June 09, 2003

Journalists Are Weird

Joshua Micah Marshall is a smart guy, a nice guy, but he is a journalist. And journalists are weird. Thus Marshall writes of quotes "in dispute" between Paul Wolfowitz and Sam Tanenhaus. Most of us non-journalists would think such a "dispute" would be over whether Wolfowitz actually said these things--whether he believes that Saddam Hussein sponsored the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and believes Saddam may well have played some role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as well. Nope. The only dispute seems to be a Pentagon claim that Wolfowitz's views on such issues were off the record.

That's not a "disputed" quote. That's an "undisputed" quote. There is a question about whether Tanenhaus's career will flourish if people don't think they can go off the record in interviews with him, but that's a question for Tanenhaus to discover, not a dispute to occupy the rest of us.


Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall: So here's the story with the disputed quotes from Sam Tanenhaus' article on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Vanity Fair. As noted here a couple days ago, the Tanenhaus article says that Wolfowitz is "confident" that Saddam played some role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and that he had "entertained" the notion that Saddam had played some role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as well...

Posted by DeLong at June 9, 2003 03:17 PM | TrackBack

Comments

I'm not so sure I'd dismiss the distinction being made here.

If I understand your argument, it doesn't make sense to refer to Wolfowitz's statement as a "disputed" statement, since Wolfowitz undoubtedly made it.

In a certain narrow, technical sense, you're right. Wolfowitz undisputably made the statement.

But it seems like you're saying (or implying) something else too. The assumption you seem to be making is that Wolfowitz's statement is sincere, perhaps (probably?) more sincere than if he had made the comment on-the-record, and therefore it make no difference whether the statement was recorded on or off the record.

This is the conventional wisdom on off-the-record remarks - that they are made with a candor and honesty greater than that used in on-the-record remarks. So if we run across an inadvertantly publicized off-the-record remark, we can trust that it reflect's the speaker's true sentiments.

But I'm not sure this is always the case. I'm not a journalist, so I don't know for sure, but it seems plausible that a public figure would sometimes intentionally lie in off-the-record remarks to a reporter, as a strategic move to color the reporter's perception, direct the line of inquiry, plant story ideas in the reporter's mind, float trial balloons, etc.

Now this isn't the most ethical thing in the world. Its still lying. But its not nearly as bad as lying publicly in an on-the-record interview. If Wolfowitz intentionally lied in on-the-record remarks, he would be guilty of violating the public trust. The degree to which he did so would be open to dispute, but clearly, he would be guilty of an offense against the public.

But if he lied in off-the-record remarks, he would be guilty not of violating the public trust, but of simply engaging in a little government-media gamesmanship. Again, this isn't the most morally correct thing to do - one should always tell the truth. But it may well be a somewhat accepted part of Washington communication. And its not like reporters aren't playing games too. One advances in journalism by generating juicy scoops, not neccesarily by informing the public of the most relevant or important data at hand.

So I can see where Wolfowitz would have a very valid reason for wanting to preserve the distinction between on-the-record and off-the-record remarks. He may have been intentionally lying in his remarks, intending not to deceive the public but only to game the reporter interviewing him. Do I find this likely? Probably not. But that's why we have boundries of professional conduct. So that people can retain the benfit of the doubt in these situations.

Your reasoning, Prof DeLong, veers uncomfortably close to the line of thinking that says: "Well, perhaps the police should be disciplined for breaking into Mr. Smith's house without a warrant, but they did find that bad of canabis there, so we should go ahead and procecute Smith to the fullest extent of the law...

It may seem ludicrous to try to ignore Wolfowitz's remarks, since you probably believe them to be sincere, but these little social games we decide to play allow government officials the privacy they need to function in their jobs.

Posted by: sd on June 9, 2003 03:59 PM

Brad writes:

"...The only dispute seems to be a Pentagon claim that Wolfowitz's views on such issues were off the record...."

Well, Brad. There IS the question of whether or not Wolfowitz was simply lying--in the FIRST instance AND in the follow up "dispute" about whether or not he wanted to be "quoted" doing it--IF he was doing it.

Lying IS still an "act" which MOST people, even Washington "insiders", would just as soon do "off the record"--with some obliging well respected, well-placed "weird" journalist whenever possible--ESPECIALLY when it suits their political agenda. THAT much is still true. Isn't it Brad?

If you're "not sure", check this out:

"'Scoops' and Truth at the Times

by Russ Baker

Who's the exact opposite of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter accused of inventing sources and quotes, plagiarizing and other sins? Well, how about Judith Miller? Where Blair is young and black and inexperienced, a rookie journalist whose job was largely to interview ordinary people, Miller is middle-aged and white and a veteranTimes star whose job it is to interact with the best and the brightest in science, academia and government.

