< Cold Snap


Friday, July 15, 2005

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. On Wednesday a reporter's e-mails confirmed that Karl Rove was the leader who outed Valerie Plame as a CIA officer to Time Magazine. By Friday it was reported that Rove told investigators that he did tell two reporters about Plame but that he was first informed of her identity by yet another reporter, columnist Bob Novak who, we all know, leaked it to the world. The week's events rendered the usually phlegmatic White House press corps positively choleric. And it worked up a sweat with White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

REPORTER: Do you stand by your remarks from that podium or not?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: And again David, I'm well aware, like you, of what was previously said. And I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is when the investigation-- [OVERTALK]

REPORTER: Why [ ? ] when it's appropriate and when it's inappropriate?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: If, if you'll let me finish.

REPORTER: No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke about--that--Joseph Wilson's wife. So don't you owe the American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved or was he not, 'cause--

BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to a CNN tally, reporters asked about Rove 61 times during two press briefings on Monday alone. McClellan stonewalled. But the Republican National Committee rode in with a list of talking points, mostly attacking the credibility of Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband who had charged the White House with inflating the case for war in Iraq. RNC Chief Ken Melman noted that Rove was simply, "discouraging a reporter from writing a false story based on a false premise," and accused the Democrats of, "blatant partisan political attacks." But at Melman's thrust, the President tarried when questioned Wednesday after a Cabinet meeting, with Rove sitting just a few feet away.

REPORTER: Can I ask you if you have spoken with your Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove about the Valerie Plame matter? And do you think he acted improperly in talking about it with reporters?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Mark, I have instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation. I also--will not prejudge the investigation, based on media reports.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Wednesday the President took cover. But his press secretary had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: We've been around and around on this for a couple of days now. I don't have anything to add to what I've said the previous two days.

REPORTER: [ ? ] that's a different question, and it's not round and round and--

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, you heard from the President earlier. [OVERTALK]

REPORTER: It's got nothing to do with the investigation, Scott, and you know it.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: You heard from the President earlier today, and the President said he's not--

REPORTER: It's [ ? ] to my question. It has noting to do with the investigation. Is it appropriate for a senior official to speak about a covert agent in any way, shape or form, without first finding out whether that person is working as a [ ? ]

SCOTT McCLELLAN: First of all, you're wrong. This was all relating to questions about an ongoing investigation, and I've been through this--

REPORTER: If I wanted to ask you about an ongoing investigation, I would ask you about the statute, and I'm not doing that.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I think we've exhausted the discussion on this the last couple of days.

REPORTER: You haven't even scratched the surface. You haven't started--

BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the surface wasn't scratched, McClellan conceded that he was.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: It may not look like it but there's a little flesh that's been taken out of me the last few days. [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not quite gallows laughter because, while it may be McClellan's flesh, it's Rove's blood in the water.

BOB GARFIELD: The Valerie Plame investigation may already have another victim, journalism itself. Amid the special prosecutor's investigation, American newspapers have felt a chill. Among them, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Even before the jailing of Judith Miller in Time Magazine's decision to cooperate with the grand jury, Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton wrote a column containing the startling revelation that his newspaper is not disclosing certain explosive leaked material, for fear of the legal consequences. This has been the subject of some handwringing in the New York Times and elsewhere and some frayed nerves. Clifton joins me now from Cleveland. Doug, welcome to the show.

DOUG CLIFTON: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: Doug, tell us first what you told your readers in that June 30th column.

DOUG CLIFTON: The thrust of it was that the Judith Miller/Matthew Cooper affair was a travesty and that a chilling effect on the pursuit of news would follow, almost certainly, and that, in fact, at my organization we've looked hard at the publication of two stories that relied on the material that was provided under circumstances that could be enormously troublesome. And I shared with the readers something that we typically don't share, internal news decisions about running or not running with stories.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, you kind of buried the lead in your column. You were discussing the Miller and Cooper issue and Valerie Plame, and then only in the last couple of paragraphs did you actually disclose that you were withholding this material.

DOUG CLIFTON: Well, you know, let me just stop you there for a second, please. The word "withholding" first appeared in the New York Times in their headline. And I take issue with the use of the word. What happened is we, in the news division of the Plain Dealer, exercised editorial judgment, which is different than withholding. When Judith Miller was told by someone that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative married to Joseph Wilson, she elected not to write a story. Was she withholding, or was she exercising judgment? That's what, I think, is getting lost in much of the discussion of my revelation about the editorial judgment on these two stories.

