New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. says his paper should have corrected its flawed reporting on whether Iraq had illegal weapons far sooner than it did, calling this an "institutional failure."
Judith Miller, accused by Editor Bill Keller of misleading the newspaper about her dealings with Dick Cheney's now-indicted former aide, charges Keller with distributing an "ugly, inaccurate memo" about her.
But for all the anguish among the staff, people at the Times are equally upset that the paper is cutting 45 newsroomjobs, with profits at the parent company dropping by more than half this quarter.
The journalism business is suffering from a double-barreled depression that stretches far beyond the travails of a single paper. If the industry were a person, a shrink would prescribe Prozac.
The methods and ethics of reporters, and their coziness with unnamed sources, is under attack as never before, just as mounting financial woes are prompting top news organizations to agonize over why their audience continues to shrink. Anyone who thinks these trends are unconnected hasn't spent time in a newsroom lately.
The indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby over his you-didn't-get-this-from-me discussions with Tim Russert, Matt Cooper and Miller has dramatized the sagging reputation of reporters. Rather than digging out vital information, they are seen as conduits for political sniping and worse. The poster children for the press right now are Miller and Robert Novak, who has refused to discuss why he helped two senior administration officials in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times writes: "The Libby indictment shows that this administration has made monkeys of the Washington press corps by playing on its desire for access, for party chatter, for being on the inside looking out instead of the outside looking in."
The Libby case has also unfolded against the backdrop of the administration's erroneous WMD claims, which led to the biggest collective media failure in recent years. And although the New York Times didn't publish a lengthy editor's note about its inaccurate WMD stories -- a number of them by Miller -- until more than a year after the U.S. invasion, many other news organizations never got around to it.
That may be starting to change. O. Ricardo Pimentel, editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote last week: "Yes, regrettably on the matter of WMD, count us as among the many who were duped."
Liberal columnist Paul Krugman broadens the indictment in the New York Times: "The failures that made the long nightmare possible began much earlier, during the weeks after 9/11, when the media eagerly helped our political leaders build up a completely false picture of who they were."
Some on the left believe that if only the press had done its job -- not that it was easy to challenge murky intelligence about a dictator's arsenal -- there wouldn't have been a war. That view seems to envision an almost all-powerful press corps, given President Bush's determination to topple Saddam Hussein. But the sentiment is fueling the liberal anger at the media, even as some conservatives contend journalists delight in trumpeting negative news from Iraq, to the point of over-dramatizing the 2,000th American death there. Talk about feeling unloved by both sides.
While this debate rages, the industry's own news has been relentlessly downbeat. The Philadelphia Inquirer just lost 15 percent of its editorial staff to buyouts and isn't guaranteeing that others can keep their beats, prompting veteran reporter Daniel Rubin to write: "We're having so many meetings, it's a wonder we can get the paper out." The Boston Globe is dismantling its national staff. Nearly 12 percent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial staff just accepted buyouts. The Baltimore Sun has closed two of its five foreign bureaus, shrunk its Washington bureau from 15 to seven and laid off columnist Jules Witcover. Knight Ridder's largest shareholder called last week for the sale of the company. Goldman Sachs says this "is shaping up as the industry's worst year" since the 2001 recession.
Of course, most newspapers still make plenty of money, just not enough to satisfy Wall Street. But the net effect is a downsizing wave that will hurt the core product.
Not that belt-tightening is the biggest problem. Although newspapers remain unmatched vehicles for depth, context and investigations, all the excitement these days seems to surround cable news, talk radio and bloggers (one reason papers are investing more online, where younger folks get much of their news). And sometimes they just seem, well, slow. When Bush made 8 a.m. announcements in nominating Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito, the news felt thoroughly chewed over by the time newspapers hit doorsteps the next morning.
As the Columbia Journalism Review asks in its new issue: "Take a look at the front page of your newspaper today. How many stories are on events that the average reader has already heard something about? The Metro section, is it riveting and creative? Or incremental and cramped? Does the paper have strong voices? . . . Does it have any fun? Does the photography speak volumes? Does the Web site offer more than digital newsprint? Can a reader get into the conversation? Do you want to read this newspaper?"
Some magazines are also suffering -- U.S. News & World Report has been decimated by layoffs, including that of chief political reporter Roger Simon -- and network news is suffering from a long-term audience slide. In an effort to dig its morning and evening newscasts out of third place, CBS has just turned over its news division to . . . a sports guy, Sean McManus, with no news experience. Seven months after Dan Rather stepped down in the wake of the botched National Guard story, CBS Chairman Les Moonves keeps rejecting proposed formats and anchor changes for the "Evening News" -- saying he hasn't found the right combination that would lure 40-year-olds, not 60-year-olds, into watching.
