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Washington Journalism on Trial

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 8, 2007; 1:34 PM

If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?

Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.

When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.

And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling.

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

Many things are "on trial" at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse right now. Libby is the only one facing a jail sentence -- and Russert's testimony, firmly contradicting the central claim of Libby's defense, may just end up putting him there.

But Libby's boss, along with the whole Bush White House, for that matter, is being held up to public scrutiny as well.

And the behavior of elite members of Washington's press corps -- sometimes appearing more interested in protecting themselves and their cozy "sources" than in informing the public -- is also being exposed for all the world to see.

For Russert, yesterday's testimony was the second source of trial-related embarrassment in less than two weeks. The first came when Cathie Martin, Cheney's former communications director, testified that the vice president's office saw going on Russert's "Meet the Press" as a way to go public but "control [the] message."

In other words: Sure, there might be a tough question or two, but Russert could be counted on not to knock the veep off his talking points -- and, in that way, give him just the sort of platform he was looking for.

Russert's description of how he does business with government officials came when prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald asked him whether there were "any explicit ground rules" for his conversation with Libby.


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