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The Politics of Leaking

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006 11:24 AM

We seem to have argued our way into a debate over good leaks and bad leaks.

Some conservatives are mighty upset over the leaks involved in two Pulitzer-winning stories, the NYT's domestic surveillance scoop and The WP's disclosure of the secret CIA prisons. So we're getting an earful about the suspect motives of leakers and how newspapers are damaging national security and maybe even that reporters who publish classified material should go to jail.

I don't recall these folks being exercised about the gusher of Ken Starr leaks during the Clinton investigations. Those didn't involve national security, but they did involve grand jury secrets, the disclosure of which is illegal. In those years, the Wall Street Journal editorial page was so appalled at President Bill Clinton that the question of who was dishing to reporters got short shrift.

Let's face it: There's a principle here, that journalists should have the right to ferret out information they deem to be in the public interest, even if it's against the law for sources to provide that information. But to be equally candid, people--even including journalists--applaud the leaks they like and denounce the leaks they detest. Thus, some news organizations demanded a special prosecutor after senior administration officials disclosed Valerie Plame's CIA employment to Robert Novak, and were appalled at what appeared to be a case of political retaliation against Joe Wilson.

That, said the WSJ in this editorial , which I quoted the other day, is a "preposterous double standard. . . . It would appear that the only relevant difference here is whose political ox is being gored, and whether a liberal or conservative journalist was the beneficiary of the leak. That the press sought to hound Robert Novak out of polite society for the Plame disclosure and then rewards [Dana] Priest and [James] Risen with Pulitzers proves the worst that any critic has ever said about media bias."

But doesn't everyone make distinctions between, say, Deep Throat leaking information about Watergate corruption vs. leaks about Clinton's sex life vs. leaks about the Iraq war authorized by George W. Bush himself? Even the information about why CIA officer Mary McCarthy was fired--supposedly for leaking classified information to The Post, which she has denied--was conveyed in the form of not-for-attribution leaks.

The latest to join the argument, in a big way, is Bill Keller . In a response to the WSJ slam, the New York Times executive editor writes:

"Your editorial posits a conspiracy between journalists and 'a cabal of partisan bureaucrats' to undermine President Bush by sabotaging the war on terror. Among the suspects swept up and summarily convicted in your argument are: a) government officials who have disclosed secret doings of the government (with the exception of President Bush, whose leak-authorizing somehow escapes your notice); b) reporters and editors at the New York Times and Washington Post for reporting on these secret doings--notably the detention of terror suspects in CIA facilities in Europe and eavesdropping on Americans without warrants; and c) the Pulitzer Board, which honored both of those journalistic exploits last week.

"I leave to others, including the court of public opinion, whether the government officials who spoke to reporters about secrets that troubled them were partisan evildoers, as the Journal contends, or conscientious public servants, or something more complicated. Since most of them, including the nearly a dozen who were cited in the first warrantless eavesdropping story, have not been publicly identified, it's hard to know how the Journal is so certain of their motives. . . .

"To believe that aggressive journalism is driven by liberal partisanship requires an awfully selective memory. (Ask Bill Clinton. Ask Congressman Mollohan.) The role of journalism on our side of the news/opinion divide, at least as we aspire to perform it, is not to be advocates for or against any president or any party or any cause. It is not to tell our readers what we think or what they should think, but to provide information and analysis that enables them to make up their own minds. We are sometimes too credulous, sometimes too cynical--in other words, we are human--but I think we get the balance right most of the time, and when we don't we feel an obligation to correct it.

"In addition to fair treatment in the news pages, presidents are entitled to a respectful and attentive hearing, particularly when they make claims based on the safety of the country. In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves. You are welcome to question that judgment, but you have presented no basis for challenging it, let alone for attributing it to bad faith or animus toward the president."

You know that GOP plan to hand out money to sticker-shocked motorists?

"A Republican proposal to provide taxpayers with $100 rebates to compensate for higher fuel prices appeared all but dead on Tuesday, with leading Congressional Republicans saying that it had quickly fallen flat," says the NYT .

"'I just think that trying to satisfy voters with a $100 voucher is insulting,' Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader, said. 'Over the weekend, I heard about it from my constituents a few times. They thought it was stupid.'"

Took the words right out of my mouth.

This Philadelphia Inquirer piece conjures up the old adage watch what they do, not what they say :

"Speaking from the Senate floor, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) urged his colleagues to curtail a popular perk: private corporate-sponsored flights at bargain rates for members of Congress.

"'This is clearly a subsidy,' he said March 8.

"Two days earlier, he had taken a BellSouth plane from a runway near his home in Leesburg, Va., to fund-raising events in North Carolina and South Carolina. The jet ferried Santorum, two aides and Ward White, BellSouth's top Washington lobbyist.

"Santorum paid $6,955 first-class rates, as Senate rules require, but a fraction of what it costs to operate the plane."

Watch what they do , Part 2:

"President Bush says the national anthem should only be sung in English, but he was apparently singing a different tune during his first run for President and at his inaugural festivities," says the New York Daily News .

"On the campaign trail in 1999, Bush would often sing along as the national anthem was sung in Spanish during stops in Hispanic communities, GOP scholar Kevin Phillips wrote in his book 'American Dynasty.'"

The News is calling it anthem-nesia.

Mike McCurry is blogging at the Huffington Post, mainly about Internet regulation, a battle on which he represents AT&T and other players. McCurry objects to the press freedom argument invoked by those who want to leave the Net as it is:

"Oh yeah, how many of you lifted a finger to protect the First Amendment when the Washington Post and other 'MSM' cited it to ferret out the truth about WMD and the wars inside the U.S. intelligence community over the pre-Iraq war (and now pre-Iran war)? (And don't lecture me about how they failed to do their job -- I have had Pulitzer Prize winning reporters tell me that they feel intimidated and they lack public support. Of course they -- and their editors-- feel that way. Most of the blogosphere spends hours making them feel that way)."

