Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Press and the White House, Then and Now

I have followed the whole Newsweek/Guantanamo controversy with somewhat mixed feelings, because I think that Michael Isikoff's performance in 1998-9, as described in his own book, represented some of the worst trends in contemporary journalism. As he admitted, he discovered a conspiracy to bring down the President based upon a sexual indiscretion, but rather than report upon the conspiracy, he became, in effect, a part of it. Yet despite that, I am far more shocked by the failure of even those who are trying to stand up for Newsweek, such as Frank Rich this morning, to focus on the precise nature of the "mistake" the magazine made. And I am saddened, though not really surprised, that no one but me, apparently, has recognized the parallel between their error and another similar one that two reporters named Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward made about 33 years ago--and the vastly different response by their parent publication.
Let us review exactly what Newsweek did. It reported not simply that the Koran had been flushed down the toilet--a report that has already appeared in many respected newspapers, largely as a result of testimony by detainees--but that a secret Pentagon report confirmed this. Before printing the item they showed it to Pentagon officials who did not dispute that part of the story--and so they printed it.
The parallel? In the fall of 1972, during the Presidential campaign, Bernstein and Woodward were driving another White House--one whose standing in the polls was far higher--crazy with stories about the Watergate scandal, including campaign financing abuses and payments from a secret fund of cash. This was earning their paper, and particularly their editor Ben Bradlee, almost daily abuse from press secretary Ron Ziegler and various Republican operatives of the kind that today is reserved for people like Michael Moore or Howard Dean. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an attack from Senator Robert Dole:

"The greatest political scandal of this campaign is the brazen manner in which, without benefit of clergy, the Washington Post has set up housekeeping with the McGovern campaign. With his campaign collapsing around his ears, Mr. McGovern some weeks back became the beneficiary of the most extensive journalistic rescue-and-salvage operation in American politics. . . .
"There is a cultural and social affinity between the McGovernites and the Post executives and editors. They belong to the same elite; they can be found living cheek by jowl in the same exclusive chic neighborhoods, and hob-nobbing in the same Georgetown parties."

The similarity between the rhetoric of Administration supporters today and Nixon supporters in 1972 is quite remarkable. It is also noteworthy that Vice President Cheney has been reported many times to be determined to restore the power of the Presidency as it was diminished by Watergate--which, one might argue, means allowing the President and his subordinates to get away with abuses of the Constitution. That, however, is a broader subject.

On October 25, Woodward and Bernstein wrote their biggest story to date--that H. R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff--and the equivalent, in those days, of Karl Rove today--was one of five men controlling a secret slush fund--and that Hugh Sloan, the former finance chairman of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, had so testified before a Grand Jury. Although they had made numerous attempts to confirm this on the day before, and thought they had, the story was, in one respect, false--and they immediately learned from Sloan's attorney in a public statement. Haldeman did control the fund, as it turned out, but Sloan had not so testified before the Grand Jury, because the subject had never come up. Gleefully Press Secretary Ron Ziegler spent a half an hour denouncing the Post and claiming that Ben Bradlee's obvious anti-Nixon bias (Bradlee had been a good friend of John Kennedy) was obviously responsible for the story.

What happened next was even more interesting. Bradlee, who had served on a Navy combat ship in the Second World War and had journalist friends killed during the Suez crisis, quickly found out what the mistake in the story was. He didn't care. Not only did he have loyalty to his young subordinates, but he realized, apparently, that the essential truth of their accusation--that Haldeman had controlled this fund--was more important than the mistake about the Grand Jury. "We stand by our story," the Post announced. Within six months they had been vindicated, spectacularly, because of the essential truth of their reporting all fall.

Now as Frank Rich does point out today, the flushing down of the Koran would, if true, merely represent one of many, many well-established incidents of abusive treatment of detainees, much of it designed to offend their religious sensibilities, which has been well-documented in official reports. But even he, vehement critic of the Administration that he is, does not mention that even Scott McClellan is not really claiming that the flushing of the Koran didn't occur--only that Newsweek made a mistake by attributing it to an official report. (Good evidence was published in yesterday's New York Daily News that the accusation did figure in FBI reports.) There is, of course, also a similarity between this controversy and the one last fall over the documents CBS released regarding President Bush's Air Force Reserve service. No one has actually proved those documents were false, much less that the essential story they told was false--indeed, the bulk of the evidence suggests that the story they told was very close to the facts. All that has been shown is that CBS should have been more careful about authenticating them. In both cases, the White House, with considerable success, has campaigned to prevent Americans from taking anything those two publications seriously, even though it is anything but clear that they have given a false impression of the facts. The Koran story has been repeated and reported so many times that I think any reasonable person would have to conclude that it is probably true. Even if it isn't, a pattern of abuse of detainees' beliefs has certainly been established.

Yet the CBS 60 Minutes weekday show that broadcast the story is being cancelled, its editors have been fired, and the press--including, ironically, the columnist Richard Cohen of the Washington Post--accepts the idea that Newsweek made a terrible mistake, and concentrates on the question of whether bias motivated it! I wrote the Post a brief letter yesterday raising the Watergate parallel which I discussed above. So far I have had no indication that the editors plan to publish it. Today the Post ombudsman has printed a violent attack on the story. Can one draw any conclusion other than that the Bush Administration is succeeding where the Nixon Administration failed?

