Nov 1 2005

Spinning the Libby Indictment

Pundits attack Fitzgerald, downplay perjury

The October 28 indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in the CIA leak investigation was major news. Libby–who promptly resigned from his position as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff–is portrayed in the indictment as repeatedly and deceptively claiming he learned from reporters about Valerie Plame Wilson’s classified status at the CIA. Wilson’s CIA role was exposed in apparent retaliation for her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, writing an op-ed for the New York Times (7/6/03) critical of the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons.

Some journalists, however, seemed to think that the story was not so newsworthy. On ABC‘s Nightline (10/28/05), Ted Koppel devoted only a few minutes to the indictment before beginning a scheduled town hall meeting on disaster preparedness. Koppel offered the following explanation:

Scooter Libby’s indictment today is indisputably a major story. It was the lead on all the television network news programs earlier this evening. It will be the object of banner headlines in all of your morning newspapers tomorrow. As for its real impact on the lives of most Americans, though, not much. Not really. That’s the strange thing about our business, the news business. Often, what seems so important to us, reporters that is, is of little or no consequence to many of you.

Koppel didn’t explain why he viewed Libby’s indictment as being “of little consequence” to his audience. Valerie Wilson’s job at the CIA was preventing the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; if blowing her cover jeopardized that work, then this story certainly would affect all Americans. More broadly, the war in Iraq is one of the most important issues facing the nation–and Fitzgerald’s investigation relates directly to the lies that helped sell that war.

Koppel’s “who cares?” attitude echoed that of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who argued (10/28/05) that “this is a media-driven story…. If we go outside right here after the show, stop people and go, ‘Who’s Scooter Libby?’ They’ll go, ‘He’s one of the Little Rascals.’ They don’t know, all right, and they don’t care.”

It’s peculiar to cite an uninformed public as a reason not to inform the public. But there’s also no reason to believe that Koppel and O’Reilly are correct about public indifference. A November 2 CBS poll found 51 percent of respondents found the Fitzgerald investigations of “great importance”; only 12 percent thought they were of “little importance.” As Editor & Publisher (11/3/05) pointed out, that’s comparable to opinion polls on Watergate in 1973 and Iran-Contra in 1987.

Dismissive hostility to Fitzgerald’s investigation was common in the press long before the indictments were handed down. As Washington Post reporter Jeff Birnbaum asserted on Fox News Channel (7/13/05): “Really, doesn’t this sound like an investigation that’s gone wildly wrong and is just wreaking havoc on anybody who got anywhere close to it? And it may be over, essentially, nothing. In fact, it likely is.”

CNN‘s Lou Dobbs complained (10/26/05): “We are spending inordinate amounts of time creating great public distractions when this country is faced with some of the most profound issues in its history right now. Every man, woman and child in this country has far, far more important things for its chief officials to be focused on, it seems to me.”

Dobbs had earlier (10/4/05) denounced Fitzgerald in a conversation with Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who was sent to jail in a successful effort to force her to testify for Fitzgerald’s investigation: “Frankly, I will not forgive Fitzgerald for what he did to you. I think it is an onerous, disgusting abuse of government power.” In the Washington Post, Jim Hoagland (10/20/05) wrote that Fitzgerald “has wielded his prosecutorial discretion like a bludgeon, with scant regard for the need for a balance of official candor and journalistic responsibility that serves the public good.”

Hoagland’s Post colleague Richard Cohen wrote a week earlier (10/13/05), “The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals. As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn’t one in the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized into some sort of cover-up–but, again, of nothing much. Go home, Pat.”

As it turned out, Fitzgerald did not go home, but instead indicted Libby for allegedly obstructing justice, making false statements to FBI investigators and committing perjury before the grand jury through his insistence that he had first heard about Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment from journalists. Fitzgerald charged that numerous witnesses within the government, as well as the journalists themselves, contradict these assertions.

Faced with detailed charges that Libby had put forward a story contradicted by numerous witnesses, some pundits sympathized with Libby as a purported victim of faulty memory. As Charles Krauthammer explained on Fox News Channel (10/28/05): “I’m always astonished at Senate hearings or any of these inquisitions, where somebody is asked about a meeting they had three years ago. I don’t know what country I was in three years ago. I’m just astonished. I mean, can you not be lying if you pretend that you remember?”

Libby, however, was asked about his talks with reporters just months after they occurred–during which time the subject of how reporters had found about Wilson and the CIA was an ongoing political firestorm. Krauthammer was suggesting that during those months, Libby could have forgotten about at least a half dozen conversations he had with other members of the administration about Wilson’s work–and then misremembered having learned where she worked from a reporter who says they never discussed her at all. That would be a faulty memory indeed.

Other cable pundits seemed to have a problem with the notion of perjury being prosecuted at all. As MSNBC‘s Tucker Carlson explained to colleague Rachel Maddow (10/18/05):

How is that different than if I go up to you and say, “Hey, Rachel, here take a hit of this joint.” And you say, “I don’t smoke pot.” And I say, “Rachel, come on. If you want to be cool, you want to be my friend, take a hit of this joint.” You do, I arrest you. I’ve caused you in some way to commit that crime. I am culpable in that crime. That is a kind of entrapment…. I’m not saying entrapment, but it’s like entrapment. It’s the investigation itself has caused the circumstances that resulted in the crime.

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward made a similar point on CNN (10/27/05), saying that “some people kind of had convenient memories before the grand jury. Technically they might be able to be charged with perjury. But I don’t see an underlying crime here and the absence of the underlying crime may cause somebody who is a really thoughtful prosecutor to say, you know, maybe this is not one to go to the court with.”

After Libby’s indictment, some commentators were quick to denounce Democratic gloating. “Democrats should wipe the smiles off their faces,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned (10/30/05). “This is a humiliation for the entire country, and their glee is unseemly.” No specific Democrats were cited for exhibiting unseemly glee.

Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly (10/28/05), during a segment ostensibly dedicated to how partisans on both sides were reacting, predictably saved his anger for one side: “No American should be happy that Lewis Libby’s life is destroyed right now. Period. These people are on the left. They’re despicable.”

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz conveyed a curious outlook on the media’s role in the Fitzgerald investigation, writing that “journalists face a minefield of potentially explosive questions: Are they enjoying a bit too much the spectacle of Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, having to resign over the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice? What happened to the normal journalistic skepticism toward a single-minded special prosecutor, as was on display when Ken Starr was pursuing Bill Clinton?”

The idea that media displayed “normal journalistic skepticism” toward the Starr investigation is absurd; the media’s reporting on Whitewater was credulous in the extreme (Extra!, 11=12/96). When Starr exposed Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, media eagerly embraced the scandal (Extra!, 3=4/98)–in sharp contrast to the anxiety expressed over Fitzgerald’s probe.

Kurtz wrote that “the leak prosecution is shaping up as a test of media fairness and responsibility in a polarizing age,” pointing to liberal critics like Arianna Huffington as evidence that “the wounds still haven’t healed” about the drive to war in Iraq. Given that the Iraq War continues to inflict real wounds on thousands of people on both sides of the conflict, it’s unclear why one would expect any metaphorical wounds to have healed.

Kurtz did provide an inadvertent lesson in mainstream media priorities, however, when he wrote that the manipulation of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD “is arguably more important than the Clinton-era debates over whether oral sex was sex.” One would hope that reporters would see the issue of lying the country into war as not “arguably” more important than Clinton’s sex life–but as obviously and immeasurably more important.