But Blair and Miller have more in common than you might think. Both are in trouble for giving readers dubious information...."

http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030623&s=baker

Speaking of "Wolfowitz's" CURRENT political "agenda", you MIGHT want to check this out too--you know--while you're there...

"Where's the Accountability?

(Katrina vanden Heuvel)

Remember the outrage over Bill Clinton's dissembling about Monica? But where's the outrage on the right over this Administration's manipulation of intelligence regarding Iraq's WMD?...

...As almost every major institution in America--from the New York Times, baseball (see Sammy Sosa), domestic diva Martha Stewart, to the Catholic Church--is held to some standard of accountability, shouldn't the Bush Administration be held accountable on the gravest of all charges--deceiving its citizens in order to lead them into war?"

http://www.thenation.com/edcut/index.mhtml?bid=7



Posted by: Mike on June 9, 2003 04:06 PM

AND while I'm here AND on the subject, sd...

You REALLY SHOULD read this:

[Editorial]

Behind the Lobbying Curtain

Monday, June 9, 2003; Page A20


CLASSICALLY A GOOD news story offers the unexpected: "Man bites dog." But when it comes to money in politics, that test may be backward. What matters are the stories that illuminate business as usual, business that's usually conducted behind closed doors.

One example was the story last week, by The Post's Thomas B. Edsall, describing a Kansas energy company's plan for spreading around enough campaign cash to persuade Congress to insert a provision favoring the firm in the pending energy bill. The second, by Robert Pear of the New York Times, features confidential documents detailing the lobbying operations of one of the most powerful interest groups, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Taken together, they offer an unusually candid look at how things get done in Washington -- a picture that is as disturbing as it is predictable, and disturbing because it is so unsurprising.

The campaign contributions story outlines efforts by Westar Energy Inc. to "get a seat at the table," as one company executive put it, while lawmakers craft the energy bill. This was one pricey chair: $56,500 to campaign committees associated with key GOP lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.). One of them, Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.), sought contributions for fellow Republicans, according to Westar e-mails, and inserted the exemption sought by Westar -- withdrawn after the company became the subject of an unrelated grand jury investigation. Mr. Barton's spokeswoman said "absolutely and unequivocally" there was "no quid pro quo whatsoever" between the contribution request and the Westar amendment. Of course, the campaign cash dance doesn't need to be choreographed quite so explicitly when everyone knows the basic steps. Our favorite quote in the story comes from Mr. DeLay's spokesman, Stuart Roy, whose boss met with Westar representatives last year: "We have no control over any fantasies they might have about what they might get for a campaign contribution." The company gave $25,000 in soft money to a political committee with ties to Mr. DeLay.

The drug industry documents reported by the Times are impressive not just because of the size of PhRMA's effort -- $150 million for the coming fiscal year -- but because they pull back the curtain on the cutting-edge, multilayered dishonesty of modern influence peddling. In the Washington influence racket, it's not just hired guns buttonholing lawmakers anymore.

PhRMA does plenty of that, budgeting $5 million for a bipartisan battalion of some of the biggest lobbying talent around. But the modern lobbying arsenal also features a host of hall-of-mirrors techniques by which special interests amplify their arguments through seemingly unconnected third parties. PhRMA plans to spend $1 million for an "intellectual echo chamber of economists -- a standing network of economists and thought leaders to speak against federal price control regulations through articles and testimony." It has set aside $550,000 "for placement of op-eds and articles by third parties" and at least $2 million for outside research and policy groups "to build intellectual capital and generate a higher volume of messages from credible sources" backing industry positions. Overall, the group will devote $12.3 million to "alliance development," forging bonds with -- some might say buying off -- economists, doctors, patients and minority groups.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the drug industry, but, as with the story on campaign contributions, it's a rare treat to see it so baldly spelled out. As Congress debates how to provide prescription drug benefits to the elderly, editors, reporters and the public should be on notice: Anyone arguing the drug companies' case, no matter how neutral his or her academic or think tank position may seem, should be questioned carefully with regard to sources of income.

This is no lobbyist-bites-dog story. With virtually every major legislative policy debate in Washington, it's how the game is played.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A32631-2003Jun8.html?nav=hptoc_eo

Posted by: Mike on June 9, 2003 04:24 PM

I Just can't imagine that Wolfowitz would want anyone to think he believed this, on or off the record. It makes him look a little delusional. There's no evidence for it. It seems like he just thinks Saddam is to blame for everything, which makes one wonder if his whole support for Gulf War II was based on a crazy need to blame all of our problems on one person. You know, if Saddam was responsible for all this terrorism, I would probably support attacking him to.