Amazingly enough, despite the evidence of Alberto Gonzales's and other internal memos repudiating the Geneva Convention, cables by high-ranking generals, and a widespread pattern of abuse, the Administration continues to state that any abuses of detainees are the work of a few bad apples among our military. I was reminded of this again and again yesterday at the movies, as I watched the new documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Enron depended completely on controlling reality--on propagating the idea that it was making money when it wasn't, basing profit and loss statements on estimates of future earnings, concealing the manipulation of the market that deprived California of electricity (and drove the Governor of our largest state out of office), and so on. It did so partly because so many other major institutions, including our biggest banks, investment bankers, and financial journals, had such an enormous stake in believing that what Enron said was true. The tapes made of Enron traders showed their utter contempt for their customers, the public, and really, everyone else--because they were getting away with it. Was Enron a unique institution? Or is the same pattern ruling our political life today--in which case, I believe, it is bound eventually to have even worse results? Time, alas, will tell.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Republicans and the Senate Rules

The Republican Senate leadershp and the White House, as everyone knows, is threatning to seek a ruling by Vice President Cheney halting filibusters against federal appeals court and Supreme Court judges. They are doing so, according to their propagandists and supporters among the religious right, to make the courts safe against "activist judges" who twist the law to promote an anti-religious, secular agenda. Yet it would be extremely difficult, I think, to find any federal court decision that would trample so blatantly upon the law that it claimed to interpret as the Republican stratagem does upon the Senate rules.

As usual, major media outlets are giving the impression that the merits of the case are roughly evenly divided. To do so, they have had to avoid giving the text of Senate Rule XXII, which sets the procedures for cutting off debate. Here is the key provision:

2. Notwithstanding the provisions of rule II or rule IV or any other rule of the Senate, at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate and direct that the clerk call the roll, and upon the ascertainment that a quorum is present, the Presiding Officer shall, without debate, submit to the Senate by a yea-and-nay vote the question:

"Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?" And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn -- except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting -- then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of.


The current controversy obviously involves two provisions of this rule. The first question raised is whether the confirmation of a judge is a "motion, measure, or other matter pending before the Senate," and I do not see how anyone could argue that it is not. But the second passage which I have italicized is even more critical, because it requires not 60 votes, but 2/3 of all Senators present and voting, to alter the Senate rules, which, obviously, is what the Republican leadership wants to do. They, however, propose to do so merely by moving to ask the Vice President, in the chair, to rule that the above language does not apply to nominations for the Appeals Court--an idea for which there is absolutely no basis in the text--and then to sustain that ruling with a simple majority, rather than the 2/3 vote that the rules plainly require.

Now in an attempt to find out whether any major media outlet has brought the above provision of the rules to the attention of the American people, I did a google search for the second passage that I italicized above. The answer appears to be no. Several bloggers had printed it, but no newspaper or magazine had--with one fascinating exception. What should pop up but a May 2003 article by Byron York in the National Review online. It discussed the judicial filibuster issue quite evenhandedly, and included the following interesting paragraph:

"Nevertheless, some Republicans are studying Senate precedents with an eye toward advancing the idea that Rule 22 does not apply to judicial nominations. But as attractive as that idea seems, many Republicans remain skeptical. 'If they're going to do it [break the filibusters] by having the chair say X is really Y,' says one, 'that would be parliamentary activism.'"

So it would, but no one reading the press today would know it.

While I do not relish returning to one of my favorite themes yet again this morning, I really have no choice. Once again we see that Republicans born between 1944 and 1954 or so have the same attitude towards precedents, established procedures, and the rights of minorities that their leftist contemporaries showed in campus battles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because they are right, in their estimation, it doesn't matter how they get what they want. And let us face one thing right now: should this legislative coup take place with respect to nominations, there will be nothing to prevent the Republican leadership from repeating it with respect to a new tax cut, an extension and intensification of the Patriot Act, legislation to deprive gay partners of employee benefits, legislation allowing religious displays at public buildings, social security reform, or anything else. The minority protections offered by the Senate rules will have been illegally abolished. And because our major media outlets don't want to have to deal with the intellectual and professional consequences of recognizing the enormity of what is happening, they are ignoring it.

Republicans are now pointing out that filibusters have in the past been used to stop civil rights legislation, and from 1876 to 1957, they were. They were also used by antiwar Senators to stop the arming of merchant ships in early 1917--and by Republicans to stop President Johnson's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1968. But after the country had finally awoken to the need finally to grant full citizenship to black citizens in the 1950s and early 1960s, the filibuster against the great 1964 Civil Rights Act was defeated. As a matter of fact, in light of democratic principles the anti-civil rights filibusters were far less defensible than today's filibusters against the President's judicial nominees. The southern senators who filibustered against anti-lynching and civil rights legislation were elected by only a very partial electorate, in violation of the Constitution. Today, President Bush's judicial nominees and their principles are deeply repugnant to between 45 and 55% of the voting population. What Democratic Senators are trying to protect are the rights either of a very large minority, or of an actual majority that probably won the election of 2000--or certainly would have had they all properly cast their Florida votes--and was very narrowly beaten in 2004. The rules of the Senate clearly allow them to do so. The Republican response, here as in so many other areas, is to ignore the rules.