For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.
A group of well-connected Washington journalists played crucial roles in the case that led to the indictment of Lewis Libby, the Vice President's top aide. We haven't seen that kind of symbiotic connection between reporters and the Washington power structure since the days of two other notorious chapters in Washington history: the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers, both in the 1970's.
In the Watergate case, a pair of Washington reporters helped to unravel a White House driven by the need to punish its political enemies. The current White house seems awfully similar, doesn't it? In the fiasco that brought down Libby, highly placed administration officials tried to orchestrate a media campaign to diminish a critic of President Bush's Iraq policies.
The convoluted meanderings of the case's top players illustrate the lengths to which both reporters and their government sources will go to get what they want.
"It's a question of access," said Frank Smyth, a veteran Washington-based reporter who has written for the Washington Post, Newsday and The Nation. "No one's bribing journalists here like they do in some other countries, but officials are dangling access like bacon in front of a dog. The desire to gain access can result in a journalist allowing himself to be prostituted, or at least be used."
Ultimately, the actions of a group of journalists will pale in significance to the larger issues raised by the politically motivated leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's name.
Carl Bernstein, half of the reporting duo at the Washington Post that uncovered the Watergate scandal, said in an interview with Editor & Publisher that the Plame leak investigation has unveiled "what the press should have been focusing on" all along how and why we went to war, the honesty of the administration's statements about the war, and the "routine smearing" of critics who questioned the Bush people's motives. The press, Bernstein said, "is beginning to document the implosion of a presidency."
Reporters themselves remain crucial players in the Plame case.
On CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday, Newsweek magazine's Michael Isikoff and it was hard to see how the special prosecutor could have brought charges against Libby without the testimony of the reporters involved. "You would have had Libby's account, but you couldn't have it contradicted," Isikoff said. If there is a trial, he went on, reporters will be the star witnesses.
That's an uncomfortable place for journalists, who are accustomed to digging into other people's actions and thoughts. They're not supposed to be part of the story.
Still, a lot of reporters seem overly satisfied that top White House officials are under a prosecutor's gaze.
Howard Kurtz, writing in Monday's Washington Post, asked whether journalists are "enjoying a bit too much the spectacle" of Libby having to resign. Kurtz said the leak prosecution is shaping up as "a test of media fairness and responsibility in a polarizing age when many people on the left and right think the news business is hopelessly biased."
Kurtz quoted commentators such as Arianna Huffington, who are calling the Plamegate scandal "worse than Watergate," a campaign of deception at least partly responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Americans."
Now that indictments are a reality, the White House press corps is smelling blood. Tim Grieve, writing on Salon.com, described Monday' briefing by the president's spokesman, Scott McClellan, in which Valerie Plame's name came up as often as Samuel Alito's, the latest nominee to the Supreme Court. McClellan refused to answer questions about Plamegate because the investigation is continuing. When NBC's David Gregory pushed for answers, McClellan accused him of being "rude and disrespectful."
Then he talked about the "relationship of trust" that he enjoys with the White House press corps.
Not any more, Scott. Not any more.
This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.