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Plame blame game (redux)

October 29th, 2005 by dk

Once indictments were handed down, reporters and commentators were scratching their heads in unison on a single topic: why was so much effort put into smearing one guy, Joseph Wilson, or one CIA agent, Valerie Plame? Why did the vice president make half a dozen trips to the CIA, why did at least four White House staffers talk about it, why were no fewer than four reporters talked to, why was it covered up with equal zeal after the investigation began? Isn’t this crushing a gnat with a hammer? Libby has no OCDC diagnosis on his record, so why did such senior officials go to such lengths to undo a single guy writing a single essay in a single newspaper?

The adversary in this crusade had to be more titanic than one guy who took a field trip to Niger. The titanic foe they identified was The New York Times. And, at least so far, it seems to be working. The mother ship of print journalism is listing badly, if not yet sinking.

Here’s a handy side-by-side chart showing how the two titans were reeling at significantly similar times.

Date New York Times White House
January 2003 Judith Miller reports on WMDs President Bush claims Niger-WMD connection
April 2003 Jason Blair resigns after plagiarism exposed
May 2003 Nicholas Kristof questions the Niger connection Libby seeks the Niger skeptic leak
early June 2003 Executive and managing editors quit, disgraced by Jason Blair Libby learns of Wilson-Plame connection from Cheney & others
mid-June 2003 Daily updates and conversations about Wilson-Plame connection
late June 2003 Miller & Libby speak the first time Miller & Libby speak the first time
July 6, 2003 Wilson’s op-ed runs
July 7, 2003 Libby tells Press Secretary Ari Fleischer about Wilson-Plame connection
July 8, 2003 Libby & Miller speak a 2nd time Libby & Miller speak a 2nd time
July 10-12, 2003 Reporters Russert, Novak, & Cooper told of connection
July 30, 2003 Bill Keller appointed new Executive Editor
September, 2003 Plame leak investigation begins
December 2003 First Public Editor appointed to restore credibility
March 2004 Libby appears before grand jury twice, and fibs(?)
May 2004 Mea culpa published, retracting WMD reporting
August 12, 2004 Judith Miller receives a subpoena to testify
(almost a year passes)
July 6, 2005 Judith Miller goes to jail rather than testify
September 28, 2005 Judith Miller leaves jail & agrees to testify
October 16, 2005 Review of Judith Miller’s entanglement published
October 21, 2005 Bill Keller sends a staff memo, doubting Miller
October 22, 2005 Columnist Maureen Dowd attacks Miller in print
October 23, 2005 Public editor also doubts Miller in print
October 28, 2005 Indictments announced against Libby

Rather than have this look like that strange collection of similarities between Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations, here’s why each might be swinging hard at the other, even as they are losing their footing and they know it.

The New York Times was struggling to regain credibility after Jason Blair not only bamboozled them, but then went on a book tour to brag about it. Newspapers can win the hearts and minds of readers, subscribers, and advertisers by playing offense or defense. They can claim to be the most reliable and trusted source of news, or they can be the most aggressive and industrious source of news. Being right wasn’t working so well for them after Blair, so being first was all the more important. Judith Miller was known for being first.

The White House, controlling all three branches of government, must have wondered how they can have it all and also control the Fourth Estate. FOX News had passed CNN by this time, largely on the quality of the insider guests it could secure, and radio continued to be firmly held by the voices on the right. But dissenting voices were still being heard in the news magazines (Cooper), the Sunday talk shows (Russert), and on the editorial pages (Novak) of metropolitan newspapers (Miller). Foremost among them was the New York Times. Not since Walter Cronkite was there a single, undisputed leader in the media. If the New York Times (and especially its editorial board) could be brought down, nothing would stand in the way of the administration’s agenda. Post-Jason Blair, while there was a changing of the guard at the Old Gray Lady, there was an opportunity.

How they engineered it (now perhaps deemed as “too clever by half”) I’ve described elsewhere. Click here.

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