"Len Downie is a visionary," said one Washington Post staffer who declined to be identified when discussing his boss. "He's really beefed up the paper journalistically. And he's incredibly fair to boot."
Were I to publish such a quote about the paper's executive editor, I would be ridiculed, and rightly so. (Not because of the content, in case Len is reading this, but because of the absurdity of granting someone anonymity for such comments.)
This, I confess, is one of my pet peeves. It's bad enough that journalists overuse and abuse unnamed sources who either rip their rivals or say something critical of their own operation, but at least there is a patina of a rationale--namely, that no one, at least in politics, would make such utterances on the record.
But saying something positive about your own side? Why on earth should we drape a cloak of anonymity around such people? Why not say, "I'd love to use that, but there's no reason it can't be on the record"?
Well, I know some of the purported reasons. The Bush White House is so secretive that some officials aren't supposed to talk to reporters at all, even to praise the emperor's wardrobe. And some officials fear that if they're quoted by name as saying something nice, they might be suspected of saying not-so-nice things that appear in the same piece.
But that's no excuse. Here are three other examples that caught my eye:
In Newsweek | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9865902/site/newsweek/, Howard Fineman and Richard Wolffe report:
" 'The president has formulated a lot of his own views,' said an aide, 'and has a very firm idea of what he wants to do and accomplish with his foreign policy.' " (This had to do with how Cheney wasn't as influential any more, but still.)
In U.S. News | http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/051107/7bush.htm, Kevin Whitelaw and Kenneth Walsh report:
" 'If we lose Karl Rove, we lose the best political strategist of this generation,' says a House Republican leader. 'He's a hall-of-fame player, and his loss would be incalculable.' "
No way that could be on the record, huh?
In The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/31/AR2005103100180.html , Peter Baker reports:
" 'Presidential problems aren't going to be solved overnight,' said a GOP strategist with ties to the White House, 'but a Supreme Court nomination is a big event . . . and moving forward with nominating someone consistent with what the president talked about in the last two campaigns is part of the solution.' "
Post ombudsman Deborah Howell asked Baker about this, and he replied: "You're right, too many of our stories have anonymous quotes in them and perhaps this was an instance when we could have done without . . . but in the secrecy-obsessed Bush White House . . . anyone who talks -- often those simply delivering the company line -- can risk being shut out, so they don't like to jeopardize that. But . . . you raise a good point and we need to be as stingy as we can be on these sorts of things."
Michael Hiltzik | http://goldenstateblog.latimes.com/ , the new LAT blogger, has his own absurd example:
"Determined to paint their own fair and balanced portrait of Sam Alito before the nasty Democrats could flash a distorted image of the man before the nation, three Justice Dept. officials briefed Washington reporters about his record on Thursday. Here's a transcript | alito_backgrounder.pdf of this curious session:
"The three officials insisted on being identified as 'Senior Department of Justice Official One,' 'Senior Department of Justice Official Two,' and 'Senior Department of Justice Official Three.' One assumes they chose these monikers to preserve their dignity, since they might just as easily have been identified as 'Winken,' 'Blinken,' and 'Nod,' or 'Moe,' 'Larry,' and 'Curly,' or, for that matter, 'Gonzales,' 'Clement,' and 'McCallum.' The two DOJ flacks who managed the session (I assume they were flacks) are identified as 'moderator' and 'staffer.' Interestingly, they insisted that the reporters asking questions identify themselves by name and employer. These IDs show up on the transcript unenshrouded by euphemisms such as 'Senior Washington Correspondent One.'
"The Washington reflex to put everything off the record continues to amaze. Why these officials required anonymity to peddle their anodyne praise for the nominee's sagacity and integrity is anyone's guess. For a flavor of what they said, here's one of the more controversial statements:
"If you read Judge Alito's opinions and there are hundreds of them, they show that he's a mainstream, principled, and very careful, thorough Judge. If you look at his opinions, you'll see in every one a very thorough analysis and a very careful and meticulous application of Supreme Court precedent.
"Now it can be told: This was uttered by Senior Department of Justice Official One.
