to reveal confidential sources.

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Omaha, Neb.: Bush renominated 12 judges that had been blocked by Democrats in his first term. The Republican push to elimate the filibuster as a tool could guarantee them an appointment. Isn't this just a short term gain for the Republicans? The filibuster has always been weapon for the minority party. The Republicans have been and that position before, why would they not leave that protection in place?

Terry Neal: Good question. I think there are indeed some Republicans in the Senate who are concerned about employing the so-called "nuclear option" on filibusters on judicial appointments. After all, power is not owned in a Democracy, only rented. I'll be as interested as you are in whether Republicans decide to go this route.

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Virginia: Do you expect Bush to pass a Social Security reform bill during his second term?

Terry Neal: I don't have a clue. That's why they call us journalists, not soothsayers.

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Indio, Calif.: Sir,

Foreign media is reporting some kind of possible missile attack on an Iranian nuclear facility. No coverage here. Anything? Or, just political 'maneuvering?'

Terry Neal: I just asked our very own Jeff Morley, who sits near me, and he explained to me that there was an explosion at a construction site about 100 miles from the nuclear facility, and at this point, it doesn't appear to be any sort of military attack. I'm sure Morley and our the staff at the Post are following developments, and if something changes, you'll be among the first to know.

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Woodward and Bernstein might be have been dragged in to court : Aaaaaarrrrrggghhh!;

They did not "report" using an illegal leak of infomation which was done merely to damage a political critic. Deep Throat leaked criminal activity. Plame was not leaking criminal or unethic behavior, it was being criminal in leaking covert information to damage and threaten people.

The analogy to Deep Throat would be reporting on who leaked, not protecting the political crook. If Miller or the other one told the public the truth, they would be acting in accordance with the Watergate precident.

Jeez. Can't you get beyond circling the profession's wagons to see that?

Terry Neal: You missed the point entirely, which is that forcing reporters to reveal confidential sources in court would send a chill to all of the people we rely on for confidential information, whether what the source is passing on is potentially criminal or not. This is a basic tenet of journalism, not circling the wagon. Get a grip.

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Terry Neal: Well folks, my time is up and I've gotta run. As always, it's been a pleasure. Let's chat again next week and talk politics again.
Take care,

Terry

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