The Troubles We’ve Seen

Well Doc Searls has called me on being pessimistic and Ed Cone has said I’m cynical and the New York Times says Bob Novak was Karl Rove’s source and Mickey Kaus wonders if Novak’s source was New York Times reporter Judith Miller. And Matt Cooper, well, he’s telling all and some of that involves Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Lewis Libby.
Deep breath. Can you say “circle jerk”?
So, as I always do when I worry that my disgust – no, that’s not too strong a word — for politicians’ shenanigans and the reporters who let them get away with it reaches a new high, I have turned to Jon Stewart, a man who gets away with pointed social commentary by repeatedly – and inaccurately – insisting that he is not serious.
Stewart has not let me down. Wednesday, in doing his take on the White House Press Corps’ merciless hounding of Bush Spokesman Scott McClelland, Stewart noted that the usual group had been “replaced by real reporters.” As if.
He then went on to have this exchange on Thursday with Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff.

“Aren’t we already in somewhat of a bad shape,” Stewart asked “if the principle reporters are standing on – in terms of confidentiality – is not a powerless person whistle-blowing to blow the cover on a thing but rather protecting people who are going on double secret probation to basically just go ‘That guy’s wife made him go.’ That, to me, seems like, ‘Wow, We’re already in a difficult position.’
“I understand the reporters’ privilege or whatever it is, to stand on principle. But has the press corps been reduced to the point where now all they have to stand on is ‘I don’t want to loose my access to the White House completely even if all they’re spreading is gossip and innuendo?’
“I can answer that question,” Isikoff dead-panned. “I’d like to do it off the record.”

Mike Isikoff, for those of you with short memories, wrote some of the initial stories about Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs. He played a key role in reporting the sex scandal over Monica Lewinsky. I’m betting that cut into his White House access. For a little while.
Good reporting always cuts into your access ’cause it’s the only control tool that people have when faced with news they don’t like or don’t want to discuss. But it usually doesn’t cut into your stories. Not if you’re working.
The problem with the Washington press corps isn’t that they’re stupid or lazy, it is, as Stewart hinted in his comment about “real reporters,” that they’re captive to a certain type of story done a particular way. It’s group think. And group think places a very high premium on access and influence and insider knowledge and status points and being liked and everyone getting the same information at the same time so no one looks bad to the boss. It does not place a high premium on independent thought, hard-nosed often adversarial reporting and interviewing or being respected for a body of work built up over time.
Time’s Joe Klein knows this – he could speak volumes just on his on-and-off again good relations with the family Clinton. But no one knows them – or reports on them – better. Sy Hersh knows it, too. The White House has been calling him a liar for the past five years. But then his stories keep coming true.
See, at bottom, that’s really the problem here. The constant, unending lying that has been going on for six years. The White House lied about the war. It lied to the national press corps, who sat credulous and happily wrote it all down. It lied to the National Guard and military recruits who were told their tours in Iraq would be months, not years. It lied to the United Nations. It lied to the French and the Spanish and the English. It lied and it is only now – now that reporters, one of whom happily recorded those lies, are threatened with jail time – that we are getting a real sense of just how far this White House would, could and did go.
And yeah, I’m cynical about that. You should be, too.
But, in the end, I think, the Affair Rove is, I suspect, the last gasp of a system that’s been in need of some fresh air for a long time. Machinations like the ones Rove has pulled off work well only in a closed system and – as Saturday’s New York Times story demonstrates as talks about how the CIA memo did or didn’t make the rounds in the White House – national political reporting has become a closed system. It is, as I said last week, almost impossible to tell the reporters from their sources. In this environment, news – unless it concerns Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, who really did surprise everyone — is orchestrated. Leaks are easily traced to their source. Everyone who is anyone “knows” who said what to whom.
That’s changing. Slowly. But it’s changing. And in the end competition – get the story, get it first, get it right – is going to change the dynamics. Some of that is because of what’s happening here on the web. Because when a reporter’s main interest is in out-doing the next guy in print – not at the White House Christmas Party – and there are more places for readers to go to find the answers they want, we will see big changes. They’re already starting.