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Howard Kurtz Media Notes: Should Journalists Note Any Agendas of News Leakers?

Rumors are again swirling about Rielle Hunter and her daughter.
Rumors are again swirling about Rielle Hunter and her daughter. (By Jim R. Bounds -- Associated Press)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

When a gusher of leaks erupts, the press loves to soak up the information -- but can wind up looking all wet.

In the past week, the New York Times unearthed a book proposal by an ex-aide that accused John Edwards of fathering his mistress's baby. Bob Woodward published a classified assessment by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. And the Times reported that President Obama is trying to muscle David Paterson out of the New York governor's office.

Three very different stories, all relying on unnamed sources and all raising questions about the motivation of those trying to manipulate media coverage to their advantage. From war to politics to scandal, each article was based on solid reporting. But none acknowledged the elephant-in-the-room question of whose agenda was being advanced through these leaks.

The linchpin of the Edwards piece was a book proposal by Andrew Young, a former aide to the onetime Democratic presidential candidate. The married Young, who had claimed paternity of the baby girl born to Edwards's gal pal, Rielle Hunter, says in the proposal that Edwards was in fact the father but asked him to accept responsibility instead. The former senator told "Nightline" last year that, yes, he had initially lied about the affair with his campaign videographer, but that despite what the National Enquirer was reporting, he was absolutely not the father of her child.

Oddly enough, the Times reported on the Young proposal, which was "shared . . . by a book publishing executive," in a short piece in June, after New York's Daily News had written about the pitch. But only last week did the Times include such eye-catching claims as Edwards supposedly telling Hunter that after his wife Elizabeth died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony with the Dave Matthews Band performing. Reporter Neil Lewis also wrote about the grand jury probe of whether Edwards misspent campaign funds, and cited "associates" of Edwards as saying he is moving toward reversing himself and may declare he is the father of the 19-month-old girl.

Did Young want the proposal made public to help him peddle his book? Did St. Martin's Press, which has bought Young's book, leak it to stoke interest? Or was another publisher simply doing a reporter a favor? There is no way for readers to tell. And were the unnamed Edwards associates engaging in damage control or trying to pressure the former senator into admitting the truth?

Lewis would not comment on sourcing, but says the Edwards saga was worthy of the front page. "John Edwards is no longer a viable political figure," he says, "but we thought it was still important to finish out the story because he's an important chapter in American political history."

Woodward's exclusive on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's 66-page report on the Afghan conflict made worldwide news because of its blunt assessment that the war effort "will likely result in failure" without more U.S. troops in the next year.

The best-selling author is renowned for getting his hands on classified material, but who in the Obama administration would have wanted that published in The Washington Post? Someone with the civilian faction opposed to a further military buildup may have felt it useful to warn the public how dire the situation is. But it's also plausible that an official with the military faction that favors more troops handed over the report to build pressure for an escalation. The Woodward piece provides no clue.

"I didn't find it relevant in this case," Woodward says. "Sometimes someone really has a strong point of view or reason for doing something. That was not this case. If there was a motive I could ascertain, I might have given it. The document kind of speaks for itself."

Woodward and Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli agreed to minor deletions of sensitive material after a conference call with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and retired Gen. James Jones, the president's national security adviser, followed by a Pentagon meeting with Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But should the paper have published the story at all?

"We would have much preferred that The Post sat on it entirely, but we're not naive," says Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "We are disappointed and frankly disgusted by people leaking classified information. It clearly complicated what is already a difficult discussion to have this out in public . . .We do appreciate the professionalism and responsibility showed by The Post," he says, in withholding information "that could potentially compromise future military operations and could endanger the lives of our troops."

The Times story on Paterson, by contrast, involved only political wars. But it was devastating in its specifics, attributed to "two senior administration officials and a New York Democratic operative" who "spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions with the governor were intended to be confidential." Of course, by leaking the account to the Times, they were deliberately shattering that confidentiality.

Reporters Raymond Hernandez and Jeff Zeleny wrote that Obama had approved the tough message, that it was delivered to Paterson by a Queens congressman, and that the White House had concluded the governor could not recover from his slide in the polls. Paterson inherited the job after a prostitution scandal toppled Eliot Spitzer last year, and the story served as a neon sign for Democrats thinking of backing state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in the 2010 race.

But why should the Times have allowed the Obama team to disparage Paterson's chances for reelection without a single official putting his name to the hit job?

Zeleny says the paper considered the question but that "we had confirmation from several people that this was going on. It was more important, in my view, to report this meeting, this extraordinary effort. We gave Paterson a chance to comment and he didn't . . . The White House was not thrilled about the story coming out. It was not handed to us by any means. I had a lot of angry phone calls about this."

Such decisions can be tricky. But too many journalists err on the side of keeping readers in the dark about those pulling the strings offstage.

Burying the Hatchet

Bill Clinton made the media rounds last week, sitting down for interviews with Matt Lauer, David Gregory, Larry King, Jon Stewart . . . and Christopher Ruddy.

For those who remember Ruddy's name from the scandal wars of the 1990s, that is nothing short of remarkable. Ruddy wrote a book titled "The Strange Death of Vincent Foster," questioning whether the Clinton aide, who committed suicide, had been murdered. He also questioned whether Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash, had been shot in the head. And yet here was Ruddy, now chief executive of Newsmax.com, telling Clinton that "I was one of your critics" during his administration, and Clinton responding with a laugh: "You did a good job."

Ruddy says in an interview that he was "overzealous" and "over the top" when publisher Richard Mellon Scaife was financing his Clinton investigations. (Scaife has also made peace with his onetime nemesis.) "I think he was a much better president than I thought," Ruddy says. "I think he was a great president."

Clinton and Ruddy made peace at a 2007 lunch set up by their mutual friend, ex-mayor Ed Koch. Still, it's intriguing that Clinton would grant a 20-minute sitdown to the conservative Newsmax, a monthly magazine whose Web site attracts 3.7 million visitors a month, according to Nielsen.

"We are the heart and soul of the Republican Party and not out to demonize people," Ruddy says. He says other Republicans have privately told him of their affection for Clinton "after I came out, so to speak."

Apology of the Week

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner expressed regret to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for what it called an "offensive" headline about her speech in Hong Kong: "A Broad in Asia."


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