This had to be a slip, because Wolfowitz must know that people will discredit him based on these views (because it suggests that he is unable to separate reality from speculation).

Posted by: MDtoMN on June 9, 2003 05:11 PM

sd--
I am not a journalist, so I don't know where i picked this up or if it's accurate:
But I'm under the impression that, if someone tells you something off the record and you discover that it's false, it's considered acceptable to put the quote on the record.

This would prevent the kind of gaming you're talking about.

MDtoMN--
The best explanation I can come up with:
(1) Wolfowitz really believes Laurie Mylroie's theories.
(2) Wolfowitz knows that this would get him laughed at, if he said it on the record.
So the assistant secretary of defense is loony enough to believe Saddam is behind the 1993 WTC bombing, but not loony enough to want to expose himself on the issue. I guess that's a small consolation....

Posted by: Matt Weiner on June 9, 2003 05:43 PM

deputy secretary of defense...

Posted by: Matt Weiner on June 9, 2003 05:44 PM

MDtoMN:

You may well be right. But I took the point of Brad's post to be that we shouldn't really care whether the remarks were on or off record - that worrying about such things was journalistic inside baseball, and that as ordinary citizens we should only care about the substance of the remarks themselves.

I was trying to argue that there may be different expectations of truthfulness with on and off record comments (I tried to argue, contra conventional wisdom, that off record comments might be less truthful than on record comments in some cases), and therefore its quite germane to our civic discourse to find out whether or not the remarks were made on or off record. That, in essence, we need to understand the rules of the game if we want to follow the action.

And I can think of a plausible (not probable, mind you, but plausible) reason why Wolfowitz would want to "sound crazy" here by lying about his real feelings on these matters. It puts his interviewer on edge, it makes later, less radical statements sound more reasonable, and, if Wolfowitz maybe harbored some faint flicker of suspicion of Saddam's involvement in the earlier WTC attack and the OK city attack, it puts the idea out into the mind of a working reporter, who might follow up or mention it to a colleague who will follow up, without making it seem like Wolfowitz himself buys into conspiracy theories, because the remark isn't intended for public consumption.

And its not a total crackpot belief that the Iraqis had involvement in the first WTC bombing. I believe at least one former CIA director believes this?

Posted by: sd on June 9, 2003 05:45 PM

MDtoMN:

You may well be right. But I took the point of Brad's post to be that we shouldn't really care whether the remarks were on or off record - that worrying about such things was journalistic inside baseball, and that as ordinary citizens we should only care about the substance of the remarks themselves.

I was trying to argue that there may be different expectations of truthfulness with on and off record comments (I tried to argue, contra conventional wisdom, that off record comments might be less truthful than on record comments in some cases), and therefore its quite germane to our civic discourse to find out whether or not the remarks were made on or off record. That, in essence, we need to understand the rules of the game if we want to follow the action.

And I can think of a plausible (not probable, mind you, but plausible) reason why Wolfowitz would want to "sound crazy" here by lying about his real feelings on these matters. It puts his interviewer on edge, it makes later, less radical statements sound more reasonable, and, if Wolfowitz maybe harbored some faint flicker of suspicion of Saddam's involvement in the earlier WTC attack and the OK city attack, it puts the idea out into the mind of a working reporter, who might follow up or mention it to a colleague who will follow up, without making it seem like Wolfowitz himself buys into conspiracy theories, because the remark isn't intended for public consumption.

And its not a total crackpot belief that the Iraqis had involvement in the first WTC bombing. I believe at least one former CIA director believes this?

Posted by: sd on June 9, 2003 05:47 PM

here is DOD transcript of the Tanenhaus interview(s) of Wolfowitz

http://www.dod.gov/transcripts/2003/tr20030509-depsecdef0223.html

Posted by: David on June 9, 2003 06:40 PM

here is DOD transcript of the Tanenhaus interview(s) of Wolfowitz

http://www.dod.gov/transcripts/2003/tr20030509-depsecdef0223.html

Posted by: David on June 9, 2003 06:40 PM

sd Lying off the record is more reprehensible than lying on the record because the speaker is harder to hold to account. In this situation he either meant what he said or is telling bizarre lies. I don't see how that makes his position any better.

As for journalists worrying about whether they breached an interviewee's confidence, if he didn't Mr Wolfowitz is behaving very badly and that should be of wide interest. It it is quite possible for both to be making their claims in good faith.

