The trial of Scooter Libby is providing some pretty revealing insight into the mindset of the Washington press. This Sunday's Meet the Press featured an unabashed series of self-glorifications that make it no wonder the general public is turning elsewhere to get its news. The pedestal that the press places itself upon has grown so high now that they appear to believe themselves, at last, above the law.
Tim Russert’s disastrous dance with Libby attorney Theodore Wells last week left him gun-shy enough to allow Howard Kurtz to frame the discussion. Kurtz began by expressing sympathy for Russert’s position on the witness stand, describing Russert as ‘cautious, hesitant, as anybody would be.’ There was no criticism of Russert’s failed memory, no suggestion of the responsibility of a journalist whose statements may end up sending a man to prison. Instead, Kurtz chastised those outside the beltway that have become deluded with the idea that the Washington press is in fact part of the political game:
"And I think that the people out there who don’t follow this all that closely think that we have become part of the club, too much the insiders. And that is a problem for journalism."
Listen closely to what Kurtz doesn’t say- he doesn’t say that becoming ‘part of the club’ is a problem for journalism. He says that the misconception on the part of those out of the loop that journalists have become part of the club is a problem for journalism. So apparently all they have to do is let us all know the truth, and the problem disappears. Precise work from the author of a book called Spin Cycle.
Later, the talking stick is passed to David Broder. Broder is deeply concerned with the fact that government officials have started using the poor unknowing saints of the press to carry out their dirty work. Again no self-reflection, no call for journalists to be responsible for their actions. Just another pained attempt to deflect attention from the spectacle of media self-immolation that has begun with this trial.
The coups-de-grace comes from PBS’s Gwen Ifill. Ifill describes the ‘collective nervous breakdown’ of the press over the Libby trial, and how concerned journalists are that they may one day be subjected to scrutiny in a court of law. She tells of journalists who are beginning to destroy their notes in order to prevent their exposure in future legal proceedings, as if this is an indicator of how oppressed the poor media has become by the evil judicial system in America. Ifill does not consider the near-lawlessness of her statements, as what she is describing amounts to the destruction of evidence for future cases, evidence that may determine whether or not someone rots in jail for a crime those notes may have exonerated them from. Her cavalier attitude toward the civic responsibility of journalists seems the height of audacity, until she concludes with this:
"And I don’t know what kind of implication that has for the business, what kind of implication that even has, not to make it too big a point, but for the history books."
The troubling absurdity of this dialog is tempered, fortunately, by what is starting to look like come-uppance on a grand scale. As a New York Times reporter said to me toward the end of Russert’s testimony last Thursday, “This is not good for journalists.”