March 25, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Special Richard Cheney "Opinions About Shape of Earth Differ" Issue)

Paul Krugman said somewhere that if a Bush administration official were to claim that the Earth was flat, the newspaper headlines the next day would read "Opinions About Shape of Earth Differ." Today Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times shows that he was right.

Richard Cheney on Monday came out with a lie--that the NSC Senior Director for Counterterrorism in 2001, Richard Clarke, was "out of the loop" on counterterrorism policy--so big that Condi Rice decides that she simply can't back it up, and contradicts him at her briefing yesterday. After all, whenever the George W. Bush administration has claimed it had its eye on the ball on terrorism before September 11, 2001, it does so by pointing either to the work Clarke was doing in 2001 or to its decision to keep Clarke as point man on counterterrorism at the NSC.

But what is the headline the New York Times runs: "A Dispute: Was an Official 'in the Loop'? It All Depends"--i.e., "Opinions on Shape of Earth Differ." And what is the tone of her article? A simple "she (Rice) said, he (Cheney) said": one-against-one, with no clues as to who is more credible.

A Dispute: Was an Official ’in the Loop’? It All Depends: It is a strange occurrence in Washington when members of the well-ordered Bush White House publicly disagree with each other, but it happened on Wednesday. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, took exception to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that Richard A. Clarke, the administration's former counterterrorism chief, was "out of the loop."

On the contrary, Ms. Rice said, Mr. Clarke was very much involved in the administration's fight against terrorism. "I would not use the word `out of the loop,' " Ms. Rice told reporters in response to a question about whether she considered it a problem that the administration's counterterrorism chief was not deeply involved "in a lot of what was going on," as Mr. Cheney said on Monday in an interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Ms. Rice painted a distinctly different picture of the involvement of Mr. Clarke, who has prompted furious responses since he asserted in a new book and in testimony on Capitol Hill that President Bush did not heed warnings before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "He was in every meeting that was held on terrorism," Ms. Rice said. "All the deputies' meetings, the principals' meeting that was held and so forth, the early meetings after Sept. 11."

But she acknowledged that Mr. Clarke did not regularly meet with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence. "Perhaps Dick felt that he had, you know, less — he didn't sit with Powell and Rumsfeld and so forth," Ms. Rice said. "It's just not the way we operate. I did sit with Powell and Rumsfeld and Tenet."

If Bumiller doesn't feel that at this stage she has enough information to (at least privately) conclude that Cheney is either senile or a liar, she needs to get a different job in a different profession. And once she has reached that (private) conclusion, her duty is clear. She needs to include more quotes from different people contradicting Cheney--people like Tenet, Powell, Armitage, Hadley, and other senior administration officials who are already on record praising the work done by Clarke and his centrality to the Bush administration's pre-911 counterterrorism effort. She needs to signal her readers that Cheney is all alone on this: completely off the reservation, making claims that are so false that nobody else will touch them.

So I called Bumiller, and asked her why she had made it into a "she said, he said" article rather than into a Cheney-said-something-so-bizarre-that-nobody-else-will-endorse-it article. Her replies seemed, to put it politely, incoherent. The reasons that she didn't stack five contradictory quotes from five different sources against Cheney--and so make him look like the liar or idiot that he is (as Dana Milbank would probably have done)--appear to be that she "doesn't write opinion," that "the news was Rice contradicting what Cheney had said to Rush Limbaugh," and that she "only had 300 words." My assertion that whether Clarke was out-of-the-loop or was the loop itself is a matter of fact, and that a reporter has a duty to ascertain and to report to her readers such matters of fact, did not meet with a response.

Now, of course, the important thing is that Bumiller is far from being alone: White House journalists go native, lose all sense of context, and pull their punches on administrations regularly, and on this administration much more than most. I at least have known about this problem since 1982, when William Greider published his book The Education of David Stockman and made it crystal clear just how much he had pulled his punches while he was on the daily White House covering beat. It's a structural problem, it's a serious problem, and it makes a substantial part of the morning print news useless.

Posted by DeLong at March 25, 2004 09:48 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

BBC World News, which I usually admire, had terrible coverage of Clarke's testimony. A few soundbites taken out of contest and emphasizing the GOP attacks on his credibility, followed by a lengthy interview with a White House shill posing as an academic. Let's hope they were just having a bad day.

