Media critic

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gesture during a press conference in Vienna last year. (Herbert Neubauer/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Wednesday, the State Department announced big news: An internal probe had revealed that the department purposely deleted videotape of a series of tough questions about Iran negotiations from Fox News correspondent James Rosen to then-spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a December 2013 press briefing. Now White House communications director, Psaki came forward with a statement saying, “I had no knowledge of nor would I have approved of any form of editing or cutting my briefing transcript on any subject while at the State Department. I believe deeply in providing the press as much information on important issues as possible.” Marie Harf, who also formerly served as State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement to the Washington Examiner, “I also had no knowledge of nor would I have approved of this editing.”

Top government officials publishing their own professions of innocence: That’s just one of the upshots of a shoddy, good-for-nothing, incomplete, unworthy probe.

The news broke on Wednesday, when State Department spokesman John Kirby disclosed that “a specific request was made to excise that portion of the briefing. We do not know who made the request to edit the video or why it was made.” Though the transcript remained intact, the video disappeared from the State Department website and from its YouTube page. Investigators apparently hit a roadblock after speaking with the technician who fielded the request. There were no rules prohibiting the deletion of such video, so Kirby & Co. have taken steps to fill that gap.

In the intervening days, reporters have hammered away at the quite-clear shortcomings of the State Department’s work on this matter. The technician who received the order says it came via phone; but from whom? The department says this activity wasn’t prohibited by internal rules; really? Does there even need to be a rule when it comes to messing with the public record? The department says that someone in the public-affairs bureau ordered the deletion; should that individual remain employed at the State Department?

Answers have been weak, though highly cordial. In a telling moment yesterday, Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was asked whether investigators had determined the gender of the person who’d called in the video hit. Toner replied, in part:

[W]hen we’re talking about transparency, I’m not going to get up here and reveal to you from this podium every detail of what is an internal, albeit by our legal office, an internal investigation into what happened. I’m under no obligation to do that, and that’s out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved. What I am obligated to do is to explain to you, and I think John [Kirby] did as well yesterday, that we realize that this was an intentional action, we’ve taken steps to address it, we’ve investigated the incident as far as we can take it at this point in time, and we’re taking steps to correct that this incident – that a similar incident doesn’t happen in the future.

Bolding added to wonder how much privacy video erasers deserve.

Legendary AP diplomatic reporter Matt Lee didn’t allow Toner to skate away with the privacy dodge: “Why not reveal the details of what the legal adviser found beyond what you have already done, or is that it? Is that all that they know?”

Toner: “That’s more or less it – right.” Lee then rendered a verdict on the non-probe: “Because it doesn’t seem like that’s very – it doesn’t seem like a very thorough investigation. Well, someone got a phone call passing on a request from someone else and that’s the end of it.”

That may be the end of the “investigation,” but not the story. The way the State Department is handling things, we don’t know who’s culpable or who’s not culpable, which is why Psaki and Harf have rushed to clear their names. And given the cursory work by the State Department, its own officials are in no position to address these things. Asked yesterday about Psaki’s statement, Toner replied, in part, “Jen Psaki is a highly regarded professional and colleague, and I take her at her word.”

“I think that between news media and the Congress we will see further investigation and potentially further disclosures” about the missing video, said Rosen in an interview yesterday with the Erik Wemple Blog (The House Oversight Committee is indeed asking for materials on the deletion). Further investigation of an inadequate investigation, that is. In facing reporters on the video deletion, for instance, Kirby was asked whether the State Department could check phone records. He responded, in part, “I know of no such technology here that exists that would allow you to do that. And no, that effort was not pursued.”

Pursue it, then. Rosen has some intimacy with the government’s ability to track phone calls, when it wants to. Back in May 2013, news broke that Rosen’s phone calls with a source at the State Department were carefully monitored by federal authorities in a leak investigation against Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employee who was detailed to the State Department. An affidavit in support of a search warrant in the case cites communications between Rosen’s phone at the State Department and Kim’s line. Based on that experience, Rosen says he’d “tend to doubt” that such “technology doesn’t exist at the Department of State.”

