Those infamous "16 words" in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union message ignited a scandal reaching into the White House and tainting some of the nation's best news media.
Bush was wrong. But when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson turned to The New York Times op-ed page to rebut the claim, the White House used the compliant Washington press corps to retaliate.
In a telephone interview before a talk at Xavier University (see "The Plame Game," page 11), Wilson addressed that toxic new relationship with the news media as CityBeat's guest media critic.
At the CIA's bidding, Wilson went to Niger in 2002 to check rumors of an agreement to export uranium to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Wilson reported back that it was "highly unlikely." Independently, the State Department said reports of the deal were dubious.
Then Bush used the unqualified assertion in his speech.
When personal efforts "to correct the record" failed, Wilson concluded that The Times or The Washington Post was the appropriate vehicle because "everyone in Washington reads" them. Times editors were "receptive," initially offering him twice the usual op-ed space. Then they told him "be more expansive. ... It was a lot of fun to work with them." Wilson wanted op-ed because he wanted the "luxury" of writing and editing his thoughts.
On July 6, 2003, his op-ed piece said, in part, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The White House counterattacked, most notoriously using Robert Novak and his syndicated column to vilify Wilson and identify his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, as a CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
Her cover and networks blown, the CIA asked the Justice Department to identify the leaker. You know what happened next in this festering intelligence and political scandal.
Meanwhile, Wilson says, courtiers among Washington reporters, columnists and network TV hosts allowed Bush to deflect criticism by urging them to write "about Wilson and his wife rather than the 16 words." The "intensity of that effort" has been hard to resist, he adds. Wilson suggests three reasons for Bush's successful misdirection:
· Investigative reporting has declined into treating all sides in a controversy equally rather than digging into "dirt ball" situations and piling up evidence for readers.
· After 9/11, "There was a real suspension of natural skepticism" toward government pronouncements among the news media.
· "This administration is extraordinarily intimidating," even complaining about morning TV talk shows when hosts' "interviews try too hard."
Worse, those national news media, on whom local papers and TV stations rely, "are predisposed to report anything the government says," Wilson continues.
That might be changing. "Finally, after two years, they are beginning to go back," Wilson says. Still, "Everyone knows the name of Valerie Plame Wilson" but not who wrote/approved those 16 words in Bush's speech, even though they knew or should have known the Niger story was not credible.
Reporting also is recovering because some members of the Washington press corps have "awakened to the fact that the administration is not always worthy of the benefit of doubt." Wilson attributes this in part to the actions and statements of Bush and his appointees after Hurricane Katrina, a growing sense that the White House bent intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion and the entire, dispiriting mess surrounding the "leak of Valerie's name."
Wilson faults Times and Post coverage of his efforts to correct the record on Niger and the outing of his wife, and network TV "is not a whole lot better. ... They, too, suspended their skepticism and were too easily distracted by the administration."
Unresolved is the practice among too many "members of the press" of valuing relationships with sources above obligations to readers, Wilson says. This worship of access, he adds, erodes the "appropriate role" of the news media in a democracy.
Finally, Wilson finds it "absolutely laughable" when Washington reporters invoke the "sanctity" of confidentiality for sources after "gossiping" among themselves about who told them what. His name was "bandied" about before he went public with his criticism in The Times, Wilson says, and "the same people said Valerie was a CIA operative" before Novak wrote his column.
"The press was gossiping among themselves because of leaks from the White House," he says.
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In their search for higher profits and personal job security, newspaper publishers are shrinking pages and news holes, shedding journalists by the hundreds and cheapening their product to meet the Internet challenge.
Nowhere is this more painful than at Knight Ridder, whose fine papers include the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and The San Jose Mercury News.
To please investors, Knight Ridder reduced staffs to the point of driving some execs to quit in protest. Not good enough. Knight Ridder is under intense pressure from a major investor, Private Capital Management, to sell its papers to someone even more devoted to profits than Pulitzers.
Pained Knight Ridder alumni circulated an open letter, urging unhappy investors to sell Knight Ridder if typical annual profits around 20 percent aren't enough. If, however, investors maintain their pressure to sell, the alumni promised to field competing nominees for the corporate board.
Former Cincinnatians can be heard on both sides.
Polk Laffoon IV, Knight Ridder's vice president/spokesman, once worked at The Cincinnati Post. Editor & Publisher quoted him responding to the alumni letter, saying, "The thought that a group of well-meaning alumni could put up their own slate and beat the institutions is not practical in the world we live in."
Signers with whom I worked before they joined Knight Ridder include Jan Leach, a friend and former Enquirer managing editor, and Mike Blackman, one of the wacky and talented Texans who invaded The Enquirer in the 1970s. Leach, who became editor of The Akron Beacon Journal, is "professional in residence" at Kent State University's journalism school and completing a graduate degree in ethics. Blackman, who holds an endowed chair in journalism at Sam Houston State University, also worked at The Cincinnati Post before joining Knight Ridder as foreign editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and editor of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Citing founder Jack Knight's traditions, they wrote, in part, "Knight Ridder is not merely another public company. It is a public trust. It must balance corporate profitability with civic purpose. We oppose those who would cripple the purpose by coercing more profit. We abhor those for whom good business is insufficient and excellent journalism is irrelevant. We have watched mostly in silent dismay as short-term profit demands have diminished long-term capacity of newsrooms in Knight Ridder and other public media companies. We are silent no more."
In an interview, Leach said she was motivated by personal values enhanced by those of The Beacon Journal, which was Knight's flagship paper. Leach signed the alumni open letter because it "said some important things about journalism today. ... It might, maybe, get people to think about how important journalism might be in the future."
Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.