BOB GARFIELD: Do you think that this is a concrete example of the chilling effect at work, that your editorial judgment was based on the legal ramifications of quoting these illegally leaked sources in your paper?

DOUG CLIFTON: Yes, indeed. And that's why I chose to share that with my readers, to illustrate that this isn't an abstraction; this is the real issue, that it can have a chilling effect. Not always, because the facts in every case are different. In this case, yeah I think it had a chilling effect.

BOB GARFIELD: Do you think, for example, one year ago, given the same situation, that you would have made the same editorial judgment that you've made in this case?

DOUG CLIFTON: If it were more like two years ago, I don't think so. Although I think that the temperature began to change post-9/11. There was a palpable change in government's reaction to openness, and I think pursuit of perceived violations of the law or secrecy, and the like.

BOB GARFIELD: Is there anything that could happen that would actually make you change your mind and do some reporting based on these documents, come what may?

DOUG CLIFTON: Well, let me--let me correct you there. We've done a good deal of reporting on one set of the documents because we used the documents as a kind of a roadmap and were able to by conventional means, without hanging information exclusively on the documents, report components of the story. It's only when the one and only source of the information is the document that you come face to face with the giant issue.

BOB GARFIELD: Now you said in your column that the reporters would be willing to go to jail, and that you would be willing to go to jail, but "the newspaper isn't willing to go to jail."

DOUG CLIFTON: Well, yeah I was speaking rhetorically there.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, does this mean before you made your editorial decision that you ran this up the flagpole with your publisher and at Newhouse Newspapers? Did they weigh in on this decision at all?

DOUG CLIFTON: Not at all, nor did the publisher. I kept the publisher apprised that we were exploring these things and kept them apprised of the potential ramifications. But I never had a straight on conversation about should we or shouldn't we. That decision was made by me and by my managing editor Tom O'Hara. But let me emphasize, I don't think that this is all so extraordinary. [LAUGHS] I mean, decisions of this species are made all the time in newspapers,

BOB GARFIELD: Well yeah, Doug I think the issue isn't whether decisions like this are made all the time, the issue is whether the Plain Dealer is exercising excess caution in this case because of Judith Miller's predicament right now.

DOUG CLIFTON: And the answer to that is difficult for outsiders to make because outsiders don't have all of the facts.

BOB GARFIELD: Well let me, as an outsider, without benefit of all of the facts ask you this question: the Plain leak triggered an investigation mainly because it was such a blatant breach of an intelligence secret, a CIA officer's identity.


BOB GARFIELD: Most leaks may cause administrative reactions but not certainly full-scale criminal investigations, no grand juries, no subpoenas of reporters, and therefore, no criminal contempt exposure of the sort that landed Judy Miller behind bars.


BOB GARFIELD: So if there is a really rather remote chance of a reporter winding up in jail, isn't the Plain Dealer being too cautious, at the expense of its public service mission?

DOUG CLIFTON: No, because you're presuming a remote chance. I mean, it amazes me that you can sit there and say what you just said. You haven't a clue as [LAUGHS] to what the facts are. And [LAUGHS] you're saying if it was a remote chance. Au contraire. I presume that there was a much better than remote chance, which is what drove the decision.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, I was really just asking a question, not making an assertion. I know it sounded aggressive.

DOUG CLIFTON: Listen, I--you know, I've got a very thick skin. I've been in this business 35 years. I was the executive editor of the Miami Herald before I came here. So it galls me that a bunch of armchair people who haven't a clue are suggesting that I just rolled over. That pisses me off mightily.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, point taken. But it was also the absolutely logical consequence of you writing those two paragraphs at the end of your column.

DOUG CLIFTON: That's right.

BOB GARFIELD: Oh by the way, we're not reporting this for precisely this reason. That's bound to raise questions.

DOUG CLIFTON: I thought, you know, people will understand the gravity of this issue, and this will be a good thing to do. I mean, the dumbest thing that I ever did was to put those two paragraphs in there.

BOB GARFIELD: Now I will make an assertion. You are so wrong about that! You're assuming that people are questioning your editorial chops or calling you a coward, and nobody's doing that.

DOUG CLIFTON: No [LAUGHS], what do you mean nobody's doing it? I've gotten 200 letters from all across the country saying precisely that--coward. That's the word that's being used, coward!

BOB GARFIELD: By journalists?

DOUG CLIFTON: Yeah, journalists too. Lawyers from--hell and gone. Editors, who you'd think would know better, are shooting from the hip as to was this the right or wrong thing to do.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, well Doug best of luck.

DOUG CLIFTON: Well, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Doug Clifton is the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.