Saturday, November 19, 2005

WoodwardGate: Wrap Up


This Woodward Moment. (image via cbsnews)

The Washington Post, a paper The Corsair believes in, which we designated as "In" this past Thursday, is going through some serious internal debates as to the matter of just what to think about Bob Woodward, of which our old friend David Hershkovits of Paper is calling for a brisk "stepping down." (The Corsair pours himself a chilled glass of Casa Guarenar Grappa) From FishbowlDC this past Thursday we get a sampling of the newsroom debate from the veteral journos over at the Washpo:

"Charles Babington: I feel like we're ignoring the 800-pound elephant on our front page: Bob Woodward. Every day, scores of Post reporters press, cajole, badger, demand, implore people to tell us things they might not want to. When they demur, we try to convince them they should talk to the Washington Post even if they talk to no one else. Today we report that our assistant managing editor, and surely our most famous staffer, 'declined to elaborate on the statement he released to The Post late yesterday afternoon and publicly last night. He would not answer any questions, including those not governed by his confidentiality agreement with sources.' I admire the hell out of Bob, but this looks awful.

"... Jonathan Yardley: To the matter rightly raised by Chuck Babington: This is the logical and perhaps inevitable outcome when an institution permits an individual to become larger than the institution itself. However able and accomplished the individual -- and I agree that Woodward is both -- the institution pays the cost when he or she is permitted to operate within its purview yet under a different set of rules. There are a few others on the paper about whom the same could be said. Perhaps the current embarrassment (for embarrassment it most certainly is) will provide the occasion for re-examining the star system and its attendant risks. This is a big, influential newspaper, one of perhaps the half-dozen best in the world, but it will never be fully mature until it understands that the institution's interests take priority over any employee's, and until it puts that understanding into practice. Judy Miller was granted star status, and look what happened to her -- and to the Times."

Later, in a moment suffused with postmodern irony, the internal debate itself is leaked, in mid-conversational flow, to the Times' Katherine Seelye, causing Yardley to write, with an almost palpable sense of exasperation, "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."

Indeed. Such is the strangeness of the ongoing Plamegate investigation in this age of extreme media intropection as well as the real time coverage of the internet. Has there ever been histrically anything remotely like this unfolding event? In addition, presently 16 ex-CIA agents have asked The President not to pardon anyone involved in the Plame case, including -- should they be indicted -- the Woodward source.

This case of what Tim Rutten, of the Los Angeles Times, who writes the definitive piece on the topic, calls "journalistic decadence" is ultimately a problem of confidentiality and access. This is the same problem, incidentaly, that Judith Miller got herself in -- stemming from: a) Too much editorial leeway granted to journo celebrities -- think Miller, assigned to write on bio-weopons, symbollically snatching Dowd's chair at a National Security briefing; b) the clubby Old-Boy atmosphere in DC where the reporters are way-too-close to their subjects. The Corsair remembers, for example, an episode of the old ABC This Week with David Brinkley where Cokie Roberts stridently defended the institution of Washington lobbyists without any opposition and at no point disclosing the highly relevant fact that her own brother, Thomas Boggs, is the King of the that species. (Averted Gaze)

No one in DC questioned Roberts about that line of argument because, well, they're all family. Finally, the last cause -- IMHO -- of the decadence, c) The masterful job that the Administration has done feeding meager scraps to journalists, on the one hand, and withholding access and press conferences on the other, leading many journos -- whether out of sheer naked ambition or the desire to maintain their reputation -- to make Faustian bargains, sometimes going so far as to out-and-out pay pundits.

Rutten writes, acidly, of this phenomenon and its corrosive effect on investigative journalism:

"There is something singularly appropriate about the fact that the Plame affair should involve Woodward, whose skillful and courageous use of the ur-voice among confidential sources virtually created a whole genre of Washington reporting. It�s a journalistic strategy style dependent on the cultivation of access to well-placed officials greased by promises of 'confidentiality.' It�s a way of doing journalism that still serves its practitioners� career interests, but less and less often their readers or viewers because it�s a game the powerful and well-connected have learned to play to their own advantage.

"Whatever its self-righteous pretensions, it�s a style of journalism whose signature sound is less the blowing of whistles than it is the spinning of tops.

