Accuracy in Media

By Wes Vernon

The media double standard on the stories of two leak investigations is striking.

On the one hand, Washington newshounds demanded to know who leaked the name of desk-bound CIA bureaucrat Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak. This “scandal,” as AIM has documented, has all the earmarks of an effort by the CIA bureaucracy to embarrass, if not bring down the commander-in-chief, in a time of war.

Plame had not been undercover for over 5 years, and her husband, Joseph Wilson, reportedly went around Washington introducing her as “my CIA wife.”

The liberal media couldn’t get enough of that story and succeeded in getting a special prosecutor appointed. After two years, he indicted Vice President Cheney’s top aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, but not on charges of illegal leaking. 

Contrast that with the way the media handled news the Justice Department is investigating to determine those who leaked information to the New York Times that the National Security Agency (NSA) monitored phone calls from al-Qaeda terrorists to persons in the U.S. Suddenly, these same media mavens reacted in horror that anyone would think of harassing “whistleblowers.”

There is no end to frustration on the part of civilian and military officials who send our men and women in harms way, only to have their ability to come back alive further compromised by some thoughtless or vicious leaker who feeds a headline-hungry or anti-war media outlet.

Most normal common-sense Americans can understand the implications of a telephone call from an al-Qaeda terrorist to someone here at home. Many had assumed 9/11 had created consensus about threats to our very lives. Alas, such is not the case.

The Long War

“Again, we are at war,” warns a top Joint Chiefs of Staff official, and in wartime, the government needs to take action against those who aid the enemy.

In an exclusive briefing at AIM headquarters January 13, Lt. General Raymond T. Odierno, Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in conducting a war safely and successfully, “[w]e have to protect our secrets,” adding that “we have people at risk everyday, and we have to protect them.”

Furthermore, “you’ve got to do investigations to find out who did this,” he said.

“And prosecutions?” I asked.

“Yes?.It’s difficult [to find out] who was [the leaker], but you do have to do that. And you have to make sure that people do understand that it’s not acceptable,” General Odierno replied.      

Most of the TV news programs treated the Justice Department probe in a perfunctory manner, usually re-writing the AP story.

Of those who have tried to justify the double standard on the two leaks, the New York Times itself takes the prize for the absurd.

In a January 4 editorial, the Gray Lady declared, “There is a world of difference between that [Plame] case and a current one in which the administration is trying to find the sources of a New York Times report that President Bush had secretly authorized spying on Americans without warrants. The spying report was a classic attempt to give the public information it deserves to have. The Valerie Wilson [Plame] case began with a cynical effort by the administration to deflect attention from hyped prewar intelligence on Iraq.”

Indeed there is “a world of difference.” The idea that Valerie Plame is more important than knowing about a phone conversation between a plotter on our soil and Osama bin Laden’s hideaway or agents is bizarre.

Meantime, NewsMax broke the story nationally of how Italian authorities, using wiretaps, arrested three Algerians connected to al Qaeda, planning a 9/11-type attack on the U.S. The story got little attention in the U.S. “My impression is that the major media want to use the NSA story to try and impeach the President,” AIM editor Cliff Kincaid told NewsMax.

Erick Stakelbeck of CBN followed-up with an excellent piece. Why are the media so intent on playing down the ongoing threats to our country and our people? AIM editor Kincaid told Stakelbeck: “Because if they remind us that the threat exists, then that tends to support the position of the President, that he has to have the power to stop and monitor and thwart these al Qaeda operations on American soil. “

Author Richard Miniter told CBN that “I think the news judgment of the news directors and editors at major broadcast outlets and newspapers is profoundly blinkered by politics. They think of this war on terror as Bush’s war, not America’s war.”

On the day the Justice Department announced its investigation of the Times leak, Robert A. Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University, popped up in the media to claim that this was “scary.”  It is “scary” that, as we have learned, terrorists who want to kill Americans have been talking to people who (for all we know) could be just a few blocks down the street. Instead the professor thinks it is “scary” that the Justice Department is investigating to find out who leaked the information to the New York Times.

Says he: “I think it’s potentially chilling that it’s directed at the press, and ultimately to the American public in its right to know what it’s being subjected to by a centralized government that seems to shroud its activities in secrecy.”

Aiding The Enemy

A 22-year veteran of the Air Force contacted AIM with a different opinion. He noted that top secret information is defined as material whose release could cause grave damage to the United States. He asked, “What would you call information that allows Osama bin Laden to avoid capture or allow his plans to proceed?”

He added, “Somebody blabbed some secrets that were way above anything I ever had access to. If there is Justice, those same bodies will get to do some hard time in North East Kansas?meaning Leavenworth.”

