Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Watching the Watchmen 

Greg Palast does due diligence on the two co-chairs of the "Independent Review Panel" behind the Memogate report that led to heads a-rollin' at CBS:
Remember Dickie Thornburgh? He was on the Bush 41 Administration's payroll. His grand accomplishment as Bush's Attorney General was to whitewash the investigation of the Exxon Valdez Oil spill, letting the oil giant off the hook on big damages. Thornburgh's fat pay as counsel to Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, the Washington law-and-lobbying outfit, is substantially due to his job as a Bush retainer. This is the kind of stinky conflict of interest that hardly suggests "independent." Why not just appoint Karl Rove as CBS' grand inquisitor and be done with it?

Then there's [Louis] Boccardi, not exactly a prince of journalism. This is the gent who, as CEO of the Associated Press, spiked his own wire service's exposure of Oliver North and his traitorous dealings with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Legendary AP investigative reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger found their stories outing the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 stopped by their bosses. They did not know that Boccardi was on those very days deep in the midst of talks with North, participating in the conspiracy.

Today I spoke with Parry at his home in Virginia. He was sympathetic to Boccardi who at the time was trying to spring AP reporter Terry Anderson held hostage in Iran. But to do so, Boccardi joined, unwittingly, in a criminal conspiracy to trade guns for hostages. He then spiked his own news agency's investigation of it. Parry later discovered a 1986 email from North to John Poindexter in which North notes that Boccardi "is supportive of our terropism (sic) policy" and wants to keep the story "quiet." Poindexter was indicted, then pardoned. Boccardi was not, and there is no indication he knew he was abetting a crime. But the AP demoted journalist Barger and forced him to quit for -- the offense of trying to report the biggest story of the decade. This hardly gives Mr. Spike the qualification to pass judgment on working journalists.

And who are the journalists whom CBS has burned at the corporate stake? The first lined up for career execution is '60 Minutes' producer Mary Mapes. Besides the Bush draft dodge story, Mapes produced the exposé of the torture at Abu Ghraib when other networks had the same material and buried it . . . .

CBS executives' model was clearly the hatchet job done on BBC news last year by the so-called "Hutton Report." In that case, some used-up lordship viciously attacked the BBC's ballsy uncovering of an official lie: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Lord Hutton seized on a minor error by one reporter to attempt to discredit the entire BBC investigation of governmental mendacity.

I would note that neither CBS nor the New York Times punished a single reporter for passing on, as hard news, the Bush Administration fibs and whoppers about Saddam Hussein's nuclear and biological weapons programs. Shameful repetitions of propaganda produced no resignations -- indeed, picked up an Emmy or two.
And Jack Shafer of Slate, although disinclined to cut Mapes any slack, feels that the members of the panel fundamentally misunderstood the nature of investigative journalism:
Feldstein points out that the two in-house lawyers who vetted the Bush service-record story received no direct reprimand in the panel's review and no discipline from superiors. Maybe the lawyers are irreproachable, or maybe the eight lawyers on the panel (Thornburgh plus the Kirkpatrick & Lockhart crew) protect their own, but the absence of Heyward, Rather, and the lawyers from the report's shit list only buttresses Feldstein's thesis.

Although the review pretends that the Bush service story was an anomaly, a temporary unhinging of CBS News' high journalistic standards, anybody who has worked with investigative reporters will recognize the fact-shaving, source-buttering, and ethics-skirting practiced by Mapes and her colleagues. Investigative reporters are a different breed of human being, possessed of the absolute conviction that their wild hunches are provable. They're well-practiced at selectively quoting people and documents, overstating their case, and shamelessly revising their previous statements at a moment's notice if they believe it will serve their project. And that's no slam. Investigative reporters don't construct their stories from press handouts; they burrow into deep, dark, and dangerous terrain to uncover truths. If they weren't as resourceful at compromising reality, we'd have no investigative reporting at all . . . .

Evidence of the reviewers' cluelessness comes when the panel assesses the CBS journalists for political bias and discovers none. I don't know that I've met more than four or five investigative journalists in my life who didn't wear their political biases on their flapping tongues. Almost to a one, they're suspicious (paranoid?) about corporate power, dubious about the intentions of governments, and convinced that at this very moment a secret meeting is being held somewhere in which a hateful conspiracy against the masses is being hatched. I won't provoke the investigative-journalist union by alleging that most of its members are Democrats or lefties, but aside from a few right-wing reporters sucking conservative teats inside the government, how many Republican investigative aces can you name? . . . .

Still, many questions demand to be answered about this journalistic fiasco. Who moved the Bush service segment from its scheduled Sept. 29 slot to Sept. 8, forcing Mapes and company to "crash" the segment for broadcast? The report skims over this issue with passive language, asserting that "it was decided to move up the date" and the "decision was driven in significant part by competitive pressures. …" Did CBS News fear that it would be beaten on the story, as it almost was on the
Abu Ghraib story, which Mapes also produced? Also, the panel never resolves the fundamental question of whether the service documents were forgeries or not—a bit of a cheat if they charged three months of billable hours for their services.

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