Posted by: wvmcl on March 25, 2004 09:55 AM

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Sweet Jeebus:

http://freshair.npr.org/day_fa.jhtml?display=day&todayDate=03/24/2004

Posted by: MattB on March 25, 2004 10:00 AM

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Nothing new here to us regular readers of Bob Somerby. And MWO, back when it was still posting.

I think it was MWO that pointed out that the WH Press Corps routinely exhibited behavior similar to the "battered spouse" syndrome. The Bush WH is so openly contemptuous and so ready to deal out punishment to those not toeing their line that not only is the press intimidated, they begin to feel that they are at fault somehow. That's what this Bumiller sounds like to me.

Posted by: Alan on March 25, 2004 10:02 AM

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Journalistic negligence of Kausian proportions.

Posted by: Kuas on March 25, 2004 10:05 AM

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Thank you, Brad, for using your credibility for such a good purpose and having the guts to call the Times' latest White House stenographer on her puffery to her (electronic) face.

May I suggest that you may want to take this a step further, and forward your post to NYT Editor Bill Keller, noting that this is a distressingly low standard for any journalist to set forth, let alone one covering the most powerful official in the world for the self-proclaimed newspaper of record?

Of course, this is the same Elizabeth Bumiller who recently described herself as being too scared to ask Bush any serious questions before he took this country down the rabbit hole into the Iraqi war. Given that she still has her job a year later, maybe that tells us all we need to know about Bill Keller's "journalistic" standards?

This is the same Bill Keller who has repeatedly enabled Judy Miller's stenography, and allowed Miller and Bumiller to have the assignment of writing about Richard Clarke's 60 Minutes interview.

But it still wouldn't hurt to try.

Posted by: Steady Eddie on March 25, 2004 10:07 AM

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Really, what do you expect from BUMiller? I'm only surprised whe didn't try to show, through use of some warped logic from her own alternate universe, that Rice's and Cheney's statements were not contradictory at all.

Posted by: Ron in Portland on March 25, 2004 10:08 AM

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Remember Howler the other day: "Eternal Sunshine of the Bumiller Mind"

http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh032204.shtml

Posted by: P O'Neill on March 25, 2004 10:12 AM

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Thanks for doing that. wow! This post made my day.

Posted by: Goldberg on March 25, 2004 10:30 AM

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This theme is exactly what the incomparable Daily Howler has been howling about for years. In my mind, and with great respect for this site, the Howler is THE essential blog for understanding our times.

Posted by: joe on March 25, 2004 10:37 AM

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Check this out for more Bumiller:

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/bal-te.md.professor22bmar22,0,7266710.story?coll=bal-home-headlines

Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times White House correspondent, on criticism that reporters were too easy on Bush on the eve of the Iraq war: "I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."

Posted by: Dimmy Karras on March 25, 2004 11:05 AM

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Brad, you are now officially my Times watching God. I swear, it never occurred to me to actually call one of them to see if they could explain why they're such bad journalists! Commenting here because the post I ran at Reading A1 (http://blogs.salon.com/0003364/2004/03/25.html#a116) won't show up on your trackback—I've never been able to make the damn thing work.

If you posted about the NYT every day I think I'd have to shut my thing down.

Posted by: Michael on March 25, 2004 11:06 AM

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Anyone see Bumiller at the last Democratic debate? Unbelievable performance - pay attention to me, listen to how smart I am, etc. Not at all a neutral moderator.

Posted by: richard on March 25, 2004 11:49 AM

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Ok, I agree, but...

Imagine that you are George Tenet or one of the heavy hitters the Prof mentioned as an alternative source. Ms. Bumiller calls after the Condi Rice presentation, fishing for a quote on Clarke's "loopiness".

If you have even sipped your morning coffee, you smell trouble. Do you really want to say something that supports Cheney, when you know it is daft? Do you really want to contradict him, when it is not your meeting or your phone call, but just a reporter fishing for a quote?

"No comment, Elisabeth, thanks for calling".

And she knows this will happen, and anyway, she is sort of right - it is a story that Condi Rice is contradicting Dick Cheney. I think on this one she can trust her readers to make the final judgement.

Why this did not come through in her conversation, I have no idea.

