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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Karl Zinsmeister should lose his White House job

Unsurprisingly, the national press appears to be on the verge of declaring that the fraud committed by new Bush appointee Karl Zinsmeister is really not all that serious, and, now that he has given a (plainly false) explanation for what he did, it is time to drop the whole unpleasant story and let him take his prestigious new job. Reflecting that mindset is this truly shoddy and one-sided piece of “journalism” from today's Washington Post, which presents a microcosm of so much that is defective with the national press.

To briefly re-cap what really ought to be a disqualifying event for Zinsmeister, the New York Sun broke the story this weekend that Zinsmeister was the subject of an article in the Syracuse New Times written by reporter Justin Park. The article was largely positive, but contained some politically inflammatory and risky quotes from Zinsmeister, including some comments which could actually be construed as pointed criticisms of the Commander-in-Chief. Zinsmeister wanted to publicize the article to his American Enterprise Institute readers, but obviously did not want anyone to see the quotes he had uttered.

So, rather than linking to the original article, Zinsmeister re-printed the article on his own site, but deleted or changed all of the quotes that he disliked or that were embarrassing, while misleading his readers into believing that he was printing the article as it originally appeared in the New Times. To describe Zinsmeister's conduct is to illustrate its impropriety.

Anyone who has ever been written about or quoted in a newspaper has had the experience of wishing -- for a whole slew of reasons -- that certain quotes or statements were expressed differently. But everyone knows that you can't take the article once it's published and then re-publish it by simply changing the parts you don't like. The most obvious ethical principles would prevent someone from that doing that. Really, who would do that? Making matters worse here, Zinsmeister was a Magazine Editor for the last ten years, so he obviously knows better than anyone that it's wrong to substantively change the content of someone's article in order to make it reflect better on him.

The New York Sun article over the weekend included a quote from a White House spokesperson claiming that Zinsmeister only altered the article to correct misquotations and other errors made by the reporter -- a plainly ludicrous excuse given that Zinsmeister never once claimed that the article contained any errors, but rather, sent e-mails to the reporter praising him for his professionalism and competence. That is so obviously inconsistent with believing that you were misquoted in serious and numerous ways.

What is going on is obvious. Having been caught in plainly unethical acts, Zinsmeister is incapable of simply accepting responsibility for what he did by admitting that he did it not because he was misquoted, but because the statements he made to the reporter were embarrassing to him, or did not express his ideas how he wanted them to be heard, and so he simply changed the quotes without letting anyone know that he was doing that. Instead, reflecting not just a lack of integrity but a total lack of character, Zinsmeister is now trying to defend himself by smearing the competence of the reporter, heaping all the blame on him in order to save himself.

While The New York Sun article contained some rather angry and persuasive responses from the reporter and the New Times -- which really make clear just how dishonest Zinsmeister is being by trying to blame the reporter -- the Washington Post article today inexcusably allows Zinsmeister to articulate his excuses for why he changed numerous quotes and other parts of the article that he posted free of any opposition or alternative claims. What makes the one-sidedness so indefensible is that Zinsmeister's excuse essentially entails smearing the competence and integrity of the reporter who originally wrote the article, and yet the Post article does not even bother to interview the reporter whom Zinsmeister is blaming or give his side of the story. Thus, Zinsmeister is allowed to make insultingly dishonest claims like this one free of refutation or challenge:

"Looking back, this is foolish," he said in a telephone interview Friday evening. Zinsmeister said he did it to correct the record while protecting a young journalist who had made mistakes. . . .

In other examples, he said he made changes to fix errors he believed the New Times reporter had made because of misunderstandings or truncated notes -- taken in an interview in a noisy restaurant. . . .

But Zinsmeister said he avoided asking for corrections at the time because "I think I would have gotten Justin in worse trouble if I moaned about it."

So, not only is this whole mess the fault of the sloppy, misquoting reporter, Zinsmeister actually performed a noble act. Sure, he could have complained about the misquotes or noted that he was misquoted when printing the article. But he would never want to harm the career of this "young reporter" by noting that he was misquoted (so instead, to protect his new job and his own reputation, he now impugns the reporter's basic quotation abilities in the pages of the Washington Post).

Shouldn't it obvious to the Washington Post Editor that if they are going to publish a story where a high-level Bush appointee heaps blame for his unethical conduct on a reporter, the reporter should be given the courtesy of being quoted and allowed to give his side of the story? That's especially true where, as here, the reporter vehemently denies Zinsmeister's claims and has very strong documentary evidence to support those denials, possibly including a tape recording of the interview. Did the Post even bother to contact Park to get his reaction to Zinsmeister's new attacks or to determine if a tape exists?

Worse, the article never once expresses even slight skepticism over the highly incredible excuses which Zinsmeister is peddling for why he did what he did. Readers who learned about this integrity scandal only from The Washington Post today would think that this was just a minor incident designed to correct some misquotations, and that Zinsmeister just handled the situtation "unartfully," to use Tony Snow's word of defense. Post readers would have no idea of what is really going on - that Zinsmeister is invoking plainly incredible claims to justify what he did which are denied by the reporter in question and contradicted by his own words at the time.

Nor is Zinsmeister entitled to any credit for acknowledging that the quote distortions were “wrong.” He admitted that because he had to. That conduct is intrinsically unethical and everyone knows it. And even then, the supposed acknowledgment of fault was constructed to belittle the importance of what he did. What Zinsmeister did wasn't "foolish," as he playfully put it. It was dishonest and wrong. And, where Zinsmeister has a real opportunity to choose to be truly honest about what happened -- by admitting the real reasons he did it - he instead chooses to lie about it and tries to smear the reputation of the reporter in the pages of the Washington Post.

Zinsmeister is not all that important. If he does not take this position, there will be some new AEI clone lined up ready to perform the duties. But what does matter is that the administration should finally be held to some level of integrity by the national press. Zinsmeister engaged in plainly wrongful and dishonest conduct. He only admitted it when he was caught. And now that he's caught, he is offering plainly incredible excuses at the expenses of someone else's career. How can that not disqualify him from a high-level position at the White House?

What really is going on here seems clear. Zinsmeister is one of those guys who has been around journalism and Washington forever. He is well-connected and well-liked by his good friends like Scott Johnson and Jonah Goldberg. He is one of the Beltway club. And, as a result, there is just no appetite among the national press for doing anything other than giving the most cursory and skewed attention to this story with the goal of resolving it quickly and ensuring it does not impede Zinsmeister's career. How else to explain the Post's decision to allow Zinsmeister to blithely heap all the blame on another reporter without even bothering to interview that reporter to get his side of the story?

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