On the matter of the NSA monitoring international calls without recourse to the FISA court, Roger W. Barnett, Professor Emeritus at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, told AIM:

“Why has no one mentioned the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998? This legislation was specifically designed to permit employees of the intelligence community to contact the Congress to report perceived irregularities, but because of the sensitivity of the information?the concern that national security would be jeopardized?the route for contact was designated to be through the Intelligence Committees of the Congress only. So, there is a legal, established route for whomever went to the New York Times to divulge his or her information, avoiding thereby the attendant compromise of classified information. Indeed, it is a crime to divulge classified information. So, by publishing the information, does that not make the New York Times an accessory to the crime? A fence receives stolen property, and thus is an accessory to the larceny. Why, then, is the New York Times not an accessory in the same sense and liable for criminal sanctions? 

“Moreover, should not the Times have properly advised the whistleblower of the Act, and to proceed in the manner provided for in the legislation? Can one assume that both the whistleblower and the Times were ignorant of the Act? (The Times, we’re told, sat on the story for a year, so it had plenty of time to get smart on the legislation; and the employee should certainly been aware of the Act.)  The Times and the leaker should be prosecuted both for revelation of classified information, and for failure to comply with the Whistleblower Protection Act.”

The ACLU Position

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero claimed that “President Bush broke the law and lied to the American people when he unilaterally authorized wiretaps of U.S. citizens. But rather than focus on this constitutional crisis, Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales is cracking down on critics of his friend and boss.”

What “critics” of the administration are the targets of the “crackdown?” Anyone who would tip our hand to Osama bin Laden is not just “a critic” of the administration. That person is aiding the enemy. The word for that is treason. Calling him (or them) “critics” of George W. Bush is like saying the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor were “political opponents” of Franklin Roosevelt.

You are urged to believe the timing of the story in the New York Times had nothing to do with the fact that a reporter involved?James Risen?just happens to have written a new book on the subject. Risen’s publicist said he would not grant an interview to AIM, but he told Katie Couric on NBC the timing was coincidental and won’t discuss the matter any further.

Byron Calame, the Times ombudsman, has complained in print that Times editors were “stonewalling” him as to why they suddenly ran with the story after sitting on it for more than a year. Calame’s problem appears to be that the paper did not publish the story in time to possibly affect the 2004 election. Still his question deserves an answer, especially since the Gray Lady has pledged “greater transparency” in its newsroom.

By publicizing a story that may cost lives, the New York Times undermines the case for a shield law to provide legitimate protection of a reporter’s sources.

By Wes Vernon

My first experience with columnist Jack Anderson (who passed away in late December) came at a lunch in Washington in 1968 shortly after I had arrived in this town. We were joined at the table by one True Davis, a veteran diplomat. He was running in the Democratic primary for the Senate from Missouri.

On that day, Davis told Anderson that one of his opponents in the primary?Tom Eagleton?had a drunk-driving arrest. Obviously, he was hoping that would appear in a Drew Pearson column. Anderson was still Pearson’s leg man. The item never appeared that year.

Four years later, in 1972, Senator Tom Eagleton?who in 1968 had defeated Davis and the incumbent Democrat Edward V. Long and went on to win the general election??was picked as George McGovern’s running mate on the Democrat presidential ticket.

Anderson?who by then had taken control of the Pearson column after the latter died in 1969?ran with the Eagleton drunk-driving story. It caused an uproar. Eagleton not only denied it, but presented documentary evidence that it was not true. Anderson reluctantly backed down.

The Questionable Source

By then, I had just very recently joined CBS Radio. As the “new kid on the block,” I did not yet have my own program. But I believed since the story had been thoroughly discredited, Davis was fair game for outing as the source. I passed it on to CBS. Soon it hit the wires that Davis had fed the story to Anderson and that night it was on the TV-panel program “Agronsky and Company.” Hearsay that a reporter failed to verify had become a story in and of itself.

Eagleton ultimately was off the ticket, but for different reasons.

A few years later I interviewed Anderson on my CBS Radio program “Crosstalk.” He was doing the book tour for “The Drew Pearson Diaries.” Those diaries contained a huge gap that left out a significant event in Pearson’s contentious career.

The book omitted an entire episode where Pearson made a false allegation in 1958 against Senator Frank Barrett, a Wyoming Republican. I was a reporter in neighboring Montana when Anderson went to Wyoming to dig up the dirt for Pearson’s column charging that Barrett had improperly intervened in a tax case involving former Senator E.V. Robertson.

Barrett’s attorneys ultimately presented Pearson with ironclad evidence the charge was false. Pearson retracted. (“He hated to do it,” the ex-senator later told me). But by then, Barrett had been defeated for re-election largely because of the pounding the Pearson column had repeatedly heaped on him with a false charge right up to the election.

