Last April 29, just a few days before the Gannett company’s annual meeting, USA Today ran a favorable story about Joseph Wilson’s new book. The story, by Mark Memmott, began with Wilson’s charge that Vice President Dick Cheney engaged in the “effective betrayal of our country” by allegedly playing a role in the release of the name of Wilson’s wife, a CIA employee named Valerie Plame.
No evidence was provided for this claim and there was no indication that USA Today, which is owned by Gannett, had contacted Cheney’s office for comment.
Wilson’s book was titled “The Politics of Truth.” Ironically, he is now fending off charges that he lied about his mission to investigate Iraq’s interest in uranium. The recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA said that Wilson, who joined the Kerry campaign as a foreign policy adviser, actually confirmed President Bush’s “controversial” State of the Union statement that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. The Senate report cites evidence that Wilson’s CIA wife recommended him for the Africa mission.
The conventional story line for a year has been that Wilson contradicted the president’s State of the Union statement and that Wilson’s wife was outed in retaliation. The “outing” has led to a federal investigation of whether the disclosure violated a law against releasing the names of covert CIA operatives.
But it’s Plame who should be under investigation. Plame’s recommendation of her husband for the job may have violated federal nepotism laws. On page 346 of his book, Wilson himself notes that the law against nepotism would forbid his wife from recommending him for the job, which may be why he says she had nothing to do with it. The evidence, according to the committee, also includes a memo from Plame to the CIA recommending her husband’s involvement.
Plame’s name was disclosed to columnist Bob Novak because some official or officials knew she was involved in the Wilson mission and found this objectionable. However, Novak said that he was not the recipient of a planned leak and they “asked me not to use her name.” The notion that her “outing” violated the law ignores the fact that an investigator doing basic research on corporate databases could easily expose her CIA front company and “cover” as an energy consultant.
But rather than push for an investigation of violations of federal nepotism laws, the White House panicked under a media assault engineered by Wilson and gave way to critics who wanted the White House investigated for an alleged role in the leak to Novak.
The Washington Post, to its credit, has now admitted that Wilson fed the paper false information. Other news organizations, including USA Today, should also come clean.
It’s worth remembering that there were already plenty of doubts about Wilson’s charges even before his book came out. At Accuracy in Media, we had published those doubts, noting that while Wilson claimed there was no evidence of Iraq seeking uranium from Africa, the British government had obtained an account of Wilson’s report on his mission to Africa that disclosed that such an attempt by Iraq had in fact been made.
On May 4, I had waved a copy of the Memmott article at the Gannett meeting, as further evidence of the bad reporting standards at this paper, which had just gone through a plagiarism and fakery scandal with former reporter Jack Kelley. Newspaper executives at the meeting claimed the story had gone through proper editing procedures. But USA Today’s new editor, Ken Paulson, was concerned enough to ask me for a copy of the Memmott article, saying he wanted to discuss it at a staff meeting. He said, however, that he thought the Wilson book was worth a story since it promised to be a bestseller. Less than two months later, it was reported by Editor & Publisher that Paulson had “made several changes aimed at improving the paper’s credibility and public image,” including tightening up on the use of confidential sources. Nothing, however, was done about the Memmott piece.
This is a crucial time for the media. Their credibility has been rocked by a series of scandals. Now they have been exposed as willing shills for a Kerry adviser who concocted a phony scandal for the purpose of damaging Bush. USA Today in particular has some explaining and apologizing to do. Will editor Paulson do the right thing?
But the release of the Senate report is more than an opportunity for the media to set the record straight about Wilson, his mission and Bush’s claims. It should be an opportunity to call off the probe into the Novak leak and initiate an official inquiry into what Plame and her CIA associates were up to.