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.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Washington Post reporters unintentionally satirize themselves

The little peak we got yesterday into the inner sanctum of the online bulletin board used by Washington Post reporters to chat amongst themselves and about themselves is at once fascinating, revealing, and quite hilarious. It is all of these things not because of anything substantive the reporters said about the Bob Woodward scandal-- what they said largely alternated between pompous clichés about “journalistic ethics” and obsequious genuflecting to the journalistic deity known as Bob Woodward, and was as boring as it was uninformative.

The valuable and amusing part of being able to spy on their chatter was seeing the intense outrage they expressed once they learned that someone had leaked their precious bulletin board discussions to the New York Times. In doing so, they displayed almost every single attribute which has made our national media so contemptible, and so worthless.

Indeed, one of the most revealing, and enjoyable, side benefits of the Plame scandal is that so many of these pious jouranlists are central participants in the wrongdoing. As a result, we get to watch them desperately resort to the exact stonewalling and evasion tactics which are routinely used against them by the government officials and others from whom they are trying to extract information, and as a result, their true character is being starkly revealed.

When they are caught up in controversies and scandals, reporters now issue stilted, vetted written statements plainly designed to obfuscate rather than inform. They refuse to comment. They evade questions about their conduct. They express earnest outrage that their documents and conversations, which they intended to be kept from the public, have been leaked. They concoct plainly false excuses or, worse, send others to do so on their behalf.

Reporters instinctively treat such tactics as signs of impropriety or dishonesty when used by others, but they see no contradiction at all when they use these same tactics on their own behalf. That’s because they think that the word “journalist,” by itself, bestows onto all of those whom it describes both a nobility of purpose and an unparalleled societal importance, such that anything which “journalists” do in pursuit of their “journalistic objectives” -- whatever any of that means -- is, by definition, important, elevated and just.

Just listen to Post reporter Jonathan Yardley whine about the fact that his secret little bulletin board messages about Bob Woodward’s Plame disclosures have been leaked to the New York Times:

The comment of mine two paragraphs above has been leaked, presumably by someone in the newsroom, to the New York Times. Katharine Seelye called me an hour ago pressing for further comment. I declined, stressing that this is a confidential internal critique written solely for the news staff of TWP and refusing to authorize her to quote from it. She called back half an hour later to say that her editor had told her to go ahead and quote from the comment anyway. I told her I expected her to make plain that this is a confidential internal document and that she is quoting from it over the objections of the person who wrote it. She said she would. We'll see.

Could Yardley really have written this without appreciating the irony, and without realizing how completely ridiculous he sounds? It’s hard to believe he is not purposely satirizing himself here.

After all, we have been lectured over and over since the beginning of the Plame scandal that the enterprise of journalism is driven by the courageous disclosure of confidential information in order to enable intrepid, truth-seeking journalists to inform the public as to matters of grave public concern. And invariably accompanying that lecture is some drippy paean to the sanctity of confidential leaking -- how the whole of the very Republic owes its ongoing existence and prosperity to the receipt by journalists of confidential information from courageous secret sources.

Oddly, though, the outraged foot-stompers at the Post sure don’t seem to have much affection for the leaking process when they are the targets of the leaks rather than the beneficiaries of them. When used against rather than by these reporters, confidential leaking is radically and immediately transformed from being an act of unparalleled courage, something which is absolutely indispensable in maintaining ordered liberty and which must be preserved at all costs for the good of the Republic, into an act of cowardly, dastardly betrayal.

Here is Yardley again, actually complaining that the act of leaking tragically destroys the ability of important people (i.e., Post reporters) to talk about important matters (i.e., the Post reporters’ opinions about the actions of Post reporters), because they cannot do so with confidence that they can keep it all secret from the public:

I hardly see any point in having critiques and comments if they are to be publicized outside the paper. How can we write candidly when candor merely invites violations of confidentiality? Many readers say they distrust us. Well, now I find myself wondering if we can trust each other.

Isn’t that the same exact rationale which George Bush invokes when he wants to withhold internal White House discussions which the media and others demands that he release?

