Scandal Overkill?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005; 7:54 AM

The drumbeat of media speculation was so loud last week that at times it sounded as though Karl Rove was on the verge of being thrown in the slammer.

"Is the man some call Bush's brain about to be indicted?" CNN anchor Heidi Collins asked Thursday night. MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked whether Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby might receive a presidential pardon "if they get indicted."

ABC's Ted Koppel said the possibility of a Rove or Libby indictment "had risen to the level of expectation," while pundit Paul Begala said on CNN: "If, in fact, the news reports are true, Karl could be in a lot of trouble."

So when Rove was not indicted in the CIA leak case Friday, it almost seemed like a victory for the White House. But it was clearly not a victory for the reporters and commentators who climbed far out on the limb of handicapping what a special prosecutor operating in secret might do.

Now that an indictment has reached the highest level of the White House for the first time since Watergate, 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 perjury and obstruction of justice charges? 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 hostility directed at Patrick Fitzgerald when he was threatening reporters with jail seems to have faded now that his targets are senior aides to President Bush. Perhaps most important, are reporters, commentators, bloggers and partisans using the outing of Valerie Plame as a proxy war for rehashing the decision to invade Iraq? The vitriol directed at New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whether deserved or not, seems motivated as much by her role in touting the administration's erroneous WMD claims as in her decision to be jailed, at least for a time, to protect Libby.

In short, the leak prosecution is shaping up as a test of media fairness and responsibility in a polarizing age when many people on the left and right think the news business is hopelessly biased.

Two years after the Bush administration took the country to war based in part on inflated weapons claims that turned out to be wrong, the wounds still haven't healed. That's why liberal commentators like Arianna Huffington proclaim the so-called Plamegate scandal "worse than Watergate": They're not just talking about the outing of the wife of a White House critic, they're charging the administration with a campaign of deception that, in this view, is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Americans.

The press deserves some of the blame because, as editors at the New York Times, Washington Post and other news organizations have acknowledged, journalists were not nearly aggressive enough in questioning administration claims about Saddam Hussein during the run-up to war. And while Miller was a particularly prominent offender, she was hardly the only one.

If the media pound Bush over the Fitzgerald probe for months, they risk a public backlash. The president is already showing signs of following his predecessor's playbook in trying to deflect the scandal by focusing on other issues, a tactic that helped Clinton maintain his popularity despite the huge embarrassment of his dissembling about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Many people forget how much antagonism there was between the Clinton White House and the press corps, and how polls showed considerable public anger at journalists for obsessing on a sex scandal that a majority had decided was tawdry but not worthy of impeachment.

The underlying issue in the Plame debacle -- the alleged manipulation of intelligence used to justify a war and retaliating against a critic, Joe Wilson, who challenged that effort -- is arguably more important than the Clinton-era debates over whether oral sex was sex. And it was Cheney who told his aide that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA's Counterproliferation Division. But as Republicans have been quick to point out, there is no evidence that Bush was personally involved.

A few liberal commentators have cautioned their side against embracing the special prosecutor now that high-level Republicans are the target. Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg wrote: "Rooting for Rove's indictment in this case isn't just unseemly, it's unthinking and ultimately self-destructive. Anyone who cares about civil liberties, freedom of information, or even just fair play should have been skeptical about Fitzgerald's investigation from the start." Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen said Fitzgerald should "return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals." And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote: "I find myself repulsed by the glee that some Democrats show at the possibility of Karl Rove and Mr. Libby being dragged off in handcuffs."

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