The mainstream media seem to have risen to new heights of hysteria and new lows of misinformation in the story regarding Lewis Libby’s grand jury testimony. (John has commented on the media’s errors of omission and commission on this story here and here.) The stories are of course based on the testimony disclosed in Patrick Fizgerald’s discovery brief (PDF) this past Wednesday. The New York Sun’s Joshua Gerstein was first off the mark with a good online version of the story on Thursday.
By Friday, however, the media herd was thundering. Among the worst stories was surely Kenneth Bazinet’s in the New York Daily News: “Libby sez Prez OKd leak.” Here is Bazinet’s lead:
President Bush vowed to fire anyone caught blabbing classified information to the media, but he himself was the leaker-in-chief, a former top White House aide testified.
It seems to me that it would be difficult to pack a more misleading formulation of Fitzgerald’s brief into fourteen words than Bazinet does in that lead. The great cloud of unknowing that descends in Bazinet’s lead permeates the remainder of Bazinet’s story. So I was surprised when we received an email message from Daily News publicist Beth Sebold offering interviews with Bazinet to discuss his story, as though it represents a great journalistic feat. Not only did Bazinet’s story lag Gerstein’s story by a day, it lacked Gerstein’s more careful modulation of detail and tone. I took Sebold up on her offer to interview Bazinet, emailing her that I thought Bazinet’s story was pitiful. She responded that she and Bazinet had laughed over my message and that he would make himself available if I gave him a call. We spoke for twenty minutes or so yesterday.
When I caught up with him, Bazinet was fresh from the daily White House briefing by Scott McClellan and working on his follow-up story for today’s paper. He told me that that McClellan was a nice guy, but that the briefing had been consumed with reporters’ questions that overwhelmed the message McClellan had sought to convey regarding the economy (see Bazinet’s story today). He expressed pity for McClellan’s inability to defend defective administration policy. He told me that you can’t fix policy with a few public relations people, that you can’t run the government like a political campaign.
Bazinet crowed that his “leaker-in-chief” tag seemed to be sticking in subsequent coverage of the story. The New York Times reports the story, Bazinet explained, but the Daily News makes it comprehensible for the average reader by providing the story in the spoken voice. In the third paragraph of his story, Bazinet continues:
The disclosure by Libby – who resigned as Cheney’s chief of staff last year after being indicted on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges in the CIA leak probe – puts Bush at odds with his repeated threats to fire the person or persons responsible for the leaks.
What leaks might those be? Bazinet’s story continues (paragraphs four through seven):
Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury probe into who leaked Plame’s identity uncovered the Bush-authorized leak of parts of the National Intelligence Estimate – a secret and still-uncorroborated document detailing Saddam’s alleged terror arsenal.
Libby did not say that Bush authorized him to leak the identity of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. But Libby testified he did leak parts of the National Intelligence Estimate to Times reporter Judith Miller after “getting approval from the President through the vice president to discuss material that would be classified.”
The Iraq invasion had occurred four months earlier, but when Bush allegedly authorized the leak to Miller to press administration claims that there were stockpiles of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in Iraq, it was already becoming apparent that Saddam didn’t have any such arsenal. Iraq’s weapons program was a principal reason Bush used in making his case for the Iraq war.
The online version of Bazinet’s story concludes with a quote from President Bush that ran as a graphic accompanying Bazinet’s story:
President Bush has made it clear that he does not like leakers
“I don’t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I’d like to know it, and we’ll take appropriate action.”
Chicago, Sept. 30, 2003
I asked Bazinet about his lead — whether President Bush hadn’t made the promise to fire anyone who leaked Valerie Plame’s name or, later, anyone who violated the law in leaking Valerie Plame’s name. Looking around quickly online, I had found stories here and here, for example, quoting Bush to this effect in connection with the leak of Plame’s name.
Bazinet said Bush had made such remarks outside the Plame context, such as in connection with Harvey Pitt. I asked him if he had a better quote than the one at the bottom of the online version of the story to make his point. He said he had eight quotes. I asked again if any were better than the one at the bottom of his story. He said I was being semantic.
I noted that the Libby “leak” to Judith Miller of relevant conclusions from the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate had taken place on July 8, while the relevant portions of the NIE had been declassified and released to the public on July 18. I asked Bazinet why that information wasn’t in his story. He referred to considerations of space, then stated that he had written that these events occurred in July. I said his lead was misleading, that his whole story was predicated on conflating Bush’s comments about Plame with the declassification and dissemination of the contents of the NIE.
I asked Bazinet what he meant by referring to the 2002 NIE as “a secret and still-uncorroborated document…” He said it was “secret” in that it had not been entirely declassified; only portions have been declassified. I asked what he meant by referring to the NIE as “still-uncorroborated.” He responded: “Have you found the WMD’s, Scott?” He said that the NIE was “bogus.” Why had he referred to it as “secret” when the relevant portions had in fact been declassified? “I covered the ground.” He also referred to “selective declassification.”
I asked Bazinet if he had read Fitzgerald’s brief; he said he had. I asked why Bazinet hadn’t noted that, according to Fitzgerald, Libby had testified that the “key judgments of the NIE” that Libby had disclosed to Miller on July 8 “had been declassified” (page 24 of Fitzgerald’s brief). Bazinet responded that that was what Libby had said.
Bazinet’s story was based on Libby’s testimony; simply dismissing the point as Libby’s makes no sense. Why wasn’t that part of Libby’s testimony mentioned in Bazinet’s story? Bazinet referred to his observation toward the end of the story that “a source indicated Bush might argue that he had declasssified the material before Libby leaked it.” I infer, however, that any more clarity on this particular point would have belied Bazinet’s desire to work that “leaker-in-chief” stuff into the lead. (With apologies to J.P. Donleavy for my heading.)