Why yes, it is:

Q. Following up on that. For ten years you've been on the receiving end of paperwork from Harriet Miers, but the rest of the American people haven't seen either her command of constitutional issues or her philosophy. Will you release some of her, or the bulk of her White House legal work, and not claim executive privilege?

THE PRESIDENT: Listen, there is a -- there is a lot of -- first of all, this is part of the Roberts debate. People talked about executive privilege and documents. Secondly, it is important that we maintain executive privilege in the White House. That's part of the deliberative process. That's how I'm able to get good, sound opinions from people. . . .

But we -- this part of the process was part of the Roberts process. We handled this issue, and I just can't tell you how important it is for us to guard executive privilege in order for there to be crisp decision-making in the White House.

And isn’t Yardley’s insistence on the importance of maintaining the secrecy of internal discussions the same argument which Richard Nixon made when he sought to prevent the disclosure of his taped internal White House conversations which the Post, among others, was seeking to compel?

I believe it is:

Then in July, came a critical break and a shocking disclosure. President Nixon had installed recording devices in the Oval Office so that historians could study his presidency. Congress said the White House had to turn over the tapes, but President Nixon refused, citing executive privilege. A constitutional confrontation had begun.

Apparently, the same Washington Post which fought tirelessly to defeat this claim and to compel disclosure of these secret “internal discussions” at the White House is now filled with reporters who invoke this Nixonian claim on their own behalf.

And it is also the same Washington Post which hungrily published exactly such leaks as part of its endless, lurid coverage of the Monica Lewinsky “scandal” and then used that leaked information to decree what a serious Presidential scandal that was, but which now seems to believe that leaking confidential discussions is just wrong and harmful -- so very, very wrong and harmful.

So, the very same people who, every day, work to obtain and publicly disclose other peoples’ confidential communications -- and who never cease to lecture us on the importance and goodness of such disclosures -- are furious and scandalized that someone would dare disclose their secret talks about the central role played by one of the nation’s most important newspapers in one of the nation's most significant governmental corruption scandals.

Behold Post reporter Glenn Kessler -- whose entire career is based on publishing on the front page of the Post leaked confidential information which other people desperately wanted to keep secret -- throwing a petulant fit of outrage that someone would leak the sacred words which the civic denizens in the pantheon known as the Washington Post wanted to keep secret:

Glenn Kessler: I think it is outrageous that someone gave Yardley's comments to the New York Times. If this person had the courage of their convictions, he/she would have allowed themselves to be quoted on the record to The Times (why hide behind Yardley's private comments if you believe them to be correct?) and he/she should have no qualms about revealing themselves as the source.

I view this chatboard as the written equivalent of conversations around the water cooler. How many people would we quote thirdhand in the newspaper unless we got those quotes confirmed from the source? Granted, in this case, the comments were written, which allowed the Times to decide they had enough confirmation to use the comments even though Yardley refused to talk about them. But that fact gives every one of us an even greater obligation to keep this chatter among ourselves. Obviously, we all try to report on what was said behind closed doors. But the extensive use of written electronic communication has created a new world.

The Times was very upset when the Post once quoted from a private email from Judy Miller to one of her colleagues. A WSJ reporter in Iraq once got in huge trouble when one of her emails was shared to the world.

Ever since the Plame scandal began, reporters have been running around pompously preening as they tell us how vitally important it is to ensure that robust reporting and confidential leaking continue, while at the same time expressing profound offense that these same truth-exposing tools have been applied to them in order to uncover the unseemly, sordid role so many of them played in this affair.

Reporters who instinctively cheer when politicians are dragged before Grand Juries to be interrogated are simultaneously offended and horrified when they are compelled to do the same. And while they obnoxiously hound other people who refuse to comment or who issue worthless statements which raise more questions than they answer, these reporters do precisely that the minute they are the target of the questions.

Surely the way in which reporters have been exposed by this scandal will be one of the most consequential and enduring results of the Plame affair. That the White House would use classified information to attack a political opponent should surprise nobody. But the utter emptiness, pomposity and corruption of the nation’s journalistic class has been revealed for all to see. And the more we hear from these reporters on their own behalf, the uglier the picture becomes.

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