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Libby Trial Brings Journalism Practices Under Scrutiny

The perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby this week continued to examine his involvement in the leak of a former CIA operative's name to the press. The case has called into question the use of unnamed sources and other journalistic practices in Washington.

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    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.


    Not a pretty picture.


  • 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…


    What's an example there?


    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.