Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The Washington Back Channel
This is a long feature in this past Saturday's New York Times magazine, and it was written by Max Frankel. It's incredibly long but also amazingly informative. I really do recommend reading this one online. It's a critique on the Libby case, though really, Frankel is just using the Libby case as a prop to show how the reporter-official relationship work, since it is our most recent example of the use of leaks and misleading information.
Not only does Frankel explain how reporters and Washington officials exchange secrets to further each other's motives, he also draws specific examples from the history of the Valerie Plame-Wilson fiasco and the WMD accusations that propelled into the indictment of Scooter. And then Frankel draws parallels from his experience as a reporter to show that this is not the first time it's happened.
Now the way he does this is quite skillful, because he manages to inform the readers who have not been following the Plame affair since it's began (that's me) and also to make connections to how it relates to the nature of political journalism, especially in Washington.
I think- and I'm not too sure, because this article was really dense, and i'm still trying to smooth out some confusion on my part- that his point is that the government has every information marked "secret" and disclose it to the press whenever it serves their purpose, so it makes whatever matter they are trying to prove or show or promote more legitimate and important. In order to do this surreptiously, the government sometimes enlist the help of willing journalists who are in search of a good story, and they will accidentally let slip this information. Now, a proper reporter will investigate further, and of course he will come up with some information. The next step is for the reporter to choose the right time to publish this "leak" like it was news, when really the government officials have been anticipating it since their tongue slipped during the conversation.
The problem with the Plame affair and the Libby indictment is that the jury never went into why and how it happened. With Libby, they simply focused on him lying ("forgetting") on when he heard about Plame. And with Plame, the blame has been thrown all over the administration, with all the leaks and the information criss-crossing each other, that it just turns on to be a huge convoluted mess.
Here's the thing that kinda bugged me: Frankel never actually goes into it, but he hints several times that the reason why Armitage even leaked Plame in the first place (I guess I should use the word "allegedly") is because he was holding grudges against the Wilsons. Frankel used the word "bitter feud" to describe it. From what I can tell, the "bitter feud" began when Valerie Plame asked her husband, Joe Plame, an ambassdor, to look into the matter as to whether Iraq was trying to buy some WMD material (stuff? I don't know what term to use), and Joe came up with nada- or at least information that was incongruous with that claim. However, the government got hold of it, and decided to use that in a memo where the President announced that Iraq was harboring WMD, which acted as a reason for invading Iraq. Now, how did the government get the information? Does this mean that Plame was asked by the CIA to investigate that? And even so, how could the government manipulate this information to further their economic/political agendas?
I don't know if Frankel was trying to trivialize it or humuliate them, but he seemed to make the beginnings of this affairs to be rather petty. I mean, I don't know much about it, so I'm going by the use of diction and the tone of voice.
Obviously, it shows dishonesty and corruption on the government's part- but in the paragraph before, it also shows how just because an information is important and is "secret" does not mean that it is true or helpful.
Here's something I found interesting as well:
"'Off the record' information could not be published, but could guide research and perhaps be confirmed elsewhere; 'deep background' material could be printed only if not attributed to anyone; 'background' called for a circumlocution, like 'senior administration official.'"
Frankel also wrote in a memo in 1971 (during the Pentagon Papers leak when he was chief Washington correspondent for the NYT):
"Learning always to trust each other to some extent, and never to trust each other fully- for their purposes are often contradictory or downright antogonistic- the reporter and the official trespass regularly, customarily, easily and un-self-consciously (even unconsciously) through what they both know to be official 'secrets.'"
Frankel ended the article with his concerns on how the Libby trial will affect the future of journalism.
"Was it worth turning the White House into a defensive fortress? Was it worth invading newsroom files and alerting other sources that their chance of exposure has been significantly increased? Was tracking down one leak worth the risk that greater wrongdoing will go unreported in the future?"
When I was in my Foundations of Journalism class, we actually spent a lot of time discussing leaks as whether being helpful or harmful. I'm just really happy to see Frankel expand on these questions- shows that no matter how long we spend discussing it, it will always be relevant to how reporters treat information, and how officials dispel them- because whatever comes out of this hold of knowledge can either be helpful or disastrous to the well-being of the country.
Link to Frankel's article: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/magazine/25Libby.t.html?ref=magazine