Well, that's not likely to go unnoticed in the blogosphere, and Josh Marshall is puzzled:

"McCurry seems to be arguing, first, that no one stood up for working reporters trying to get to the bottom of the WMD question in the lead up to the Iraq War. This claim seems so baseless that I'm uncertain how to analyze it. I'm not sure what online media or bloggers or anyone else outside of the big papers and networks could have done in 2002 and 2003 to 'protect the First Amendment' and make more aggressive coverage possible, but there was no shortage of online commentary encouraging them on. You could probably make a decent case that the explosion of the center-left blogosphere in 2002 and 2003 was based on pressing journalists to do so. . . .

"I do want to delve a bit deeper into the second claim -- not McCurry's alone -- that mainstream journalists are beleaguered, intimidated and friendless and that the main culprits are a few high traffic bloggers. It's really astonishing the amount of self-pity and silliness one hears along these lines today. . . .

"It's freely conceded that little has changed in terms of criticism from the right. There was talk radio before the Internet, the various right-wing media watchdog outfits, Fox News, etc. What's changed is that journalists now often feel besieged from the left as well. They're getting from both sides. There's nowhere to turn. (Believe me, I've had this conversation many times.)

"Now, I think there's a decent argument to be made that a lot of press criticism on the left is criticism of journalists for not doing their jobs whereas a lot of criticism on the right is against the concept of journalism itself."

Blogger Ed Cone also raps the former Clinton spokesman: "I'm guessing former Clinton mouthpiece Mike McCurry meant to sound tough and bloggy with this post about net neutrality. It really didn't work. He sounds like an angry insider who can't believe a bunch of nobodies dared to challenge him."

A further reflection on the third anniversary of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" landing from Dick Polman :

"If anyone is still wondering why his political standing as a credible leader has waned since that day, just consider these statistics: Ninety-four percent of all U.S. military deaths have occurred since that day. And 97 percent of all wounded U.S. troops have suffered their injuries since that day.

"Why did Bush get tripped up by his own triumphalism? Perhaps his former Secretary of State can answer that. Colin Powell told a British TV interviewer over the weekend that 'just because you didn't foresee (an insurgency), doesn't mean you shouldn't have planned for the unforeseen. I have always been one who favored a larger military presence in an operation to make sure that you can deal with the unforeseen, but in the case of the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, you had institutions being destroyed, you had ministries being burned down, and I have said on many occasions I don't think we had enough force there at that time to impose order. That's what we were responsible for, because when you have taken out a government, a regime, then you become responsible for the country.'

"The best coda for today's anniversary comes from conservative commentator Rich Lowry, who wrote last week in the National Review magazine, 'The Iraq war promises to be the Lewinsky scandal of George W. Bush's presidency.' And when a conservative compares Iraq to Monica Lewinsky, you know this war must be turning into something serious."

There was more than just laughter at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night. The stock market fell Monday after CNBC's Maria Bartiromo told viewers about a chat she'd had with Fed chairman Ben Bernanke:

"The anchor said Mr. Bernanke had told her at the White House Correspondents' dinner in Washington on Saturday that he had not intended the markets to infer that the Fed was nearly done raising interest rates," reports the Financial Times . 'I asked him whether the markets got it right after his congressional testimony and he said, flatly, no,' Ms Bartiromo said."

A letter-writer to Romenesko takes issue with the Money Honey: "I don't know if he meant for his remarks to have that impact on the markets, but I somehow doubt he intended to use comments made at a Saturday night dinner party to communicate his views on policy . . . While the Fed chairman should know better and I don't intend to make excuses for him, did Bartiromo make it clear that she was going to report on his answers when they talked? Should we all treat the WHCA dinner as a giant stake-out opportunity next year?"

Bernanke is a big boy, and I'm sure he would have made clear if he wanted his remarks kept off the record. Alan Greenspan, of course, would have mumbled, so this never would have happened.

Keith Olbermann has clearly got the liberal base. Olbermann Watch reports that MoveOn.org posted an online petition in which people promised to watch "Countdown."

Tired of self-congratulatory media prizes? Ed Wasserman , in the Miami Herald, has had it with the Pulitzers, calling them "a reproach to the vast majority of working journalists.

"Unlike lesser contests, the Pulitzers have no circulation categories. They make no allowance for the grotesque disparities in size and resources among the 1,400-plus daily newspapers that are the principal contenders. Plus they have no categories at all for what most of those papers actually do.

"So the big boys sweep. They're the ones that pay good salaries and attract great talents, provide research support, travel money and above all, time -- two months, six months, whatever it takes to produce breathlessly detailed, hard-hitting narratives to be hammered into shape and finally packaged into winning entries by in-house promotional staffs.

"Accordingly, every year, most Pulitzers are divvied up by the giants, and the only real question is whether this year the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or Los Angeles Times noses out the perennial front runner, the New York Times.

"True, every year, one or two smaller papers are recognized, some grizzled newsroom veteran is finally honored. And in a traditional gesture of noblesse oblige, one big prize -- often the public-service award -- goes to the daily whose community has been flooded, burned, hurricaned, buried, earthquaked or somersaulted by riots. Unlike FEMA, the Pulitzer board can be relied on for guaranteed compensation to towns whose papers keep publishing despite natural calamity and the consequent disappearance of automotive, help-wanted and real-estate advertising."

Ouch.

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