< Pants on Fire

Transcript

Friday, March 09, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield. This week former Vice-Presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice––fresh meat for hungry media. Here's MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
KEITH OLBERMANN:
The Libby lies, where they do insulate the Vice-President only. And how long will that protection last?
[BABBLE OF VOICES]
BOB GARFIELD:
For many on the left, it was a verdict on the war in Iraq, and for many on the right, well, The National Review said the trial, quote, "proved only one thing. A White House aide became the target of a politicized prosecution set in motion by bureaucratic infighting and political cowardice."

I'm joined now by two of the reporters we've spoken with on the long road to this verdict – first, Josh Gerstein, who covered Libby's trial for The New York Sun. He says that in the wake of the trial, the moral stances of the media on both ends of the political spectrum were, quote, "drenched in hypocrisy."
JOSH GERSTEIN:
Well, I just see a lot of reversals on both sides. You have the conservative writers and bloggers saying it's a lie about a non-crime, which is true in a sense, expect that they made exactly the opposite argument back in the President Clinton impeachment days. They thought it was terrible for the president to be lying under oath, regardless of how trivial the underlying matter was.

And then on the liberal side, there was nary a mention when the whole storyline that they had about this being a conspiracy across the government to expose a CIA officer – that kind of fell apart, and it turned out that Richard Armitage, the State Department official who wasn't a big fan of the war set this in motion. When that all fell apart, you didn't hear much from the left at all. They just sort of carried on and said, let's string up Scooter Libby.
BOB GARFIELD:
Do you think the right wing's reaction to this whole case had anything to do with the fact that David Corn, writing in the liberal standard-bearer, The Nation, was the first to spill ink on the fact that a crime may have been committed in the initial leak?
JOSH GERSTEIN:
I think there's an element of that. When Joe Wilson started talking about this, he did go to The Nation. He also went to, I believe, The New Republic, and The New York Times. So there's no question that the right viewed Ambassador Wilson as an ideologue, and there's also no question that some of the information that some of those press outlets passed on at the beginning, including The New York Times, wasn't accurate. And so they actually played a role in inflaming the story, because it was those inaccuracies that led people in the Vice President's office to have such an angry reaction.
BOB GARFIELD:
And what were those inaccuracies?
JOSH GERSTEIN:
Well, I believe the first New York Times column on this subject said that Mr. Wilson had gone to Africa to investigate some forged documents relating to yellowcake uranium. It turned out he had never done that. A lot of the other reports said it was basically certain that Vice President Cheney's office ordered this trip and that they got a report on it. In fact, it wasn't the case that Cheney's office ordered the trip.

So some of those mistakes in the early days, as I say, led to the sort of overly angry reaction from the Vice President's office and put, essentially, Mr. Libby in the fix he found himself in last week.
BOB GARFIELD:
The verdict in this case is that Scooter Libby lied. It ultimately had nothing to do whether Valerie Plame was a covert agent or whether she wasn't or any of the particulars about whether a crime was committed in leaking her name to begin with. And yet, at least some places on the political right, that still lingered as a talking point.
JOSH GERSTEIN:
I heard Robert Novak, the journalist who actually ended up outing Valerie Plame, pushing it just the other day as the verdict was coming back. You know, there's a slender sliver of truth to it. It does seem like in the end it was going to be really hard for Pat Fitzgerald to prosecute or to prove that a crime was committed in the leak.

I do think the main talking point that's been put forward by some on the right, that there's no way she could have been covert and therefore she could never have been covered by these laws that protect people who are working for the CIA, is somewhat off the mark. She had been working, as I understand it, overseas in the five years before this leak took place, and that made her covered under the law. So I don't quite understand the talking point, although I do see that many conservatives wish that this investigation had been shut down earlier. And that would be one way that it could have happened.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, we've spoken of reaction from the left and we've spoken of reaction from the right. But lo and behold, into the fray marches Time magazine, with a cover story this week depicting a cloud [LAUGHS] literally over the Vice President and the headline, "The Verdict On Cheney." What are we to make of a quintessentially mainstream publication staking out such a kind of judgmental position?
JOSH GERSTEIN:
I think you have to look at the poll numbers, really. Reporters look at those numbers, magazine editors look at those numbers. And everybody knows that Dick Cheney's approval ratings are basically in the toilet, for lack of a better term.