Posted by: TM on March 25, 2004 01:48 PM

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TM, your "I'll put it between the lines and trust my readers to make the final judgment" is every weak-kneed pseudo-journalist's excuse for not wanting to anger the people in power about whom they write.

Your hypothetical scenario is even a little disingenuous. After all, as Brad said, several Bush Admin. officials were already on the record as to how much in the loop Clarke was. If she calls them and asks for comment, a no-comment is in and of itself news, given that they're already on the record. Her failure even to inform her readers of that record is her real between-the-lines message -- which is that this is a he-said-she-said lack of message discipline rather than Cheney being as self-deluding (the charitable explanation) or as much a liar as he is.

A reporter's job is to inform readers of factual context as well as central facts. Saying "oh, they'll read between the lines" is presuming that readers are already well enough informed not to need the reporter in the first place.

Posted by: Steady Eddie on March 25, 2004 02:02 PM

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Re: "Ok, I agree, but... Imagine that you are George Tenet or one of the heavy hitters the Prof mentioned as an alternative source..."

But they're on record already praising Clarke for his loopness...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on March 25, 2004 02:05 PM

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Of course, this is all very cute. And completely out of context. I guess I'm at a big advantage, actually having heard the Cheney interview. What Cheney was clearly referring to is the two different circumstances Clarke was in in the Clinton and Bush Admininistration.

Clarke (and his pal Chressey) appears to have filled the power vacuum created by Bill Clinton's ignoring CIA Director Geo. Tenet. With the incoming Bush Admin. he got shoved back into his bureaucratic (and restricted) role. Bush instituted daily meetings with Tenet, thus he had no reason to rely much on Clarke.

Meaning Clarke would not be aware of such as the letter Bush sent to Pakistan's Musharraf which diplomatically made the point that there was a new sherrif in town, and he had a wanted poster for bin Laden. There's no contradiction between Rice and Cheney.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on March 25, 2004 02:34 PM

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Here's the actual statement:

-------------quote------------
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, he wasn't -- he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff. And I saw part of his interview last night, and he wasn't --

Q He was demoted.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It was as though he clearly missed a lot of what was going on. For example, just three weeks after the -- after we got here, there was communication, for example, with the President of Pakistan, laying out our concerns about Afghanistan and al Qaeda, and the importance of going after the Taliban and getting them to end their support for the al Qaeda. This was, say, within three weeks of our arrival here.
-----------endquote-------------

"he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff"

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on March 25, 2004 04:15 PM

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"Your hypothetical scenario is even a little disingenuous. After all, as Brad said, several Bush Admin. officials were already on the record as to how much in the loop Clarke was."

Only a little? I'm slipping. If they were already on the record, then I agree she should have exerted herself to plop a few in. Does anyone have an example of a suitable quote?

And as to Patrick's point, there are many loops, we presume, and I doubt Clarke was in all of them. It seems as if Clarke should have been apprised that the new Admin had approached Pakistan; perhaps Cheney's comment is a subtle rebuke to Ms. Rice, who ought to be making sure her terror guy is kept informed of relevant developments?

In which case, a quote from, e.g., Tenet, doesn't really address the question of how well Ms. Rice has succeeded in getting relevant information to her subordinates.

Posted by: Tom Maguire, aka "TM" on March 25, 2004 04:31 PM

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Re: "It seems as if Clarke should have been apprised that the new Admin had approached Pakistan"

He would have been. Any letter from Powell or Bush to Musharraf would have had a copy sent to Rice. She would have shown it to Clarke and to the South Asia/Middle East Director as a matter of the normal paper flow...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on March 25, 2004 05:24 PM

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For the Howler fans out there, he returns for another look at Bumiller today:

http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh032504.shtml

Posted by: P O'Neill on March 25, 2004 05:59 PM

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In this case, I must say, he says she says reporting on the circular firing squad of flying atack monkeys is fine by me. I read Bumiller's article with a smile and wouldn't have thought of criticizing.

Of course I have been obsessively following the story (no sleep last night) so I'm not the average reader.

I agree with the criticism of Bumiller. The full record shows that what Rice said is correct and what Cheney said is false. That is my interpretation, but Bumiller should have noted the facts. I sure can't do it with 300 words, but, hey it's not my job.

Back in a bit with the quotes

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on March 25, 2004 06:06 PM

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It's pretty clear that Clarke WAS in fact out of the loop of the real policy, and he knows it, and they know he knows it, and they can't say anything about it, because that would have spill the beans: the real policy was their new "grownup" approach to dealing with the Taliban through negotiations with carrots and sticks, and it blew up in their faces. They sent $43 million to the Taliban, three months before 9/11! And ain't money fungible? Clarke, of course, really knows the whole story, and has cleverly set up the next question: please explain to us all just what you brilliant guys thought you were doing?

Posted by: Lee A. on March 25, 2004 06:20 PM

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Dear conservative friends:

Assuming the not-too-credible counter-factual, that is that Clarke was not in the loop, how does it help the image of your president that the top-level anti-terrorist was not kept in the loop (of poweful people who did not care about terrorists)? That is precisely why your friend Rice contradicted Cheney and said no, no, no, he was in the loop.

Now, that he was in the loop is not enough, we wished that he had be listened to, and other things as well (like asking the FBI & CIA to carry out a preventive search for terrorists on US soil taking flying lessons.) And perhaps then, the 2 towers would still be proudly standing and 3000 Americans still be alive. Of course, the political landscape would also be entirely different, and the US would probably not have had the energy to simultaneouslty bog itself down in Iraq etc.

Welcome to a world of political *responsability*. A black guy is convicted of shooting a white woman, he goes to jail, and most likely the death penalty. Your government f^%cks up, or worse doesn't give a damn about something extremely important, and that results in American casualties, they get voted out of power. That's the rule by which all the rest of us live, and that's the way it should be in a world of responsability. Welcome to democratic capitalism.

Cheers.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on March 25, 2004 06:44 PM

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I did some Clarke in the loop looking. Actually took longer than I thought (hard to get stuff Bumiller could have seen as it was sooooo yesterday when she wrote the article)

Clarke in the loop

see Wilkinson at http://rjwaldmann.blogspot.com or
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2004_archives/000525.html

Bumiller could have read the article in the NYT the day before
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/24/politics/24CLAR.html

or Tuesdays 9/11 committee transcript (note Powell is under oath)

POWELL: ...
In addition to Mr. Clarke, at this briefing -- my very first briefing during the transition

POWELL: We also put into play a number of other options that were available to us.

As we know, during this period, we looked at some of the ideas that Mr. Clarke's team had presented that had not been tried in the previous administration. These activities fit the long-term time frame of our new strategy and were presented to us that way by Mr. Clarke.

Q more or less did Clarke present a plan to fight al Qaeda before 9/11

Powell sends it to Armitage (the Q is dumb there was the official plan approved by principals 4/11
which is before 9/11).

Armitage under oath talking about anti al Qaeda related program activities before 9/11

ARMITAGE: I did not see a plan either.

But it's quite clear, Governor, that Dick Clarke, who participated in most of the DCs -- deputies committee meetings in which I participated, was quite impatient and was pushing the process quite well.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on March 25, 2004 07:25 PM

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Again, it is necessary to read carefully:

----------quote-------------
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, he wasn't -- he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff. And I saw part of his interview last night, and he wasn't --

Q He was demoted.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It was as though he clearly missed a lot of what was going on.
---------------endquuote-----------

Cheney is commenting on an interview of Clarke he'd heard. Based on that, he concludes the guy seems to be unaware of some things, but that wouldn't be unusual for a bureaucrat not in the policy making loop.

But Prof. DeLong may be right that Clarke must have been made aware of the letter to Musharraf in February. In Clarke's press briefing of Aug. 2002, he seems to be alluding to it. Which means that the one-man circular firing squad that is Richard Clarke was being, at best, disingenuous in the interview Cheney heard. Cheney was putting forth the most charitable explanation for what he'd heard from Clarke.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on March 26, 2004 06:30 AM

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"... how does it help the image of your president that the top-level anti-terrorist was not kept in the loop..."

The premise is false. He was NOT "top-level" in the Bush Admin. He was substantively demoted back to his proper level by Condi Rice. He appears to have filled a power vacuum in the Clinton WH, but the Bush Admin was more traditionally structured.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on March 26, 2004 06:42 AM

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Anyone interested in an (almost) daily critique of NY Times journalistic incompetence (to be generous) should also be reading The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby's site.

Brad, why don't you call the editors next, maybe you can help us get to the bottom of why the NY Times has become so utterly worthless as a source of news.

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