On my early-Seventies CBS radio program, I asked Anderson about the diary gap. I let the listeners decide the credibility of his statement that 15 years later; he could not remember his trip to Wyoming specifically to work on a story that brought down a United States Senator.

Irvine Vs. Anderson

AIM founder Reed Irvine blew the whistle on several Anderson inaccuracies, mainly in the 1970s. Anderson retaliated with false charges against Irvine, who was undeterred.

AIM was vindicated by the National News Council?a journalistic inside-the-profession watchdog group funded by large liberal foundations. The Council upheld AIM’s complaint that Anderson’s column charging the International Police Academy had graduated trainees who favored torture was biased and inaccurate.

Among other Anderson inaccuracies that Reed Irvine publicized were the following:

  • Anderson sympathized with Amy Conger, who claimed to have no political motive in visiting Chile and said she had been tortured in a Chilean prison. AIM found Conger was involved in a terrorist organization; harbored fugitives in homes funded by terrorists; and that when released to the American consul, she was in perfect health, with no complaints of ill treatment.

  • Anderson in a 1975 column made an allegation about a drunken U.S. Senator that was written as if it had just happened when in fact the passage was taken verbatim from a 1968 book.

  • Anderson claimed he had been tipped off to the Watergate bugging two months beforehand, and that he immediately informed the Watergate prosecutors and the Senate Watergate Committee. Interesting considering that neither the Watergate prosecutor’s office nor the Watergate committee had been created then?since the Watergate break-in itself had not happened.

Phony Charges

Anderson retaliated by grasping at straws. He wrote a letter to Reed Irvine saying he heard rumors that AIM was backed by business people seeking to discredit the press and that AIM was covertly financed by the CIA.

Irvine replied AIM was not a front for any group, and that “the outside critic cannot possibly discredit you unless you do something discreditable.”

Later there was a dramatic showdown between Anderson and Irvine.

First some background:

Back in 1958, Anderson and his friend Baron Shacklette, a congressional staffer, were caught in a bugging dust-up in a Washington hotel. Shacklette was chief investigator for a House committee probing textile tycoon Bernard Goldfine, accused of improper attempts to influence top people in the Eisenhower administration. Anderson was trying to get some dirt on the case to feed Pearson’s column.

Anderson and Shacklette took a hotel room they thought was next to Goldfine’s, and slipped a small mike beneath a door between the two rooms. It was the wrong room. They were caught in the act by two GOP PR men occupying the room. They had been hired by the White House to take the spotlight in the case off Ike’s top aide Sherman Adams. Anderson and Shacklette claimed they had taken the next room simply to listen to hi-fi music.

In the end, Goldfine went to prison, Shacklette was fired from his committee job, Anderson came out looking as if he had engaged in Marx Brothers-style journalism, and Pearson retaliated against the PR men. One of them, Phil Brennan (now a columnist for NewsMax) tells AIM Pearson attacked him at least twice a year after that.

Fast forward back to the Seventies.

An Anderson column accused Reed Irvine of doing AIM business on his employer’s time. The AIM founder was an economist at the Federal Reserve Board.

The columnist pounced on a letter from Irvine to the Congressional Research Service on Fed stationery regarding a CRS article on the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Anderson charged the letter was related to AIM business. Actually it was Fed business, with copies sent to his FRB superiors, since Irvine was responsible at the Fed for work on the IDB.

By then, Anderson’s old friend Shacklette was a top aide on the House Banking Committee. Though Shacklette said it was pure coincidence, it appeared that it was his friendship with Anderson that resulted in a committee hearing on the allegations against Irvine. I was there. Here’s what happened:

Anderson charged the AIM founder committed perjury when denying he had used Fed facilities on AIM business. He cited a Washington Post reporter who received a call from Irvine about errors in a Post story. The reporter called back, and found Irvine in his Fed office. That supposedly proved Irvine had used his office phone to make the call.

Irvine replied no one had asked him whether he had made an AIM-related call from his office phone. “If anybody asked me that, I would have said yes, I have on occasion done that. I have on occasion, as a matter of fact, received calls from Mr. Anderson’s office on AIM business. I have refused to accept them.”

Audience snickers provided the commentary.

Anderson always claimed he was more careful than Pearson was about accuracy. Others saw him as Pearson without the vicious persona.

Reed Irvine found that (as he wrote in a February, 1978 AIM Report) all too often if Anderson had to correct an earlier column, he would accompany it with another attack. The purpose was to discourage anyone from calling him on his inaccuracies.

Today there is still plenty of media inaccuracy. But now there is a new media to blow the whistle. AIM and Reed Irvine were pioneers in that effort. A Jack Anderson or a Drew Pearson would have a much harder time playing the style of journalism that involves tossing mud against the wall to see if it sticks.

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer & broadcast journalist.

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