Posted by: Jack on June 9, 2003 10:34 PM

I am a journalist, and I know perfectly well that when people lie to me off the record they are doing so not to "game" me so much as to deceive readers less detectably than if they're quoted. That is a valuable ability for a public figure to have, which is why there is a fuss about attributing these remarks.

For an analogous case, look at the Hitchens/Blumenthal row. No one powerful tells a journalist anything out of friendship of the disinterested love of gossip. Information, and disinformation are both doled out to manipulate what you will do, and so, in the long run, to manipulate the public.

Who knows whether Wolfowitz really believes that Saddam was behind the WTC bombing? The fact that he is prepared to suggest that he might believe it will tend to make Saddam appear a more sinister figure. And that's what PW wants.

Posted by: Andrew Brown on June 10, 2003 12:36 AM

It is also not clear why the quotes should need to be off the record. They don't seem especially sensitive.

Posted by: Jack on June 10, 2003 02:20 AM

As I recall, Marshall was making a point about Pentagon transcrips. As a journalist he wants to be able to trust his sources. Flags were raised when he noticed that the Vanity Fair article included quotes not shown in the Pentagon transcripts. So Marshall is asking does someone clean up Pentagon transcripts so they can know longer be trusted?

Posted by: LowLife on June 10, 2003 03:47 AM

In short, the bottom byline HERE is pretty simple:

Telling anonymous, "off the record" lies to reporters ("big" ones and "little" ones too) is just ONE of the ways "political insiders" convert convenient (for themselves) fabrications and/or delusions into inconvenient (for their political adversaries) "(pseudo)facts on the (political) ground", "mass" misperceptions and other similar, sometimes useful, if bogus, "articles of (public) faith". It's ALSO a tried and true way to "spin" up a lynch mob, "stir up" some mass hysteria, "spread" a little "solid" barnyard waste material, insinuate a "useful" innuendo or two, anonymously "assassinate" an inconvenient character, "transmit" a minor case of war fever...

June 10, 2003

Bad Iraq Data From Start to Finish

Robert Scheer

"Americans were duped: Evidence of administration manipulation and mendacity just keeps rolling in."

Ever since the tragedy of Sept. 11, the Bush administration has relied on selective and distorted intelligence data to make the case for invading Iraq. But the truth will out, and the White House is now scrambling to explain away its mendacity.

On Sunday, Condoleezza Rice admitted that President Bush had used a forged document in his State of the Union speech to prove Iraq represented a nuclear threat: "We did not know at the time — maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency — but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery. Of course it was information that was mistaken."

United Nations inspectors, belatedly presented with the same document, realized within hours it was a crude forgery....

...Thus, with the pattern established, it was not surprising last week to read in the Los Angeles Times of a leaked report from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency — secret since its completion last September — that indicated the depth of our government's confusion as to the nature of the Iraq WMD threat.

The report stated that "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has — or will — establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities," according to U.S. officials interviewed by The Times. Yet that very month, Rumsfeld told Congress that Hussein's "regime has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons — including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas."

Did Rumsfeld know of the DIA report? If so, did he keep that information from the president? Or did he and Bush knowingly deceive the American people? And isn't that an impeachable offense?...

...The British Parliament is in an uproar, but so far the U.S. Congress has failed to exercise its obligation to hold the executive branch accountable.

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-scheer10jun10,1,8389.column?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

Posted by: Mike on June 10, 2003 05:23 AM

"Telling anonymous, "off the record" lies to reporters...[is]...ALSO a tried and true way to "spin" up a lynch mob, "stir up" some mass hysteria, "spread" a little "solid" barnyard waste material, insinuate a "useful" innuendo or two, anonymously "assassinate" an inconvenient character, "transmit" a minor case of war fever...

..."fan" an incipient "flame" of fanaticism, "smoke" the "battlefield" of ideas, put a pack of "legal beagals" off ones "papertrail", "polish" a less than sterling reputation, foment a "virtual" neofascist "revolution",...

Posted by: Mike on June 10, 2003 05:46 AM

Ok, I think I now understand that Wolfowitz might have been consciously lying to game the reporter, and he might have figured it would have no backlash (I didn't see that at first because the minute I heard about the quote I thought to myself, "Geez, Wolfowitz seems to have developed a wierd sort of monomania about Saddam...That explains a lot and makes me really nervous about any foreign policy suggestions coming from him.") I assumed he would be scared of anyone, even a reporter, thinking this about him but I guess if he thought he had a sympathetic ear that would explain it.

