Coddling the Friendly

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

For a reporter, no one is more crucial than a trusted source, the person who, often under the cover of anonymity, reveals an indispensable fact that leads to an important news story.

The trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief-of-staff, and the case of CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, whose relationship with a banking executive is being questioned, is shining a harsh light on the sometimes cozy relationship between reporters and their sources.

Reporters who cover politicians and corporate executives have to cultivate confidential sources in order to cover their beats properly, but some of those relationships are too clubby, too self-serving and, ultimately, harmful to the notion of a free and open press.

As Tim Rutten wrote in the L.A. Times, the Libby trial's "unintended seminar in contemporary journalism" shows that Cheney and his staff believe that truth is malleable, and that they knew that some members of the Washington press corps would "cynically accommodate that belief for the sake of their careers."

"It's a sick little arrangement," Rutten said, "in which the parties clearly have one thing in common: a profound indifference to both the common good and to their obligation to act in its service."

In The New York Times, David Sanger wrote that some Bush administration officials, speaking confidentially, of course, "say the administration's credibility has been deeply damaged" by the Iraq mess.

But so has the credibility of reporters, some of whom willingly went along with the administration's distortions.

The obvious example is Judy Miller, the former New York Times reporter whose reporting on WMD's left her open to charges that she did not see through the misinformation campaign by White House officials and Iraqi exiles who hoped the U.S. would topple Saddam Hussein.

Last week, Miller testified in the Libby case, something she had tried to avoid last year, which cost her 85 days in jail for contempt. On the stand, she did not come across well, failing to remember one crucial meeting and acting defensive and confused under cross-examination.

Eric Boehlert, the author of Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush, said on the phone this afternoon that Miller was "essentially a policy advocate" for the White House before the Iraq invasion. Her reporting helped the administration "advance its argument for war," Boehlert said.

What's worse, high-profile journalists like The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Matt Cooper of Time magazine and NBC's Tim Russert "ran away" from the Iraq story.

"It was sort of Watergate in reverse," Boehlert said. "Instead of trying to uncover the truth, a lot of them were trying to bury it... The unfortunate consequence is that people continue to have serious doubts about how the press behaves."

Still, many journalists did speak up loudly against the war, but much of that noise got buried in the avalanche of misguided patriotism that followed 9/11. Bush exploited that to the hilt.

John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy and author of The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq," said today the war was possible only "because most of the mainstream media became like a propaganda arm of the Bush administration" and failed to point out that "the best available evidence indicated no relationship between Saddam and 9/11, no relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda, and no active WMD program in Iraq."

In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank wrote that the Libby trial has "pulled back the curtain on the White House's PR techniques and confirmed some of the darkest suspicions of the reporters upon whom they are used."

Milbank said one witness, Cathie Martin, who used to work for Cheney, "walked the jurors through how the White House coddles friendly writers and freezes out others."

And no one wants to be out in the cold.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan