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As Long as We Remember...

December 13, 2005

My Ailing Trade

Roy Meachum

Whatever Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald ultimately unveils about alleged White House attempts to manipulate the media, his investigation has made mockery of the news profession's claim that it protects public interests, first and last.

In the Washington jungle, today’s journalists vie with lobbyists in learning to cover their butts; understanding, of course, that politicians are in a class that makes all others appear the amateurs they really are, by comparison.

In the Who Outed the CIA Spy mystery, the one lesson very clear can be found in the continuing revelation of how those covered and their “coverees” take turns at being on top.

In exchange for Vice President Richard Cheney’s chief of staff “helping” her with a story on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller agreed to identify her source as a former Capitol Hill employee.

While technically true, Ms. Miller actually deliberately lied to readers and her editors, as it turned out, by using a non-existent “outside” source that allegedly confirmed a key element in the run up to the administration’s invasion of Iraq.

She employed America’s most revered journalistic icon to advance political propaganda that turned out to be totally false.

However, even if the story were true, Ms. Miller made mockery of any pretense of professional ethics, totally for herself and to a major degree for her employer. She richly deserved firing.

But so did her editor, who has admitted failure to seek verification, including sources. He should join her on the unemployment line for grievously neglecting his responsibilities.

Time Magazine’s Viveca Novak appears headed for the same fate, which she might deserve even more.

In a conversation with Karl Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, she revealed that the president’s most trusted political advisor may have committed perjury. Under oath, he had denied having spoken about the CIA ex-spy with Ms. Novak’s colleague, Matthew Cooper.

When Mr. Luskin tried out that story on Ms. Novak, over wine in an uptown café, she replied along the lines: That’s not what she had heard around the Time bureau.

Believing it might help his client’s case, Mr. Luskin told Mr. Fitzgerald; the lawyer hoped the spring 2004 date on the wine tête-à-tête would remove suspicion that Mr. Rove had been the prime “leaker” on the story.

Instead, he opened a new can of worms that could cost Ms. Novak’s job. It should. She withheld from her Time bureau chief several conversations she held with Mr. Luskin, seeking the inside track, which was permissible.

But once the investigation was announced, she had a clear obligation to let her editor in on her possible involvement. Especially when she realized, as admitted in her “confession,” she knew instantly, the attorney learned for the first time Mr. Rove may have lied to both the grand jury and him.

Her rationalization for hiding her role is only rationalization; no first-year journalism student could fail to know once Mr. Fitzgerald was appointed to seek out who provided the spy’s identity to columnist Robert Novak (no kin), she had no choice but to inform not only her editor but the special prosecutor. She has worked for the magazine for nearly 10 years.

Whining about how she saw how other reporters suffered public exposure and grand jury examination was her reason, but there can be no excuse.

The lady has been put on a leave of absence, while the editor decides her fate. In fact, she owes a resignation, giving the company an option; she created the mess.

Time deserves credit for its handling of Viveca Novak’s lapse of ethics, particularly when The Washington Post continues the cover up for Robert Woodward, whose arrogant behavior I’ve written about before in

Mr. Woodward’s easy absolution by his editor and publisher Don Graham remains a disgrace, unworthy of the paper’s tradition for openness and integrity. The Watergate celebrity should have been cut loose, free to write more books, weeks ago.

That he was not simply shows how very sick indeed has become the trade I’ve practiced most of my life.

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