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Washington Journalism on Trial

According to someone taking meticulous notes at the courthouse yesterday, Russert replied: "Specifically, no. But when I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission."

In his cross-examination, defense attorney Theodore Wells sounded incredulous that Russert wouldn't have asked Libby some questions. After all, former ambassador Joseph Wilson had gone public just four days earlier with his provocative charge that the administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq. Wilson had done that in a New York Times op-ed -- and on "Meet the Press" itself.

"You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about it?" Wells asked. "As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?"

Russert replied: "What happened is exactly what I told you."

Howard Kurtz writes in today's Washington Post that Russert "emerged relatively unscathed yesterday."

But I think Kurtz was more dead-on in his CNN show on Sunday when he broke from the role of neutral moderator and said: "Well, here's my two cents. I mean, anonymous sources are absolutely vital for investigative reporting for the exposing of corruption, health and safety problems, and that sort of thing. But journalists have gotten so promiscuous on granting anonymity on routine political stories that it makes us look bad. "

Arianna Huffington had this to say on PoliticsTV.com after Russert's testimony: "This assumption that somehow any conversation with a government official is automatically assumed to be highly confidential . . . gives the sense to the average citizen that this is a kind of club, to which government officials and major news reporters belong. And that anything discussed between them is automatically off the record, no matter whether it is of public interest or not."

As Neil A. Lewis and David Johnston write in the New York Times, Wells "also challenged Mr. Russert about initial efforts to avoid testifying. Mr. Russert had said in an affidavit that it was a matter of journalistic principle to refuse to divulge his conversation with Mr. Libby. But Mr. Wells, who also displayed this affidavit on-screen, noted that when Mr. Russert was first reached by telephone by an F.B.I. investigator, weeks before the affidavit, he spoke freely about it."

On her eponymous blog, Huffington writes: "During Wells' cross, it came out that when Russert was initially contacted by the FBI in November 2003, he freely told the agent interviewing him, Agent Eckenrode, everything that he later spent months trying to avoid telling to the federal grand jury investigating the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity. . . . The question is, Why? . . .

"Why claim the confidential nature of the Libby call as a reason not to testify, when he had failed to claim any confidentiality privilege during his FBI interview? . . .

"And why, since Russert had already told the FBI, didn't he deem it his journalistic duty to also tell the public?"

Who's the Real Journalist?

Eric Boehlert writes for the liberal Media Matters Web site that "Fitzgerald has consistently shown more interest -- and determination -- in uncovering the facts of the Plame scandal than most Beltway journalists, including the often somnambulant D.C. newsroom of The New York Times.


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