Accuracy in Media

NBC’s Tim Russert, whose credibility is on the line in the CIA leak case, is using his NBC Meet the Press program to make it practically impossible for former Dick Cheney aide Lewis Libby to get a fair trial. Russert, who has in effect accused Libby of lying, will likely be a prosecution witness in the case. But he’s still covering and commenting on the case for NBC News. It’s a new low in journalism, jeopardizing Libby’s right to a fair trial.

Russert claims he never talked to Libby about reporters having common knowledge of Valerie Plame’s CIA affiliation. But NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell, who works for Russert, was quoted as saying on a CNBC show in October of 2003 that it was “widely known among those of us who cover the intelligence community and who were actively engaged in trying to track down who among the foreign service community was the envoy to Niger.”  Asked on the Don Imus radio program about this quote, she said that she had misspoken, but her comments seem to speak for themselves

The November 6 edition of Russert’s Meet the Press show was designed to keep the public’s attention not only on Libby but other White House officials as well, most notably press secretary Scott McClellan.  It is apparent that members of the press are trying to gin up a Watergate-style scandal. They are focusing on polls indicating Bush’s popularity is declining, even though a recent Gallup Poll showed that the executive branch has more credibility than the media.

Meet the Press guest Ron Brownstein attempted to drag Bush into the CIA leak case, saying, “At some point the President is going have to answer-and not only the President but the vice president is going to have to answer questions that are raised in that indictment beyond the legal process.  The indictment clearly lays out a conversation on Air Force Two between Lewis Libby and other officials while he’s traveling with the vice president before he talks to reporters about Valerie Wilson’s status.  Clearly at some point, I think the American people have a right to know what was discussed on the plane, what the vice president said and the President himself cannot probably-I can’t see how he can go indefinitely saying he’s not going comment on Karl Rove’s assertions to the American people that he was not involved.”

Russert piped in: “And the White House press secretary said to you and to the American people…Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, not involved.”

NBC News White House reporter David Gregory responded, “And clearly they were involved.  And Scott McClellan and the White House know they have a problem on that score with their credibility.”

But what exactly did Scott McClellan say about the “involvement” of Rove and Libby in the case? If you read the transcript of the White House press briefing where these comments were made, you see that McClellan referred to the involvement of White House officials in “leaking classified information,” and that this formulation was made in the context of a Justice Department investigation and the involvement of someone in the commission of a potential crime. So when McClellan said that “I have spoken with Karl about it,” and Rove denied any involvement, he was referring to leaking classified information in a criminal context.

McClellan’s statement has been repeatedly distorted, as if he meant to suggest that Libby and Rove never talked to the press about the Joseph Wilson case, in order to suggest that the White House, perhaps even the President, is involved in some Watergate-style cover-up of a serious crime. It bears repeating: the charges against Libby do not involve an illegal leak of classified information or the exposure of an undercover CIA operative. Most of the charges involve a disagreement between Libby and Russert over whether they discussed Valerie Plame’s CIA affiliation.

Ignoring this controversy and demonstrating an unwillingness to confront Russert’s recollection of the facts in the case, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post declared on his November 6 CNN Reliable Sources show that McClellan had denied any involvement of Rove and other officials “in the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name.” No, he denied their involvement in criminal activity involving a leak.

At the briefing, McClellan also said, “There has been absolutely nothing brought to our attention to suggest any White House involvement.” That statement sounds misleading, if not sinister, in view of revelations that Rove and Libby talked to reporters and the name of Valerie Plame came up. But the context of McClellan’s briefing was potential illegal activity. Neither Rove nor Libby has been charged with illegally leaking classified information. Reporters do not want to stick to the facts because they want to transform this controversy into something it is not.

That is why a November 6 New York Times story by Richard W. Stevenson, “White House Tries to Keep Distance from Leak Case,” was also exaggerated and beside the point. Stevenson makes much of McClellan’s statement at the time that Bush “knows” that Rove had not been the “source of the leak.” But there’s no reason to believe that what McClellan said was not true. It’s still not clear where the leak originated, or whether the leak was of any legal significance.

This is not just a battle over semantics. We are dealing with matters of potential criminal activity, and the media have an obligation to report the facts in the right context. Instead, however, they would prefer to exaggerate the charges, so the public gets the impression that the White House engages in unethical if not illegal activity and then engages in a cover-up.

Kurtz showed David Gregory at a White House briefing saying that McClellan’s credibility was on the line. No, it’s the credibility of the media on the line. Reporters have less than the White House.

Kurtz, who had already found McClellan guilty of a “misleading denial,” asked his guests if McClellan should apologize. One of them, Frank Sesno, formerly of CNN, said that McClellan “owes an explanation” because his statement two years ago was “flat-out wrong.” No it wasn’t. The Sesno comment demonstrates how reporters come to believe what their own colleagues say about the matter at hand, without checking or verifying facts on their own. The Kurtz TV show was an example of how reporters get together to hype a non-story into a scandal. Kurtz should know better.

For public relations purposes, McClellan may decide to offer an explanation or even apologize. But don’t assume that any such response is based on legitimate press inquiries or the actual facts of the case.

The press wants the public to lose sight of the fact that there was no substance to the original CIA complaint that led to the investigation by the Special Prosecutor. Libby was indicted on charges unrelated to what the press was asking McClellan about two years ago.

Does the truth matter anymore? Not when the press is in its Watergate mode. Will Bush fight for his presidency? If so, he needs to take on the press.

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