"That�s why the Washington press corps, whose ranks include so many alleged commentators that you can�t spit without hitting one, steadfastly refuses to put the Plame affair and its participants in the context that explains the event. That context is the Bush administration�s unprecedented -- and largely successful -- effort to bend Washington-based news coverage to its ends.The Washington press corps doesn�t want to talk about this because it basically puts some of its most admired members in a line of venal patsies."

Rutten cites the usual list of rogues as examples: Armstrong Wiiliams, whose role in ArmstrongGate may land him in the pokey; Judith Miller; Kenneth Y. Tomlinson of the CPB, who instead of turning to right-leaning feature documentaries, which are sorely needed (Think: "Aquinas and Aristotle" as a follow up to PBS' magnificent "Matisse and Picasso;" or, if you wil, a non-partisan documentary on Leo Strauss), became just another idealogue among ideologues. Pity.

Rutten continues, in rare form:

"Placed in this context, Woodward, Miller, Time magazine�s Matthew Cooper and NBC�s Tim Russert are less tragic figures in a grand journalistic drama than they are sad -- but willing -- bit players in somebody else�s rather sorry little charade."

Ouch. The Washington Post's Editorial Page weighed in this morning, saying, in part, in an Editorial entitiled "Mr. Woodward's Sources":

"WE'VE SAID from the start of the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity that if administration officials deliberately set out to unmask a secret agent, they should be punished. But we've also said that, absent evidence of such behavior, criminalizing communication by officials to journalists would run counter to the public interest. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation is continuing -- he said yesterday he's going back to a grand jury -- and new facts may come to light. But the principle remains valid: It's not in the public interest for reporters to be forced to reveal their confidential sources in cases such as this. That's why Post reporter Bob Woodward should not be vilified for protecting the identity of his source in this complex affair."

"... Much of the public finds the media's extensive use of confidential sources objectionable, and understandably so. Their use should be as limited as possible. When they are relied upon, reporters should impart as much information as possible about the sources' motives. Those guidelines are accepted but too often ignored by the press."

"Is there a distinction to be made based on the motives of the leakers? If so, Mr. Woodward might have had to pass up his first big scoops three decades ago, because his Watergate source, Deep Throat -- recently revealed as FBI official W. Mark Felt -- was disgruntled at having been passed over for the post of FBI director. Newspapers face difficult questions all the time in evaluating the reliability of sources and the appropriateness of publishing their secrets. But if potential sources come to believe that they cannot count on promises of confidentiality, more than the media will suffer."

The full editorial here. We wonder what the eminent Jonathan Yardley thinks of that.

The conclusion of Rutten's Los Angeles Times piece is especially instructive as it says:

"As the Valerie Plame scandal and its spreading taint have made all too clear, the trade in confidentiality and access that has made stars of reporters like Bob Woodward and Judy Miller now is utterly bankrupt.

"It still may call itself investigative journalism -- and so it once was -- but now it�s really just a glittering and carefully choreographed waltz in which all the dancers share the unspoken agreement that the one unpardonable faux pas is to ask who�s calling the tune.

Perhaps this is one of the plusses of the blogosphere -- that glorious lack of access, the Oursiderishness -- bloggers are decidedly not beholden to the subjects that they, we, cover; we owe the powerful nothing, and thus we are generally merciless.

Bloggers children don't attend the same boarding schools like the journos of DC and pols do in the insular DC upper strata of reciprocal maintenance and will-you-be-my-baby's-godfather excahge, strictly on a Need-to-Know basis. The unfolding Abramoff fiasco, which is blowing the lid off what we once thought we knew about the cozy politician-lobbyist love affair is just the gravy in the end. It is curious, we cannot fail to note, that this dramatic collapse of the investigative journalism ideal, this "Fall of Woodward," comes in the wake of Rathergate and amidst the unprecedented Rise of Blogs and citizen journalism.

Arianna Huffington never seems more Oracular -- she's Greek, she'll appreciate the reference -- in her creative use of the blogosphere to "fry the bacon," so to speak, of the pigs snacking at the trough. How curious, all this thusness.

Full LATimes piece here.

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