So, we don't know whether he's deceiptful or a overly obesessed with Saddam (yes this is a flaw, there is the whole rest of the world to worry about out there). One thing you have to give this administration, they keep us guessing:
Hmmm...incompetent, ignorant, delusional, or evil...incompetent, ignorant, delusional, or evil...

Posted by: MDtoMN on June 10, 2003 06:22 AM

At any rate, even if PW were deliberately spiking the interview with juicy off-the-record comments that he didn't want public, he wasn't doing it very well: at least one reasonably smart person in the room had a different understanding about whether they were on- or off-record. If I were to wake up in hell and find myself a politician trying to manipulate public opinion with lies, I think I would do that a little better.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on June 10, 2003 06:37 AM

"It is also not clear why the quotes should need to be off the record. They don't seem especially sensitive."
Hmm. I was going to write that a better title for this post would be, "Bad news: conclusive proof that our Deputy Minister of Defense truly is as crazy as a loon, as some have long speculated." But I think a more reasonable conlcusion is that PW would love these lunatic ideas (Oklahoma) to reach the public, but knows very well that if his name is linked to them, those who matter will regard him as delusional. Not good. So, he goes off the record. Tanenhaus has no interest in that cutesy game to justify the Iraq war, and thus puts PW on the record instead of off. Oops! Sorry, PW. I must have forgotten.

Posted by: John Isbell on June 10, 2003 08:29 AM

Poor Joshua Micah Marshall.

Marshall’s latest ramblings are more about salvaging his own ego. Marshall desperately wants to believe that Paul Wolfowitz has some integrity.

But after Wolfowitz said that pulling our military out of Saudi Arabia was a “good thing" most of us knew Wolfowitz was lying though his teeth except for poor Marshall who is making up excuses after his support for Junior’s war. Marshall was so wrong about Kenneth Pollacks and his book and the supposed WMD.

But even Paul Krugman knows this Wolfowitz is as dishonest as day is long as he writes today in NYT.

When Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, warned that occupying Iraq might require hundreds of thousands of soldiers for an extended period, Paul Wolfowitz said he was "wildly off the mark" — and the secretary of the Army may have been fired for backing up the general. Now a force of 150,000 is stretched thin, facing increasingly frequent guerrilla attacks, and a senior officer told The Washington Post that it might be two years before an Iraqi government takes over. The Independent reports that British military chiefs are resisting calls to send more forces, fearing being "sucked into a quagmire."

Personally, I believe Blair will get impeached or resign (whatever Brits do) for this war in Iraq because there is just too much damage there.

And as for Josh, he failed to take his own words seriously when he wrote that article about the “Confidence Men”. Why on earth did Josh support the war with Iraq knowing full well the ineptitude of the “confidence men”? The very one's he wrote about.

Josh is making up excuses based on his own desire to save his egotistical soul. How could he have been so wrong? Josh is like those guys over on National Review. They had to distort the truth and lie some much for George W. Bush that it has now become an issue of saving their own integrity. So the reach and reach for things that just are not there.

Posted by: Cheryl on June 10, 2003 09:07 AM

Sorry to be unclear. I didn't mean that what he said was not sensitive, just that formally it was not the kind of thing that journalists normally get off the record -- ungentlemanly comments about colleagues, early warning about official annoucements, that kind of thing. If Mr. Wolfowitz did think that Iraq was involved in the OK bombing it is not formally the kind of thing to be afraid to allow on the record, given what he had been saying on the record.

Posted by: Jack on June 10, 2003 01:05 PM

Cheryl, I think you're being a little too harsh on Josh. First, I think that he switched to an antiwar position in February, because he believed that war was going to cost more in international political capital than it could possibly gain.
Second, he's often on the mark and a good analyst. While it turns out he was wrong in giving the Neo-Cons and Administration too much credit, most of what he rights is good and he has been fairly critical of them.
Finally, I think this was about pointing out that Wolfowitz voiced opinions, not justifying his own position. Indeed, Josh's words suggest that he thinks this is a sign that Wolfowitz is off, not as justification for the war.

Posted by: MDtoMN on June 10, 2003 04:56 PM

No, that's not true.

Josh clearly states that that he thinks Wolfowitz is "right"! Mocking the Vanity journalist. And yes when it was clear that Bush was causing huge international damage, Josh reneged and then tells us after the supposed war's end that we should "get over it".

he's often on the mark and a good analyst

Not with anything regarding the war in Iraq, in fact Josh has been totally way off the mark.

Posted by: Cheryl on June 12, 2003 09:09 AM
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