We asked the State Department to straighten out whatever discrepancy may lie here. Toner responded, “It’s my understanding that internal phone call records are only available for 24 hours.” And he further explained where the issue rests: “We looked at this internally. We’re not going to get into details, but suffice to say this is not a criminal case. While the editing was an error in judgment, the fact remains that the full video was always available on the DVIDS and the full transcript remained available on our public website. There were no rules in place at the time to govern this sort of action. We have taken steps to make sure that such an error in judgment does not happen again.”

Switching from the critical issue of public accountability to the only slightly less weighty question of reportorial bragging rights, consider that prompting the government to vaporize video traces of your pointed questions is a sweet little credential. “I am proud to play some small role in holding our public officials to account,” says Rosen, who says he hasn’t “suffered from a lack of attention from the Obama administration over two terms.” The attentiveness followed him through the fallout from the video-deletion revelations of this week. After Psaki released her statement — which said, in part, “I had no knowledge of nor would I have approved of any form of editing or cutting my briefing transcript on any subject while at the State Department.” — Rosen asked whether her disavowal applied as well to the video, since the transcript was untouched. Psaki sent Rosen this reply:

James,

My statement applies to the video which is considered a form of the transcript and every aspect of this.

I understand it is inconvenient for you that I have nothing to do with this given you have spent the last three weeks vilifying me on television without any evidence of my knowledge or involvement and without once reaching out and asking me, but I would encourage you to also ask the State Department if there is any evidence. A shred or any information at all that suggests I had any knowledge of this or any connection to this on any level. Hopefully you will find the time to spend on the range of global events happening in the world in between attacking my character.

Consider that on the record from me as well

Thanks

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Psaki faulted Fox News for failing to provide important “context” in its reports on the missing video. Those reports, she said, commonly show her at the State Department podium taking those Iran questions from Rosen back in December 2013. The chyrons for the clips note that the State Department admits to deleting video, or some such formulation. These are some unfortunate adjacencies for Psaki, though it’s hard to fault producers for using the relevant video. “This is a case of guilt by association when you show the video over and over again,” says Psaki. “Not only did I have no involvement whatsoever but they never asked me whether I was or wasn’t.” On the contextual issue, says Psaki, “I think there are a number of things that could have been done.” She hastens to note that this concern is specific to the video story and not a broader problem with Fox News.

Invited to rebut, Rosen accepted:

1. Nowhere have I ever accused Jen Psaki of having any role in the censorship of our exchange.
2. Nowhere have I ever even implied that Jen Psaki might have had some role in the censorship of our exchange.
3. I have never attacked Jen Psaki’s character nor vilified her in any way, at any time, in any venue.
4. To the contrary, when Jen Psaki and Marie Harf came under incessant public attack, often harsh and misogynist in nature, I repeatedly stood up for them both in public: on Twitter, on two different segments of “The O’Reilly Factor,” and on Howie Kurtz’s “MediaBuzz.” Both thanked me at the time, in heartfelt tones, for doing so.
5. In the current case, involving Fox News’ discovery of censorship at the State Department, I never reached out to Jen Psaki precisely because I have never accused her of doing anything wrong; indeed, I have never suspected her of doing anything wrong.
6. If Jen Psaki, as White House communications director, felt at any point along the last three to four weeks as this case has unfolded that she was being maligned by me or anyone else, she had at her disposal at all points an elaborate communications apparatus through which she could have commented publicly to defend her own sense of honor. She never needed to be contacted by anyone in order to make known her views about this instance of censorship, who was responsible, who wasn’t, and so on.
7. This week, she finally did so. Her statement averred only to the transcript of the briefing in question and not the video of the briefing.
8. When I wrote to her quite politely asking if she wanted to clarify that statement, she asserted, preposterously, that the video and the transcript are one and the same (an assertion belied by the fact that the State Department website itself presents two separate buttons to click to access each separately); and lashed out at Fox News and me in venomous terms, asserting – once again, falsely – that I had vilified her character.
9. Jen Psaki’s comments were both unprofessional and starkly divergent from those of her colleague at the State Department, Admiral Kirby, who on the very same day thanked me for my conduct in this case and expressed “great respect” for me as a reporter. I don’t think Admiral Kirby would have expressed “great respect” for me as a reporter if he believed that I had spent the last three weeks vilifying Jen Psaki.

This reporter-v. spokesperson spat is a bit more than just spicy material for a blog post. It reflects how much is riding on a bona fide State Department investigation of this public betrayal.