ABC is similarly trying to reinvent "Nightline," responding to Ted Koppel's imminent departure with a three-anchor lineup and an abandonment of the single-story format that some programmers now regard as quaint in a channel-surfing universe. Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran and Martin Bashir may be able to jump-start the franchise, but Disney executives were perfectly willing to junk it three years ago in favor of David Letterman. And ABC has yet to settle on a successor to the late Peter Jennings, in part because of concern about pulling Charlie Gibson off the more lucrative "Good Morning America."
Except for an uptick during Hurricane Katrina, the media's stock seems to be in a gradual decline -- journalistically, financially and psychologically. That is unlikely to change as long as journalists keep behaving in ways that alienate their audiences.
* At 86, Andy Rooney still isn't pulling punches. "The emphasis used to be on collecting and then distributing the news," he tells CBS's Public Eye blog. "The emphasis now is on saving money. CBS management is saving money better than the reduced news staff is collecting and distributing the news."
* Before interviewing a Russian journalist, Brooke Gladstone, co-host of National Public Radio's "On the Media," mentioned a Slate article by Fred Kaplan -- who, as it happens, is her husband. Gladstone told NPR's ombudsman that the article deserved credit and "to stop at the point and say, by the way, 'he's my husband,' would have only distracted the listener from the setup for the interview with a piece of trivia." But Acting Vice President Bill Marimow said it was a mistake.
* There was lots of buzz when NBC's Tim Russert, a key figure in Valerie Plame case, appeared in the federal courthouse last week. Was he being interrogated again? Had a new grand jury been empaneled? Turns out he was just . . . on jury duty. But Russert was more interested in talking about the barrier he broke Friday, becoming the first television journalist ever admitted to the newspaper-dominated Gridiron Club.
By the way, if you want to know everything there is to know about Maureen Dowd, her column (which she says she got only because she's a woman) and her new book on the war between the sexes, check out my weekend profile here | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/04/AR2005110401996.html.
Since Dowd's book is called "Are Men Necessary?", Katie Roiphe in Slate | http://www.slate.com/id/2129290/ asks whether she's necessary. Tough crowd out there.
Here's the perfect LAT | http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-arnold6nov06,0,7217067.story?coll=la-home-headlines story: Warren Beatty and Annette Bening trying to crash Arnold's party just before tomorrow's special election.
More on the post-Libby fallout: Time's Mike Allen | http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1126697,00.html picks up on the WashPost's Rove-might-have-to-go piece with one that bears the same hallmark: not one named source among those who are giving him a little nudge out the door. If he's not indicted, Allen writes, "Rove is likely to wait for a chance to minimize the perception that he is being hounded out or leaving under a cloud. And he's got one constituency rooting for him, the conservatives who rely on him to be their voice. If he leaves, he will not be alone. Several well-wired Administration officials predict that within a year, the President will have a new chief of staff and press secretary, probably a new Treasury Secretary and maybe a new Defense Secretary.
"The expected departures are among a host of new signs suggesting that Bush's sixth year in office -- the last one before midterm elections and a turn in attention toward the 2008 race to succeed him -- will be very different from his first five. The sunny optimist who loved to think big is now facing polls in which for the first time a majority of Americans say they do not trust him."
Could Rove lose his security clearance? The Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-rove6nov06,0,7623243.story?coll=la-home-headlines wants to know.
Newsweek's Dan Klaidman and Mike Isikoff | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9938956/site/newsweek/ do a damage assessment on the veep:
"These are tough times for Cheney. He has always been the administration's most 'forward-leaning' force when it came to carrying out the war on terror and the Iraq invasion. Until recently Cheney's own authority was largely unchallenged in Republican Washington. But Congress, mindful of the public's turn against the war, is now openly defying his hard-line policies. Powerful figures -- within the West Wing, at the State Department and Pentagon -- who once deferred to him are now peeling away, worried that Cheney may have gone too far. His credibility has also been damaged by the CIA-leak investigation, which nabbed his trusted No. 2, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby . . .
"The vice president could be forgiven for retreating to his undisclosed location and waiting out the worst of it. Instead, his response has been pure Cheney. He's not budging. If anything -- as the Senate meeting shows -- the veep has become more convinced that he's right and his opponents are wrong."
Not exactly out of character.
