I admit it: I’m gleeful about the White House scandal, as indictments appear imminent. These last days have been some of the happiest since Team Bush seized power 57 months ago. It couldn’t happen to a more reckless bunch of bullies– who launched one of the most disastrous wars in history.
It’s traditional in elite punditry to grouse about how such a scandal hurts our country or our image abroad. I take a different view: If the White House is demoralized and paralyzed, our country and world can breathe easier.
But there’s a special reason this scandal is so personally satisfying to me as a media critic. It’s because elite journalism is on trial. Powerful journalists are playing the role usually played in these scandals by besieged White House operatives. They’re in the witness dock. It’s a New York Times reporter who is failing to recall key facts…mysteriously locating misplaced documents…being leaned on to synchronize alibis.
Elite journalism is at the center of Weaponsgate, and it can’t extricate itself from the scandal. Because, at its core, Weaponsgate (or, if you’re in a hurry, “Wargate”) is about how the White House and media institutions jointly sold a war based on deception — and how the White House turned to these media institutions to neutralize a war critic who challenged the deception.
When the Nixon White House went after war critic Dan Ellsberg, it turned to former CIA guys, specialists in break-ins. When the Bush White House went after war critic Joe Wilson (and his wife), it turned to journalists like Bob Novak and Judy Miller.
Today, elite journalists can’t pretend to be on the outside looking in at a scandal that doesn’t involve them. This scandal is about them — it’s about White House-media cronyism, about journalists on the top rung of the phone trees of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, two of the dirtiest smear artists in Washington history. It’s no accident Rove and Libby didn’t turn to Helen Thomas or Seymour Hersh about Joe Wilson. They turned to journalists they could count on — at news outlets that had dutifully promoted so many pre-war lies
In the past, elite journalists were up to their neck in scandals — but they were deft about writing themselves out of the story. That can’t happen in this scandal involving the origins of the Iraq War.
It did happen in the scandal at the origins of the Vietnam War: the Tonkin Gulf hoax. In pursuit of his long-held strategy, President Johnson went on national TV in August 1964 to announce a momentous escalation of the war: air strikes against North Vietnam in response to an “unprovoked attack” on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin.
But there’d been no such attack on the U.S. Johnson’s ploy succeeded because major news media reported official lies as absolute truth. The next day’s headline in the Washington Post spoke of North Vietnam’s “New Aggression.” The New York Times reported of U.S. “retaliatory action” and editorialized in support of Johnson and his “somber facts.”
When the truth on Tonkin came out years later, blame focused on the White House, not the media. In 1998, my colleague Norman Solomon interviewed former Washington Post reporter Murrey Marder, who’d written much of the paper’s credulous Tonkin coverage. He expressed deep regret. Asked if the Post ever retracted its Tonkin reporting, Marder said: “I can assure you that there was never any retraction.” He added: “If you were making a retraction, you’d have to make a retraction of virtually everyone’s entire coverage of the Vietnam War.”
Around the same time as the Tonkin hoax, another national scandal was occurring: the FBI was waging a vicious campaign to “neutralize” Martin Luther King, Jr. In its efforts to Commie-bait King and expose his extramarital affairs, the Bureau sought the help of powerful journalists, who were shown photos, tapes and bedroom transcripts derived from FBI voyeurism. Dozens of reporters, editors and publishers knew the Bureau was tracking King day and night, but none blew the whistle. (To journalists, J. Edgar Hoover was apparently an even more imposing figure than Karl Rove.)
When the FBI’s anti-King operation became public years later, journalists largely avoided scrutiny of their own role. But in the words of black novelist John A. Williams, they’d been the FBI’s “silent partners.”
Decades have passed since the scandals of Vietnam and J. Edgar Hoover. But the cozy relationships between the elites of media and government persist — to the point where we can’t tell today whether officials are journalists’ sources, or vice versa. In the current scandal, thankfully, it’s impossible for mainstream media to pretend the scandal doesn’t involve them.
PS. Friday’s Wall Street Journal reports that the special prosecutor may charge White House officials “with leaking garden-variety classified information” under the vaguely-worded, rarely-used 1917 Espionage Act prohibiting disclosure of “national defense” information. If so, glee could turn to gloom. Since too much is classified, such a prosecution would chill legitimate whistle-blowers, not the Roves and Libbys.