And this has become really a proxy case for the war. People who are angry about the war generally wanted to see Mr. Libby convicted. Those who believe that the war is still a correct undertaking made up most of those who were backing Mr. Libby and hoped that he would be acquitted. And I think in the fight over the pardon and other fights related to this that are going to continue to go on over the next few months, we're going to see those battle lines remain drawn.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay. Josh, thank you very much for joining us.
JOSH GERSTEIN:
My pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:
Josh Gerstein covered the Libby trial for The New York Sun. David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for The Nation magazine. He was among the very first to raise the specter of a crime in the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA officer, and he's been covering this story ever since. David, welcome back.
DAVID CORN:
Happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD:
It seems to me like [LAUGHS] it's the O.J. case all over again. Some people heard a verdict of guilty and justice at last. Some people heard a verdict of guilty and it's a miscarriage of justice. Certainly that was the response from the political far right. Is that my imagination?
DAVID CORN:
No, it's not your imagination. The verdict was guilty, and it was clear that the group of conservative partisans that I call the "Libby Lobby" were going to blast this verdict almost either way. They had already decided that the case itself was a miscarriage of justice. They've made Scooter Libby a victim – of what? The issue is lying under oath, which should not be an ideological issue.
BOB GARFIELD:
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is, you know, as much of an institution of the far right as anything else in mainstream journalism, has said that the press have themselves evinced far [LAUGHS] too much enthusiasm about the verdict; that they were giddy at the idea of Scooter Libby having been convicted.
DAVID CORN:
I don't know what they're smoking at the offices of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.
[BOB LAUGHS]
Unlike anybody who writes for that page, I was at the courthouse for two straight months with the reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post and two dozen, three dozen other reporters. When the verdict came down on Tuesday, the only thing people were giddy about in the press room was getting the story out and getting back to their lives. There was no celebration.

To suggest that there is a conspiracy of giddiness among mainstream reporters, it's what the defense actually tried to do during the trial. They tried to discredit Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press, who often is criticized by people on the left, like Arianna Huffington, of being too easy on the administration. They tried to suggest that he had a vendetta against Scooter Libby and the administration, and that was coloring his testimony and causing him to give testimony that would put Scooter Libby into legal jeopardy. They made this suggestion and they produced absolutely no evidence to back it up.
BOB GARFIELD:
I just want to play you something, because I think I can locate some giddiness from the mainstream media. Mind you, this isn't The Washington Post, but it is MSNBC, Chris Matthews speaking to presidential candidate John Edwards.
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
What do you make of the fact that a guy who's chief of staff to the Vice President is convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice for actions committed in the line of duty? In other words, he didn't do this off -
JOHN EDWARDS:
Well, it's, it's –

CHRIS MATTHEWS:
He didn't go off and rob a gas station. He's accused of breaking the law while doing his job.
JOHN EDWARDS:
Yeah, I think it says bad things. And we have to let the appeals process play itself out. That's how our judicial system works, and he's entitled to his appeal. But at the end of the day, this is very troublesome.
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
What do you make of the fact that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said there's a cloud hanging over the head of the Vice President right now?
BOB GARFIELD:
Sounds pretty giddy to me.
DAVID CORN:
If the best you can come up with here now in trying to indict the mainstream media is that Chris Matthews [BOB LAUGHS] is enthusiastic [BOB LAUGHS HARDER] in his response to the verdict, you really are picking at crumbs.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm going to give you that one. You've been covering this story for a long time, since the beginning. I wonder if you think in the end the most important aspect of this story is about the sleazy smear tactics at the highest levels of government or about the way journalism is practiced inside the Beltway, where sources and journalists are extremely cozy, brokering these deals for information that can have some deleterious consequences?
DAVID CORN:
Actually, I don't think that's the case. There weren't too many examples of cozying that came out of the trial. Tim Russert, it turns out, you know, got a complaint from Scooter Libby and didn't do much about it at the time. Libby tried to turn that conversation into a cover story and was caught in a lie.

What came out at the trial was that when the Vice President's office wanted to fight back the criticism that they had twisted the pre-war intelligence, they had Scooter Libby leak information, very selective information, to Judy Miller. But she didn't write about it, because she had fallen into disrepute within The New York Times.

So the story here is not that Washington reporters in general are too cozy with administration officials. It's really how the administration tries to play the press, and often succeeds, but in this instance failed.
BOB GARFIELD:
David, thank you so much.
DAVID CORN:
It's been my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:
David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for The Nation magazine and coauthor of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War