Jonah Goldberg | http://nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg200511040822.asp notes that lots of people believed there were WMDs:
"Just how big a threat was Saddam Hussein? Let's reprise what our leaders had to say on the subject. First, here's the president:
"If he refuses or continues to evade his obligations through more tactics of delay and deception, he and he alone will be to blame for the consequences . . . Now, let's imagine the future. What if he fails to comply, and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction . . . ? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal. And I think every one of you who's really worked on this for any length of time believes that, too.
"Here is the vice president:
"If you allow someone like Saddam Hussein to get nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons, how many people is he going to kill with such weapons? He's already demonstrated a willingness to use these weapons. He poison-gassed his own people. He used poison gas and other weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors. This man has no compunction about killing lots and lots of people. So this is a way to save lives and to save the stability and peace of a region of the world that is important to the peace and security of the entire world.
"Here's the hitch: That was Clinton and Gore in 1998, not Bush and Dick Cheney in 2002."
Hey -- that was sneaky!
The New Republic's Jeffrey Rosen | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20051114&s=rosen111405 says Fitzgerald is overreaching:
"It's important for journalists (including me) who vigorously opposed the Kenneth Starr investigation to state the obvious: The Fitzgerald indictments are an embarrassing confirmation of the old Washington rule that, when special prosecutors can't prove a crime, they indict the target for obstructing the investigation. Far from being typical behavior, indicting suspects for nothing more than false statements or perjury is a vice largely restricted to special prosecutors and independent counsels. And, although Libby's alleged lies to protect his boss may appear more serious than Bill Clinton's self-interested lies about sex, neither Clinton nor Libby prevented the special prosecutor from proving an underlying crime.
"In fact, there's strong reason to conclude that no underlying crime was committed. Unlike the Starr investigation, moreover, the Fitzgerald investigation represents a disaster for the First Amendment and may do long-lasting damage to political discourse in Washington . . .
"Just as Democrats were right to denounce Starr for criminalizing insignificant and immaterial lies, Republicans are right to denounce Fitzgerald for the criminalization of political differences. It's been clear from the beginning that Libby, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney were trying to discredit a critic of the administration, not trying to disclose the identity of a covert agent."
The Wall Street Journal editorial page sees a very different downside to the Fitzgerald probe:
"Apart from Scooter Libby, the biggest loser by far in the Patrick Fitzgerald probe has been the press. The 'leak' investigation that every liberal editorial board demanded has already sent one reporter to jail, and the damage is only going to get worse.
"Thanks to the disastrous New York Times legal strategy, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a major blow to a reporter's ability to protect his sources. Prosecutors everywhere will now be more inclined to call reporters to testify, under threat of prison time. And if Mr. Libby's case goes to trial, at least three reporters will be called as witnesses for the prosecution. Just wait until defense counsel starts examining their memories and reporting habits, not to mention the dominant political leanings in the newsrooms of NBC, Time magazine and the New York Times. 'Meet the Press,' indeed.
"Rather than join this parade of masochism, we thought we'd try to speed things along, as well as end one of the remaining mysteries in the probe. That's why Dow Jones & Co., this newspaper's parent company, filed a motion late Wednesday requesting that the federal district court unseal eight pages of redacted information that Mr. Fitzgerald used to justify throwing Judith Miller of the New York Times in the slammer.
"The pages were part of Judge David Tatel's concurring opinion in the ruling against Ms. Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. Judge Tatel said the eight pages showed that, with his 'voluminous classified filings,' Mr. Fitzgerald had 'met his burden of demonstrating that the information [sought from the reporters] is both critical and unobtainable from any other source.' . . .
"Rest assured that Ms. Miller's evocative self-description, 'Miss Run Amok,' will surface on cross-examination."
Um, I'm still not clear on how getting this material will spare Miss R.A. and others further embarrassment.
John Hinderaker | http://powerlineblog.com/ question the Dems' strategy at Power Line:
"The Democrats appear to be putting all their eggs in the pre-war intelligence basket, but why? Certainly not because they actually believe it's a legitimate issue. Several investigations have already concluded that the Bush administration didn't manipulate pre-war intelligence, and the Democrats, from Bill Clinton on, made all the same claims about Saddam's weapons, etc., that the Bush administration did. Moreover, the whole idea that the administration would use Iraq's WMDs as a 'pretext' for war is stupid. If the administration knew Saddam didn't have the weapons, then it also knew its "pretext" would be exposed as soon as the invasion was complete.
"No one would be dumb enough to go to war on the basis of a claim that was not only wrong, but would quickly be shown to be wrong. So the Democrats aren't acting in good faith, they're playing politics."
And the GOP using the war in the last election wasn't politics?