11/01/2005

Digby - Russert No Hero

The bottom line is that a reporter's obligation is not to the government, it's to his readers or viewers, whether the government is represented by Scooter Libby or Patrick Fitzgerald... freedom of the press..was not put in the bill of rights so that reporters could get delicious gossip..along with their tasty official propaganda. It also wasn't put into the Bill of Rights so that they could help prosecutors. Our democracy will not function if they do not operate in a separate sphere of responsibility from the government they cover.


No Hero

Now that Tim Russert has finally told his story --- and it appears to be central to the case --- a lot of people are saying that we owe him an apology for giving him grief.

While I certainly agree with Atrios that this notion of default confidentiality any time you speak to a government official is mind-boggling (and I give Russert some credit for not being a total Bush toady on this) but I don't think Russert gets any kudos for his behavior. I know that Fitzgerald asked him to keep quiet, but I don't think it's any more ethical for a reporter not to report what he knows for that reason, than if he kept quiet because he allowed Scooter to assume that he had confidentiality. There is no secrecy required for Grand Jury witnesses and there certainly is no secrecy required for discussions with the prosecutor. Where there is no secrecy required, which should be a little as possible, reporters should report. We are all better off if these people don't go around deciding whether the government is doing the right thing by keeping secrets. We the people are the government and we have a right to know.

NBC put put out a lawyerly press release which turns out to be pretty much the extent of Russert's testimony. In the context of the case it became ripe for parsing, using such words as it did about"the name" and the word "operative" which had been discussed in great depth in the context of Novak's column. By never clarifying what he meant by those words --- by never ever even addressing them --- he allowed misconceptions and speculation to simmer for months. He failed in his job as a journalist by not clearing that up.

But Russert's biggest crime was consistently discussing this case, and grilling those involved, without ever mentioning his own involvement. For two years he has been reporting this story and leaving out relevant information (as it turns out extremely relevant information) about this case. He grilled Joe Wilson like a criminal, he never challenged the Vice president, he had Bob Novak right in front of him and he talked about the case and speculated grandly while never (except in one very bizarre instance) coming clean about what he knew.

Unless Russert had an explicit legal obligation to stay quiet, he should not have done it. His job is to inform the public of what he knows, period. By not clearing up the press release and speaking up in various roundtables and interviews he passively misinformed the public for months.

The bottom line is that a reporter's obligation is not to the government, it's to his readers or viewers, whether the government is represented by Scooter Libby or Patrick Fitzgerald. They are the Fourth Estate, empowered by a heavy duty constitutional right --- freedom of the press, which was not put in the bill of rights so that reporters could get delicious gossip about people with whom they socialize along with their tasty official propaganda. It also wasn't put into the Bill of Rights so that they could help prosecutors. Our democracy will not function if they do not operate in a separate sphere of responsibility from the government they cover.

Hullabaloo

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