NBC's Big Black Kettle: Becoming Scooter Libby

It is a common maxim that sometimes those who most loudly decry a sin are in fact the most guilty of it. The trial of Scooter Libby has become a troubling affirmation of that maxim, at least from my vantage point in the media room at the Prettyman Courthouse.

The Washington press has been giddy since the name Joe Wilson was first thrust into the limelight by the tag-team of the New York Times opinion page and NBC's Meet the Press. This week's court proceedings reminded us how invested Big Media has been in the prosecution of White House staff over Wilson's now-debunked claims. Consider this excerpt provided by Libby's defense from an appearance by NBC's Tim Russert on the Don Imus show:

"It was like Christmas here last night," describing the anticipation of indictments coming down over the leak case. "Santa Claus is coming. Surprises! What's going to be under the tree?"

Russert beat the drum of the Wilson story's 'Big'-ness, NBC and the rest of Big Media frothed at the mouth at the possibility that someone in the Bush Administration may hang from the gallows, and the stage was set for America to finally see the deceit of an administration that tried to cut the knees out from under Wilson, a man who dared to challenge them in public.

The problem here, though, is that Russert and company now appear to have been playing games of their own. Despite the traditional media's apparent blackout on this part of the trial, Libby's lead attorney Theodore Wells spent his time with Russert on the stand reducing the once-respected newsman to exactly the type of caught-in-his-own-web conspirator that he and his DC journalist troupe have been making Libby out to be.

Scooter Libby is being tried for perjuring himself, in large part based on the contents of a conversation he had with Tim Russert. Russert has acknowledged the conversation, but disagrees with Libby's assertion that Russert told him Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Libby claims that Russert told him "all the journalists" knew about it.

What this week's court proceedings have shown is that there is considerable reason to doubt Russert's account. Wells played some revealing video of NBC Foreign Affairs Chief and close Russert co-worker Andrea Mitchell. Mitchell appeared on CNBC's Capital Report in October of 2003, and participated in this exchange with host Alan Murray:

Murray: Do we have any idea how widely known it was in Washington that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA?

Mitchell: It was widely known among those of us who cover the intelligence community and who were actively engaged in trying to track down who among the foreign service community was the envoy to Niger. So a number of us began to pick up on that. But frankly I wasn't aware of her actual role at the CIA and the fact that she had a covert role involving weapons of mass destruction, not until Bob Novak wrote it.

So here we have a clear corroboration of at least the factual basis of Libby's claim: that 'all the journalists' DID know about Wilson's wife. And we have this out of the mouth of one of Russert's closest associates. Russert claimed under oath that he knows for certain he didn't say this, because he didn't know about Plame until Robert Novak's column came out, after the Libby call. Wells made it clear through his questioning that Russert and Mitchell were tight, and cast some serious doubt on the notion that Mitchell wouldn't have told Russert something like this, had she known.

The corroboration of Libby’s claim by Mitchell lay relatively unknown until the CNBC tape refuting Russert's public claims bubbled back up in November of 2005. Wells played the tape of Mitchell's pathetic attempt to retract her statement on the Don Imus show. First she claimed the comment to be out of context. Then she stuttered incomprehensibly through an admission that she did make the statement. Then she responded to a previous suggestion by Imus in his usual style, by saying "I must have been drunk."

Russert also made an appearance on the Imus show around the same time. Imus asked him about Mitchell's statements, and Russert chalked it up to her 'misspeaking'.

Not only do we have Andrea Mitchell basically telling CNBC that Libby had factual support for his claim about his conversation with Tim Russert, but we have strong indication from Mitchell’s words that Russert’s subsequent denials were untrue. The only thing that would serve to negate this would be the public efforts by Mitchell and Russert to discount what Mitchell said. This series of attempts to reinvent reality is strikingly similar to the conspiracy-theory nonsense about Libby and Cheney that has been coming out of NBC and MSNBC for months.

Russert’s apparent attempts to re-write the past continued throughout his testimony. When Wells questioned Russert about his "Christmas Eve" quote on a later Imus appearance, Russert claimed to "not recall" not only the quote, but the entirety of his appearance. So Russert does Libby one better, and forgets the call completely. This is pretty important stuff that hasn't been reported in any Big Media accounts that I have read. This shows the star prosecution witness capable of forgetting entire conversations, while maintaining his certainty about the content of the Libby conversation to such perfection that he is willing to send Libby to jail over it.

The contradictory logic evidenced in Russert’s testimony is, somewhat ironically, the keystone of the media’s case against Libby. The criticisms that his memory lapses are selective could easily be levied against both Russert and Mitchell as well. The media has attempted to convict Libby in the minds of its audience by detailing the absurdity of someone forgetting such obviously important facts and conversations. Yet the very people who have beat this drum for months are now exposed as either equally forgetful, or equally deceitful. The glaring omission of these parts of the testimony from NBC’s coverage of the trial makes deceit the increasingly more plausible of the two.

While the media has appeared to have a limitless appetite for the facts and timeframes of what Libby and company were doing about Joe Wilson, the finer points of the defrocking of the High Priest of Washington journalism seems to have encountered an uneasy stomach. This could be because of the discomfort that comes from watching one of your own discredited in public, but more likely it is due to the revelation of the hypocrisy of a media that calls for the head of a politician that plays the same games that they do.

cross-posted at www.mainewebreport.com

Valerie Plame Disclosure Double Standards NBC Meet the Press Government & Press