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Libby Trial Brings Journalism Practices Under Scrutiny

February 7, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been a most unusual parade of reporters to take the stand. Today, as we’ve heard, came “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert. Last week, Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, testified about three conversations she had with Lewis Libby in which Valerie Plame was discussed.

Former Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper also testified last week about conversations he had with both Libby and top White House aide, Karl Rove. Other journalists are expected to be called by the defense in the days ahead, notably, Robert Novak, whose column in July of 2003 was the first to name Valerie Plame as a CIA operative.

The Libby trial, in fact, has opened a window into some aspects of how journalism is practiced in Washington today. And two media watchers are here to tell us what they see.

Alicia Shepard is a journalism professor at American University and author of the book “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.” Tim Rutten is a media columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

Tim, why don’t you start with an overview? What do you see?

TIM RUTTEN, Los Angeles Times: I think we see the picture of a certain strata of the Washington press corps, that has a relationship with the administration at its highest levels, based on access and mutual convenience. It’s not a pretty picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not a pretty picture.

Alicia?

ALICIA SHEPARD, American University: I think we see a really interesting way that Washington journalism works. So we see how journalists take notes; we see how they cozy up to sources; we see how their memories aren’t so good. We see a misunderstanding or not a common understanding of the words “on background,” “deep background,” “off the record.” We saw that with the Matt Cooper…

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s an example there?

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, when Matt Cooper testified, he told the jury at one point that he had used the words “off the record” with Scooter Libby and then, another time, used the word “on background,” and that he had different meanings for them. “Off the record” meant that you couldn’t use it at all, and yet he used it.

And I think it just shows that these terms are somewhat meaningless, unless you and the source have that same understanding, and yet they’re used widely in Washington journalism.

The larger story

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim, one of the issues is this question of, who talks to whom and to what end? And some people see this as a question of whether the press -- and I think you just alluded to this -- is whether the press and the people in the government are too cozy. Spin that out for us a bit. What do you see? How do you see it playing out in the Libby case?

TIM RUTTEN: Well, I think it plays out in a very interesting way, because if you stand back from what occurred during those months, you have the picture of a number of high-level Washington correspondents from very fine news organizations who were essentially missing the story in the interest of preserving their access.

I don't think that, you know, one person in 50,000 in this country really cared what the identity of Ambassador Wilson's wife might or might not have been.

I do think that a large number of people might have been interested in the story about how the White House, and most especially the office of the vice president, had set out in a systematic way to discredit a prominent critic of the administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq.

That's a real story, but that wasn't the story that was being told, because these reporters were willing parts of that effort to discredit Ambassador Wilson.

Using anonymous sources

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Alicia, on the other hand, reporters have to get information.

ALICIA SHEPARD: They do. And they have to make a connection, and they have to, quote, unquote, "cozy up" with their sources, because high-level administration sources do not want to talk on the record. And that makes it very hard to be a journalist in Washington, especially with the Bush administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talked about on and off the record, which raises the question of anonymity.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of the anonymous sources has been talked a lot about here.

ALICIA SHEPARD: And that may be one of the biggest casualties of this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you say "casualty?"

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, the actual protecting of an anonymous source looks like Matt Cooper and Judy Miller were willing to not -- well, to not reveal their source. And in this case, it was a source that was trying to smear Joe Wilson.

And so, you know, yes, journalists have to protect good and bad sources, but there's something kind of screwy about this instance of trying to protect somebody who's trying to hurt someone.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the other hand, you've written about Watergate, and the most famous anonymous source is Deep Throat.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's an example where people look at that as a good case of using anonymity.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, certainly. And there are very good anonymous sources. I mean, there are plenty of examples of where journalists use good sources. But in this case, again, the White House was giving information to reporters, and reporters were protecting the sources, and the White House's goal was to hurt somebody who was criticizing the White House.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim, how do you see the anonymous source playing out in the Libby trial?

TIM RUTTEN: Well, I think we've been reminded very forcefully that there's a critical difference between a source who wishes to remain anonymous, because they may suffer some retribution for doing the right thing, and a source who wishes to remain anonymous simply to conceal their identity. And certainly that was the situation with Scooter Libby.

To keep or toss the notes?

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim, another question that's come up is just how journalists take notes, when they do, when they don't, who owns those notes, all kinds of sort of interesting -- how does it work when you're talking to sources?

TIM RUTTEN: Well, you know, obviously, everybody does these things differently. I can tell you, as somebody who's done investigative work. And it's been my habit throughout my career, which is longer than I care to remember, that I don't keep my notes after a story is done. I destroy them immediately, precisely to avoid situations like this. And, frankly, these notes are worthless as evidence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Worthless as evidence?

TIM RUTTEN: They are.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it led you to actually destroy your notes?

TIM RUTTEN: Absolutely. Every time I finish a piece, I take the notebook, and I rip it to shreds. I have no files, and I have no notes.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Wow. I would never do that, and I think that you keep your notes to protect yourself. In this case, obviously, it hurt both of them.

TIM RUTTEN: I don't think it protects you at all. In fact, it opens you to exactly this kind of parsing over things that appear to mean what they do not mean.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, I'd like to also add that any profession, once they're on the witness stand, whether you're an emergency room doctor or a high school teacher, when you are asked questions the way that Matt Cooper and Judy Miller and Tim Russert were today, it's going to make the profession look bad.

JEFFREY BROWN: It just looks bad watching it get done, no matter what it is.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Exactly. And, you know, overall nothing has proven -- that any journalist have done has proven to be criminal.

Lessons learned

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you both something. How much of this -- Tim, you started off by saying that this was a look at a certain sector of journalism, but how much is that true? I mean, how much is this journalism at a very high level of Washington politics, and how much of this goes on at any state capitol or any city hall?

TIM RUTTEN: Well, some of it goes on, but the stakes are much lower. And part of what occurred here was an example of what happens when people think they're playing for very high, career-enhancing stakes. And, again, as I said, it's not, in this case, a pretty picture.

We've seen that -- it's also very important to make the point that Washington and the Washington press corps are filled with diligent reporters and editors pursuing their craft with great integrity. We see in the case of the New York Times, for example, that, while the vice president's office felt that Judy Miller was a sympathetic ear into which they could speak, they most emphatically felt that Nick Kristof, the columnist, was not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Quick response?

ALICIA SHEPARD: I would sort of say another side that we are seeing is from the White House, that the White House likes to dump information on Friday to reporters so that it will get in Saturday's paper and not get paid attention.

We saw with Ari Fleischer that sometimes the White House press person does not always have good information. We saw that the White House is selective about who they give information to and that they occasionally coddle certain reporters and freeze out others.

And so that just provides the rest of the world another window, not just from the journalist's point of view, but how the White House attempts to manipulate the press.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And as we heard from Ray and Carol, the defense will start tomorrow, and the window will -- we'll see where it goes.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Get wider.

JEFFREY BROWN: Get wider. Alicia Shepard and Tim Rutten, thanks very much.