Thursday, March 25, 2004

Why Brad DeLong is my hero 

This is why:
Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Special Richard Cheney "Opinions About Shape of Earth Differ" Issue)
Paul Krugman said somewhere that if a Bush administration official were to claim that the Earth was flat, the newspaper headlines the next day would read "Opinions About Shape of Earth Differ." Today Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times shows that he was right.

Richard Cheney on Monday came out with a lie--that the NSC Senior Director for Counterterrorism in 2001, Richard Clarke, was "out of the loop" on counterterrorism policy--so big that Condi Rice decides that she simply can't back it up, and contradicts him at her briefing yesterday. After all, whenever the George W. Bush administration has claimed it had its eye on the ball on terrorism before September 11, 2001, it does so by pointing either to the work Clarke was doing in 2001 or to its decision to keep Clarke as point man on counterterrorism at the NSC.

But what is the headline the New York Times runs: "A Dispute: Was an Official 'in the Loop'? It All Depends"--i.e., "Opinions on Shape of Earth Differ." And what is the tone of her article? A simple "she (Rice) said, he (Cheney) said": one-against-one, with no clues as to who is more credible.
A Dispute: Was an Official ’in the Loop’? It All Depends:
It is a strange occurrence in Washington when members of the well-ordered Bush White House publicly disagree with each other, but it happened on Wednesday. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, took exception to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that Richard A. Clarke, the administration's former counterterrorism chief, was "out of the loop."

On the contrary, Ms. Rice said, Mr. Clarke was very much involved in the administration's fight against terrorism. "I would not use the word `out of the loop,' " Ms. Rice told reporters in response to a question about whether she considered it a problem that the administration's counterterrorism chief was not deeply involved "in a lot of what was going on," as Mr. Cheney said on Monday in an interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Ms. Rice painted a distinctly different picture of the involvement of Mr. Clarke, who has prompted furious responses since he asserted in a new book and in testimony on Capitol Hill that President Bush did not heed warnings before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "He was in every meeting that was held on terrorism," Ms. Rice said. "All the deputies' meetings, the principals' meeting that was held and so forth, the early meetings after Sept. 11."

But she acknowledged that Mr. Clarke did not regularly meet with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence. "Perhaps Dick felt that he had, you know, less — he didn't sit with Powell and Rumsfeld and so forth," Ms. Rice said. "It's just not the way we operate. I did sit with Powell and Rumsfeld and Tenet."
If Bumiller doesn't feel that at this stage she has enough information to (at least privately) conclude that Cheney is either senile or a liar, she needs to get a different job in a different profession. And once she has reached that (private) conclusion, her duty is clear. She needs to include more quotes from different people contradicting Cheney--people like Tenet, Powell, Armitage, Hadley, and other senior administration officials who are already on record praising the work done by Clarke and his centrality to the Bush administration's pre-911 counterterrorism effort. She needs to signal her readers that Cheney is all alone on this: completely off the reservation, making claims that are so false that nobody else will touch them.

So I called Bumiller, and asked her why she had made it into a "she said, he said" article rather than into a Cheney-said-something-so-bizarre-that-nobody-else-will-endorse-it article. Her replies seemed, to put it politely, incoherent. The reasons that she didn't stack five contradictory quotes from five different sources against Cheney--and so make him look like the liar or idiot that he is (as Dana Milbank would probably have done)--appear to be that she "doesn't write opinion," that "the news was Rice contradicting what Cheney had said to Rush Limbaugh," and that she "only had 300 words." My assertion that whether Clarke was out-of-the-loop or was the loop itself is a matter of fact, and that a reporter has a duty to ascertain and to report to her readers such matters of fact, did not meet with a response.

Now, of course, the important thing is that Bumiller is far from being alone: White House journalists go native, lose all sense of context, and pull their punches on administrations regularly, and on this administration much more than most. I at least have known about this problem since 1982, when William Greider published his book The Education of David Stockman and made it crystal clear just how much he had pulled his punches while he was on the daily White House covering beat. It's a structural problem, it's a serious problem, and it makes a substantial part of the morning print news useless.
There you go.

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