July 15, 2004,
If the national media were teaching college journalism students their theory of political coverage this year, the theory's name would be Another Problem for Bush. It puts news in a very partisan box. If a fact, a quote, or an allegation casts the president in a negative light, then it is news, pure and simple. If incoming news developments contradict that theory even if previous massively hyped anti-Bush firestorms start to fizzle they shall be ignored. Reporters must never disassemble a previously assembled Problem for Bush.
On Friday evening and into the new week, President Bush was (as always) "clearly on the defensive" against the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on prewar intelligence assessments. But on Saturday morning, Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt actually showed signs of having read the committee report (do TV news people read reports, or just reports on reports?). She found that Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former ambassador to Gabon who declared there was no Iraqi attempt to acquire uranium in Niger, "was specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly."
Journalists who cared about reporting the truth and the truth-telling problems of the author of The Politics of Truth would recognize the error of their previous reporting and interviewing and celebrating of Wilson, which broke out in sweaty ardor a year ago. But the record of press coverage in the last few days shows that truth is not the highest national media value. Bashing Bush is.
Let's review how fervently certain national media outlets have promoted Joe Wilson's conspiratorial storyline about Plamegate, and how they have failed to follow up in the last few days.
NBC was the most aggressive Wilson promoter on TV, beginning with a Meet the Press appearance on July 6, 2003 hyping Wilson's original breakout in a New York Times op-ed. On July 22, Katie Couric promoted a Today interview: "Still to come this morning on Today, a man who says he's become the target of a White House smear campaign for blowing the whistle on the president's State of the Union address." Wilson appeared on Meet the Press again on October 5.
NBC also gave the warmest reception for Wilson's book, with three days of bookings on Saturday Today, Meet the Press, and Monday's Today on May 1, 2, and 3. Couric promoted Wilson again on May 3: "Another book critical of the Bush administration hits stores today, this one by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. He says he told the truth about the evidence against Iraq, and his wife paid the price."
So now that Wilson has been caught in a lie, how much Wilson coverage is there on NBC? None, as of this writing. That's too bad, since Wilson misled Tim Russert on October 5:
RUSSERT: Was there a suggestion that this was cronyism, that it was your wife who had arranged the mission?
ABC promoted Wilson and his conspiracy theories on the September 29 Good Morning America and the September 30 Nightline. Ted Koppel honed right in on Mrs. Wilson's role in the affair. His fourth question was the important one: "Did your wife propose to her colleagues at the CIA that they call her husband, you?" Wilson replied: "No." That's not what the committee report says. Schmidt wrote: "The report states that a CIA official told the Senate committee that Plame 'offered up' Wilson's name for the Niger trip, then on Feb. 12, 2002, sent a memo to a deputy chief in the CIA's Directorate of Operations." But ABC has offered no coverage of Joe Wilson's crumbling story in the last few days.
CBS promoted Wilson's theories in an October 5 Face the Nation interview, in which Bob Schieffer began by underlining how much danger Plame must face thanks to the Robert Novak column reporting her CIA employment. He never found the opportunity to ask if Plame presented Wilson to her CIA colleagues, perhaps because he was too busy underlining the Wilson thesis that the White House was in a war against courageous CIA elements to prevent the facts from coming out. CBS has also ignored any story on Wilson in the last few days.
Perhaps the most vigorous print promoter of Wilson was Time magazine, who put Wilson's mug on the cover in their October 13, 2003, edition, confident enough to assert in its headline that someone in the administration was "Leaking with a vengeance....a classic tale of whispers, retribution, and rivalries." The Time article suggested: "The double-barreled leak had two targets. One was to tag Wilson as a tired, second-rate diplomat who couldn't get a job without his wife's help. The leakers also wanted to drop the hint that the CIA had purposefully chosen someone it believed would come back with a skeptical finding." Now that the Senate committee report said Wilson got the job with his wife's help, where was Time? They haven't mentioned Joe Wilson since the July 5 issue, when Clinton-loving columnist Joe Klein attacked Cheney and Rumsfeld for "blustery testosteronics" against war critics like Wilson.
Time did squeeze in a Massimo Calabresi article this week summarizing the Senate report, "a blistering critique of the CIA for exaggerating the threat of Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons." But it had no space for Wilson. It concluded that in Washington, "talk is easy. Reform is hard." There's a major-media corollary to that. Attacking is easy. Self-correction is hard, especially when it's not Another Problem for Bush.
Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.