Accuracy in Media

The following is an exchange of email correspondence between AIM editor Cliff Kincaid and David McCormick of NBC News, and Kincaid’s response:

Dear Mr. McCormick: how can you defend Tim Russert covering and commenting on a story, the Libby case, in which he, Russert, is involved as an accuser and likely prosecution witness? Can you please provide me a copy of the NBC News ethics guidelines covering the activities of your employees.

Thank you. Cliff Kincaid, editor, Accuracy in Media.

November 4, 2005

Dear Mr. Kincaid:

I am responding to your email and column. I hope you will post this on your website to share with your readers.

Let me state very clearly that Tim Russert is NOT “an accuser” as you have characterized him in your email.

NBC News is very comfortable with the manner in which Mr. Russert has covered the “Leak” investigation. He has been very careful to limit his comments to the essence of the indictment itself. He has not taken a partisan position on the issue.

As we have stated before, NBC News went to court to overturn the subpoena that sought Mr. Russert’s testimony. The court rejected the First Amendment arguments and ordered Mr. Russert to testify. Under an agreement with the Special Prosecutor, Mr. Russert was not required to appear before the grand jury. In a meeting with the Special Prosecutor, Mr. Russert was asked questions which addressed a telephone conversation initiated by Mr. Libby and focused on what Russert said during that conversation. Mr. Libby had previously told the FBI about that conversation and had formally requested that the conversation be disclosed.

I think it is evident that Tim Russert did not seek to become involved in this case and is not tied to either side of the issue. All along the way, NBC News has clearly and promptly explained his involvement in this matter including a detailed segment on last Sunday’s Meet The Press. We have full confidence in Tim Russert and believe he will continue to cover this story in a fair and objective manner.


David McCormick
Executive Producer
Broadcast Standards
NBC News

Cliff Kincaid responds:

While Russert did not personally testify before the grand jury, his sworn testimony before Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was provided to the grand jury and was used to produce the Libby indictment.  In effect, he has become a witness in the case.

McCormick may disagree with the term “accuser,” used to describe Russert, but his testimony is a major part of the basis for the Libby indictment. At issue is who told what to whom about knowledge of Wilson’s CIA wife. Libby maintains that he was told by Russert that knowledge of Wilson’s wife being CIA was common among Washington reporters.

We have a lot of respect for Russert and the way he conducts himself and his programs. But with his own credibility ultimately on the line in this case, we do not think that he has covered this story in a fair and objective manner. On the October 23 Meet the Press show, before the Libby indictments were handed down, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison told Russert: “I think we should be very careful here, especially as we are dealing with something very public and people’s lives in the public arena.  I do not think we should prejudge.  I think it is unfair to drag people through the newspapers week after week after week, and let’s just see what the charges are.  Let’s tone down the rhetoric and let’s make sure that if there are indictments that we don’t prejudge.” (emphasis added).

But Russert, knowing that he was already deeply involved in the case, continued to hype the controversy, saying that “perjury or obstruction of justice is a very serious crime and Republicans certainly thought so when charges were placed against Bill Clinton before the United States Senate.”

Russert may just have been trying to be provocative. But the difference, of course, involves Clinton’s deliberate lying under oath about an affair with a female White House intern, as compared to different recollections of conversations that happened more than two years ago.

On his October 30 program, after the indictments were filed, Russert led a discussion of the charges and his own testimony in the case. Turning to David Broder of the Washington Post, Russert asked about the allegations and the indictment of Libby. Broder responded, “It’s very hard to imagine that somebody as smart and as organized as Scooter Libby would disremember where he heard that kind of information about a person that he was very much interested in understanding what the background was of this person’s trip.  He is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but I think his lawyers have a heavy burden to disprove these charges.”

In other words, Broder basically found Libby guilty of lying.

Judy Woodruff, formerly of CNN, told Russert: “Well, whether you agree with what Mr. Fitzgerald did or not, Tim, it’s hard to remember a prosecutor who came across as smart and as well-prepared as he did in that news conference on Friday.  I think it’s very hard to discredit what he did? if you look at the list of incidents that Tim just cited, I think it’s going to be very difficult for Scooter Libby [to] defend himself.  We haven’t heard his side yet.  We want to hear that.  But I think Mr. Fitzgerald did a pretty credible job of explaining why truth is central to our judicial system” (emphasis added).

In other words, Libby is guilty as charged.

However, Libby has declared his innocence and says that he will be exonerated in a court of law.

Russert ? and his colleagues ?wanted us to simply assume that what Russert testified to is absolutely true. He enjoys respect and credibility from the viewing audience and has a reputation for grilling spokesmen for both sides of controversial issues. However, there are questions about Russert’s account of his conversations with Libby ? questions that Russert never raised on Meet the Press.

According to the indictment, Libby’s version is that during a conversation with Russert on July 10 or 11, 2003, Russert asked Libby if Libby was aware that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, and that Libby responded to Russert that he did not know that. Libby’s version is that Russert went on to say that all the reporters knew it. 

Russert disputes this. Russert maintains that, at the time of his conversation with Libby, Russert didn’t know Valerie Plame’s name or that she was a CIA operative, and that he did not provide that information to Libby.  Russert insists that he learned the information only when he later read a column by Robert Novak—which would have been three or four days later. Russert’s version is that Libby called Russert to complain about a report he had been watching on MSNBC.

In a November 3 story, “Questions Raised about Tim Russert’s Story,” said that it discovered an account by senior NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell that “raises questions about whether Mr. Russert may have known about Plame’s employment well before the Novak column.”

According to Newsmax, Mitchell was a guest on CNBC’s Oct. 3, 2003, Capital Report show, where she was asked by host Alan Murray, “Do we have any idea how widely known it was in Washington that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA?” Mitchell reportedly replied: “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. So a number of us began to pick up on that.”

If this is true, asks, “How is it that her boss, Mr. Russert, who – as NBC Washington bureau chief was presumably monitoring developments in ‘the intelligence community’ as they related to the Wilson story – would have been oblivious to this same ‘widely known’ information?”

Newsmax concludes that “In fact, according to the text of Fitzgerald’s indictment, Libby’s version of events more closely matches Mitchell’s on the subject of who knew about Plame’s employment.”

Newsmax commented: “None of this means that Mr. Libby actually told the truth and that Fitzgerald’s star witness against him, Tim Russert, perhaps didn’t. But Mr. Russert might want to clear the air and explain how he managed to stay in the dark about key information in a case that was the talk of the town in early July 2003 – while the same information was ‘widely known,’ according to a senior reporter who worked under him.”

Is it possible that Russert stayed in the dark? 

Not only are these questions not being asked on NBC News, but McCormick did not provide a copy of the NBC News ethics code regarding activities by network employees. He told us it is an internal document.

However, if it is like other journalism ethics codes, it has a provision prohibiting conflicts of interest by news employees. That would seem to prohibit covering or commenting on a story in which the journalist is playing a part.

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.