Best of Doublethink Flashback: A lesson of Plamegate

Editor’s Note: The following piece, Tim Carney’s discussion of the flawed coverage of Robert Novak-Valerie Plame controversy, is the eighth installment of a two-week series recalling ten of the best contributions to Doublethink. This item originally ran on September 24, 2006. It is based in part on Carney’s experience as a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report. Many thanks to the three former Doublethink editors — Cheryl Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, James Poulos of The Huffington Post, and Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman — who assisted in compiling this list. — Joel Gehrke

In Dublin, I was blissfully drinking a pint of Guiness in a pub with newfound Irish friends. At about that very moment, across an ocean, my boss, Robert Novak, was filing his column. The sixth paragraph of that article began: “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.”

Three days later, I was clipping side mirrors off of parked cars with my rental on the narrow roads of Tipperary when Novak’s column hit the newsstands, and so I didn’t notice that he had reported on the identity of an intelligence officer–but almost nobody did. It wasn’t until about two and a half months later, when The Washington Post reported about an investigation, that we started hearing about Novak “outing” a CIA agent.

Throughout the whole saga I happily avoided picking up any inside information, but my proximity to the story compelled me to follow it more closely. With the benefit only of publicly reported information and a dab of common sense, I was able to tell just how far off from the truth so much of the media’s coverage of this story was.

Possibly blinded by their hope to nail Novak and the White House, so many journalists in so many publications mangled the story as it developed. Bob Schieffer asserted in 2005 that investigators had no idea who Bob Novak’s source was. Dozens of opinionistas baldly claimed (contrary to fact and with no proof) that Novak was never asked to testify.

I collected many of these patently false stories as they came out, with the intention of mocking them here once the dust had settled a bit. But then, one day, in The Los Angeles Times, George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley provided a tour de force of falsehoods and bonehead statements. While the column was unprecedented in its error, the false claims peppering the article were mostly unoriginal, leaving me with a clearinghouse of Novak-Plame myths.

First, Turley characterized Novak’s July 14 column as “classic Novak: a hatchet job directed not at Plame, but at her husband”–Wilson. The column in question contains this passage: “[A]s U.S. charge in Baghdad, [Wilson] risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein’s wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed ‘the stuff of heroism.’” A “hatchet job,” indeed.

Turley next assigns motive. “Novak’s original intention, it seems, was to publicly damage Wilson, who had embarrassed President Bush by showing that he relied on false information to justify the Iraq war.”

Again, what could be more publicly damaging than accusations that he “risked his life” showing the “stuff of heroism”?

But seriously, why would Novak stick up for Bush’s claims about WMD? This is the same Robert Novak’s whose September13, 2001 column was headlined, “This is No Pearl Harbor,” and who a month later wrote: “Even the most hawkish officials privately admit that there is no evidence linking Baghdad to the Sept. 11 attacks, but they want to conclude the unfinished task of a decade ago anyway.” When Novak wrote about the post-9/11 call to invade Iraq, he phrased it: “That temptation will test George W. Bush’s prudence and wisdom.”

Novak has objected to the Iraq war (earning him scorn on the right) and questioned the intelligence cited by hawks from the beginning, including a May 2002 column with the headline “No Meeting in Prague.” Still, Turley claims Novak was attacking Wilson for expressing the same skepticism.

Turley’s next charge was that Novak wrote about Plame despite the fact that “he was asked not to publish Plame’s name by a CIA official.” This is an interesting new journalistic ethic Turley proposes: If a government official asks you not to publish something, you should obey.

Turley’s next beef with Novak is still more ridiculous. Novak, Turley writes, “suggests that it was important to point out that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent in order to explain why Wilson had been sent. . . . But whatever the value of this information, Novak could have ended it there. Instead he chose to name Wilson’s wife.” Of course, Wilson’s wife name was found in Joe Wilson’s listing in Who’s Who.

Again, Turley was not alone in these whoppers. Tom Daschle said on national television that Novak was a mouthpiece for the Administration, at about the time Novak wrote a column about this same Administration titled, “The Arrogance of Power.”

Dozens of journalists screamed and whined that Novak had not been compelled to testify and said it was corrupt that Judy Miller and Matt Cooper were going to jail while Novak stayed out. There was no corruption. Novak, being a constitutional textualist, never asserted an imaginary First Amendment right to protect one’s sources.

Much of the error from columnists and pundits stemmed from their assumption that once Novak told investigators what he knew, he would–like Miller and Cooper–run and tell the whole planet. A similar root cause of their error was the assumption that once federal investigators learned Novak’s source, they would announce his name to the country. Instead, Novak reluctantly talked to investigators about his conversation with Richard Armitage, and then, pursuant to his pledge of confidentiality, told nobody else.

When you follow a story closely, and then follow the media’s coverage of it closely, it’s an infuriating but enlightening experience. The carelessness, presumptiveness, and bias of columnists and pundits is no surprise, but the Plame case made clear to me the depth of these flaws. Hopefully all journalists, including me, can learn a lesson of humility from professor Turley.

Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money. He wrote this piece as the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor at Human Events. He has since written a second book, Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses, and taken a position as Senior Political Columnist at The Washington Examiner.

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