"Why so shy? In the old days, it was understood that a public statement packed more punch if a real person's name was attached to it. Now, nobody even bothers to try. It can't be that the briefers are afraid they'll say something contrary to administration doctrine; they didn't stray by even a hair."
Speaking of Alito, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick | http://www.slate.com/id/2129374/nav/tap1/ faults the Democrats for not understanding the nature of confirmation battles:
"Of all the criticisms of Harriet Miers, the one I found most perplexing was that some Senators felt she spoke too quietly. Her murder boards were going badly, in part because she was a whisperer. Forgive me, but what the hell? She wasn't auditioning for the lead in Annie. She was applying for a job largely composed of reading and writing. I have heard a total of 30 words emanate from the mouth of Clarence Thomas in six years covering the court.
"It occurred to me only in hindsight that there was a reason Miers' tiny voice was such an issue: Conservatives wanted to use these confirmation hearings as infomercials for their views on the proper role of judges in America. The soft-spoken Miers wouldn't have moved any product. The John Roberts hearing was, and the Sam Alito hearing will be, Justice Sunday III -- the church service/call-to-arms staged by demagogues on the far right. Except these hearings are carried live on C-SPAN, broadcast nationwide, and blessed by the Senate. . . .
"The net effect of the John Roberts hearings was a national four-day 'civics lesson' in which the populace heard, again and again, that any approach to judging other than 'modesty' and 'minimalism' would result in judges making things up as they go along. That's a page from the far right's talking points. No competing vision emerged from the left, as far as I could tell. I won't credit the efforts of the Democrats on the judiciary committee to see into John Roberts' heart, or probe whether his kids play soccer with poor immigrant children, as efforts to put forth a competing jurisprudence. Those questions were clumsy proxies for the clumsy theory that judges should just fix life for sad people. I am calling for something else. It's time for Senate Democrats to recognize that a) there is a national conversation about the role of judges now taking place; and that b) thanks to their weak efforts, it's not a conversation -- it's a monologue."
Bill Kristol | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/324nmkqa.asp examines the Karl Question: "Would firing Rove help Bush? No. It would reflect an attempt by Bush to find favor among 'good government' moderates and allegedly reasonable critics.
"After all, it was with Rove as his primary adviser that Bush put together the remarkable back-to-back election successes of 2002 and 2004. Bush had barely won the presidency in 2000, and Republicans had lost five Senate seats. Yet with Rove's advice, Bush was able to help the GOP gain seats in both the House and the Senate in 2002 and 2004, as well as building a three million vote majority in the 2004 presidential election.
"But since his second-term inauguration, political victories have been hard to come by. Bush's decline in the polls long preceded the recent surge of publicity in the Plame case. But contrary to the media myth that Bush has been uncompromising and ideological, the strategy that the president has pursued for most of 2005 has been an attempt at accommodation. It has reflected a hope that he could move beyond the polarization of the 2004 campaign and appeal to the middle. It's understandable that Bush would be tempted by such a strategy: Who wants to go down in history as a polarizing president? But the strategy has been a mistake."
But there is this little matter of Plamegate, which Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com/index.php?dish_inc=archives/2005_11_06_dish_archive.html#113129384019351095 calls "the absurdly petty attempt to exact revenge on Joe Wilson. To put it bluntly: why did anyone in the administration give a flying turd about Joe Wilson? He was a bit-player, a liar, a non-entity, whose information did not even undermine the very carefully crafted words about Brits, uranium and Africa in the State of the Union. How paranoid, bitter, and defensive do you have to be to do what Libby did (in my view, almost certainly with Cheney's permission)? Worse: these unnecessary fibs, spins, and deceptions have inevitably come back to haunt the very people who committed them -- and to weaken public support for a war that it is still critical to win. . . . It seems to me that we are getting a better picture every day of how this administration screwed up its own war. They were defensive when they should have been candid; they were reckless when they should have been meticulously prepared for every outcome; they were insecure when they should have been forthcoming; they decided to divide, rather than unite the country. None of this means we should follow the anti-war movement and abort the mission. It simply means we have to be very skeptical of the key players in this war -- Cheney and Rumsfeld above everyone --and try and prevent them from inflicting more damage on a noble cause."
