< Slapped Down…or Slipped Up?


Friday, September 01, 2006

BOB GARFIELD:: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.

FEMALE REPORTER: Bob Novak's primary source revealed that -

FEMALE REPORTER: It is the most talked-about Washington secret in years.

MALE REPORTER: Official leak seized on by Administration critics as evidence of how far the White House is willing to go to smear an opponent came from a man who had no intention of harming anyone. So -

MALE REPORTER: What does that mean for those that claim there was a White House conspiracy? Joining us -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The shoes just keep dropping in the case of who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Only one official has been indicted, the Vice-President's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and he was nabbed not for leaking but for lying to a grand jury. According to Hubris, a new book by Nation Washington editor David Corn and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, the first leaker, the one who told syndicated columnist Bob Novak, who told the world, was former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. Now, Novak had hinted in one of his columns that his source was, quote, "no partisan gunslinger," and it's true. Armitage was often at odds with the President's policies and no clear motivation for punishing a White House critic by exposing his wife. But that's how most reporters told this story, that unknown administration officials outed Plame to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for charging in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that the President's pretext for going to war in Iraq was false. Mark Jurkowitz, former media critic for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix, now the Project for Excellence in Journalism, joins us now. Mark, welcome back to the show.

MARK JURKOWITZ: Thanks, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I'm right in claiming that most of us did make that assumption that the Plame leak was part of a smear campaign, right?

MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, it certainly wove its way into the story. There's absolutely no doubt about it. Now, not every journalist that covered this incredibly [LAUGHS] complicated story that has tons of tendrils wrote that, but it certainly wove its way into the commentary, the punditry, and ultimately into the news stories themselves, because that theory itself got such play.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, Mark, to be fair, that shorthand, that assumption could very well still be accurate. After all, it was Scooter Libby who first requested the information about Plame that Armitage saw, and Karl Rove, followed by Libby, were the first to tell Time Magazine's Matthew Cooper about Plame. In fact, Wilson and Plame decided not to include Armitage in their lawsuit against Libby and Rove and whatever other Administration officials, because they believe Armitage when he says it was an accidental slip and it wasn't malicious. So there's nothing in this revelation about Armitage that gives the lie to the idea that this was part of a smear campaign, only that it didn't begin, perhaps, with Novak.

MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, it just makes it a more complicated story, and anybody that's seeking vindication or thinks that the story's been resolved at this point is absolutely wrong. I mean, the Scooter Libby case is still there, and I personally don't feel, and I don't think any reporter following this feels, that they have this whole story figured out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Plame case was widely covered, certainly by us because we're a media show, but also everywhere else. Why do you think that is? Is it because we are just so obsessed with ourselves in the media, or was this a way to address, by proxy, arguments about the war?

MARK JURKOWITZ: The public detects a lot of bias in journalism. We certainly are biased towards ourselves -


MARK JURKOWITZ: - and stories that affect us directly. I think this was clearly a case – I mean, the clip of Judith Miller coming out of jail is one of the more famous post-perp walk pictures that we've had in the media recently.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] How about the story as a proxy for arguing about the war?

MARK JURKOWITZ: First and foremost, it was a story about the war, and that's what gave it sort of greater public acceptance and made it a story that the public, in theory, might be interested in. The shorthand there is obvious. You know, we are retaliating against somebody who was openly critical of our Iraq policy. That's the big issue in Americans' minds. Even a media-obsessed media can't write about this every day unless it becomes a political story, and this clearly became a political story. And let's face it, Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame helped make it a political story themselves. They did not remain on the sidelines here. They quickly politicized the story. Politicians got involved. That becomes the kindling wood for turning this into a bigger story. Had it not had that aspect, even we would have been hard-pressed to justify it to the extent we had.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you've suggested that the principal reason the press has stayed with the story is because it provided a platform for special pleading, for defending a reporter's right to protect sources. After all, several reporters were threatened with jail for withholding names, and, in fact, The New York Times' Judy Miller was tossed in the clink.

MARK JURKOWITZ: I don't think any editor sat there and said, you know, definitively, look, we want to make a big deal out of the story because we want to convince the America public of the need for a reporter's privilege and a national shield law or anything like that. But I do think that it certainly grew and developed in the context of a journalism profession that feels threatened by a combination of subpoenas and contempt citations and a government crackdown on leaks, and wonders, I think, or worries about the future of investigative journalism. So I certainly think that reporters and journalists were keenly aware of the significance of this story in the ongoing battle to clarify, if nothing better, the relationships between journalists and their confidential sources.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So to that end of, say, clarification, how successful were they?

MARK JURKOWITZ: I would say that they're about as clear as what the Charles River in Boston looks like.


MARK JURKOWITZ: Pretty muddy. If the story ends where it is right now, I think the public feels that much of the media misled them about the implications. If you looked at the whole thing as a commercial for we need more protections here, more First Amendment-related protection of the media, I don't think we could call it anything approximating a success.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Okay. Thank you very much.

MARK JURKOWITZ: You're welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.