A Case of Bad Ink: Portrait of Media Is Not So Flattering

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The parade of high-profile Washington journalists who took the stand in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby perjury case were not on trial. But few would dispute that the proceedings, which ended with Libby's conviction on four of five counts yesterday, gave their profession a black eye.

When Vice President Cheney's chief of staff and other top administration officials wanted to neutralize a critic by disclosing his wife's role at the CIA, they turned to some of the capital's most prominent chroniclers, who -- under longstanding local custom -- promised the leakers anonymity.

"There is an all-too-unsettling nexus between the political and media elite," says Jim Warren, a Chicago Tribune managing editor. "This was a nice little window into the mutual obsession with one another. There's the infatuation with power which we all have and which was vividly underscored, especially those of us at elite institutions."

Jackie Judd, who covered the Monica Lewinsky investigation for ABC News, says the tight relationship between journalists and their sources seems to survive each passing scandal.

"We're always used," says Judd, now with the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Someone always has a motivation for talking to a reporter. . . . This was an obvious case of the administration trying to use reporters to do a smear job on Joe Wilson and his wife."

The case, in which special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald forced journalists to testify by using the threat of prison, was also a setback for media arguments that such testimony jeopardizes important newsgathering. "We do not think that what Libby was telling reporters was whistle-blowing," Fitzgerald said yesterday, adding that subpoenaing journalists "should be a last resort."

In their dealings with journalists, top administration officials were shielded by a curtain of anonymity so opaque that Libby asked Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter, to identify him only as a "former Hill staffer," then was disappointed when she failed to write a story. Such pledges of anonymity helped mask efforts, orchestrated by Cheney, to neutralize Wilson's criticism of the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein was pursuing illicit weapons.

The one plus for the media in Libby's conviction involved Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, since the case turned on his credibility. The Libby defense was built around his contention that he learned about CIA operative Valerie Plame from Russert and, therefore, believed it was widely known, but the "Meet the Press" host insisted that it never came up in their conversation. The jury believed Russert.

The searing spotlight on how reporters do their jobs was less than flattering. Miller said she lost one of her notebooks and couldn't remember the names of the other sources she said had told her about Plame. Former Time correspondent Matt Cooper, who wrote a piece questioning whether the administration had "declared war" on Wilson, had trouble deciphering his own notes. Bob Woodward, the Washington Post editor and author, apologized to his boss for failing to disclose for more than two years that former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage had told him about Plame.

Russert was pressed on why he was willing to tell an FBI agent about his conversation with Libby but balked at a prosecutor's subpoena. And syndicated columnist Robert Novak, the man who outed Plame, refused to say for three years whether he had even testified in the case, before it emerged that he had talked to Fitzgerald.

"We all saw how sloppy reporters can be in their note-taking," says Jeralyn Merritt, an attorney and blogger who covered the trial for her Web site TalkLeft. "When you hear them say, 'I don't recall, I don't recall' when asked about their notes for an article, you wonder about their accuracy."

There was considerable sympathy for Miller when she went to jail for 85 days. But when Miller, like other journalists in the case, later testified under a waiver of confidentiality granted by Libby, many analysts wondered just what the First Amendment battle had been about.

"Fitzgerald has created a terrible precedent here with his use of waivers to force [journalists] to testify," says Byron York, who covered the trial for National Review. "That's got to have a chilling effect." He says an "air of coercion" surrounded the ostensibly voluntary waivers from administration officials.

Russert said on NBC last night that he is "concerned we not create a pattern" of journalists being compelled to testify, "but when you are called, you tell the truth."

Bob Zelnick, a Boston University journalism professor, sees "a self-inflicted wound by the mainstream media," which greeted the 2003 Novak column that disclosed Plame's secret CIA connection with "howls of outrage" and demands for investigation. The uproar led to Fitzgerald's appointment.

"Fitzgerald was overzealous," Zelnick says, and "the effect is serious and adverse. It's going to take a long time for reporters and their sources to figure out how to deal with each other in a way that doesn't risk contempt citations and imprisonment." At the same time, Zelnick says he couldn't have broken the stories he did as a Pentagon reporter without relying on unnamed sources.

The administration's selection of reporters to leak to was carefully choreographed. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who covers national security, testified that then-press secretary Ari Fleischer "swerved off" during a conversation and told him about Plame. Libby testified that Cheney "instructed me to go and talk to Judith Miller and lay this out for her," using previously secret information that Cheney had President Bush declassify.

"It's very troubling that there's this cabal," says Merritt, who criticized Miller's 2002 and 2003 reports on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, some of which turned out to be wrong. "It's not so much that administration officials share information with reporters. It's that they pick reporters who they think are going to spin it their way."

Although the controversy involved the White House and the case for war, reporters at every city hall and statehouse in the country face a similar dilemma: How can they cultivate the right people to get scoops without compromising their independence?

"Editors so prize access and the fruits of that access that we don't stop often enough to think 'Is so-and-so getting too close to the people he covers?' " says the Tribune's Warren. "It could be the person at the cop shop in town."

If there's one saving grace for the news business, it's that much of the public long ago tuned out the intricate case. "My guess," Judd says, "is there's not a huge amount of interest in this story outside the Beltway."

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