Here's a case of less-than-divine intervention:
"The IRS threat to revoke the tax-exempt status of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena because of an antiwar sermon there during the 2004 presidential election is part of a larger, controversial federal investigation of political activity at churches and nonprofit groups," says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-irs8nov08,0,2552376.story?coll=la-home-headlines.
Hmmm: I wonder if a pro-war sermon would have been okay. Though the story says the probe focuses on activity across the political spectrum.
Former George magazine editor Richard Bradley | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bradley/bob-novak-smears-john-mcc_b_10230.html takes on Bob Novak, and not over Valerie Plame:
"Robert Novak says | http://townhall.com/opinion/columns/robertnovak/2005/11/05/174462.html that concern over John McCain's age is slowing his fundraising, because tickets to a New York City dinner allegedly did not sell well.
"Nonsense. This feels like a line of attack floated by someone who doesn't like McCain, perhaps one of his potential opponents for the 2008 GOP nomination, and happily passed along by Novak -- without any attribution.
"Novak writes: 'Many New York contributors to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign were reluctant to attend this year's event. The fact [that] McCain will be 72 years old for the 2008 presidential campaign was cited to explain lack of enthusiasm, as was the senator's support for the Iraq war.' How does Novak know this? He doesn't tell us.
"Among the 'many New York contributors' who now don't want to give, can Novak name one? Apparently not.
"And who 'cited' McCain's age and the senator's 'support for the Iraq war' to explain the alleged 'lack of enthusiasm'? Novak doesn't tell us that either.
"In fact, there's no way to know if the premise of this item is true: that tickets to the dinner are not selling. That phrase 'reluctant to attend' is particularly important, because if it turns out that the event is a success, Novak still has a hedge to fall back on: Well, they attended reluctantly."
According to sources, that is.
Public Eye | http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2005/11/07/publiceye/entry1016719.shtml trains its eye on a bit of political theater:
"The live debate staged on NBC's 'West Wing' last night between fictional candidates Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) had some realistic touches to it -- maybe too real for some. One touch was casting real-life journalist Forrest Sawyer as the moderator, another was the use of the real NBC News logo throughout the entire show."
Most of the TV critics quoted agree.
Tired of watching ads on the tube? Help is on the way:
"CBS and NBC delivered another hammer blow to the traditional TV economic model on Monday by agreeing to let some Comcast and DirecTV customers pay 99 cents to watch certain hit shows on demand and ad-free," says USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techpolicy/business/2005-11-07-nbc-directv_x.htm.
Slate took a swipe at Maureen Dowd's new book, but Salon's Rebecca Traister | http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2005/11/08/dowd/ says her "cultural analysis and memoir of sexual politics is a blistering critique of modern gender relations, dressed up in a pulpy cover and too many puns."
Howard Stern | http://howardstern.com/ won't be on the air today, according to his Web site:
"Sources tell Howard 100 News that Infinity Broadcasting has issued a one-day suspension to Howard Stern . . . for talking about Sirius Satellite Radio TOO MUCH! K-rock General Manager Tom Chiusano made the announcement as The Howard Stern Show was ending Monday morning."
Not clear if this is just in New York, but Stern has been talking about his upcoming move to Sirius all year.
Finally, Roger Simon | http://www.rogersimon.com/archive/2005/11/i_blackberry.html#002813 has some thoughts for e-mail addicts:
"The BlackBerry - - often called a CrackBerry because of its addictive nature - - is an e-mail device. It does other stuff, including make cell phone calls, but people get hooked on the devices because they can easily read their e-mails all day long.
"As I wrote some time ago, BlackBerries are labor-saving devices that increase your workday from 8 hours to 18.
"Even though a major lawsuit is now raging that raises questions about the future of the BlackBerry in this country, the device has become so popular that dire stories have already appeared about the damage they can cause. (Whenever anything becomes really popular in this country, it always leads to a story that says it can't be good for you.)
"The Associated Press ran a story on Oct. 20 about something called 'BlackBerry Thumb.'. . . . The main purpose of a BlackBerry is to get e-mails, but the secondary purpose is to make other people jealous that they don't have one."
Well, I'm not. Well, maybe just a little bit, but only when I'm stuck in an airport and have read all my magazines.