Saturday, February 17, 2007

Too Much Brow Beating From Tim Rutten

I should start out this morning by saying that in the light of subsequent revelations I was too complimentary to NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert in defending him the other day against the assertions of L.A. Times columnist Scott Collins.

Russert was indeed guilty of what Times media columnist Tim Rutten this morning calls "sleazy double-dealing," when he took a public stand against grand jury testimony in the case of Vice President Cheney's aide, Scooter Libby, while at the same time talking secretly about it to the FBI.

And Rutten seems right too in castigating San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams for sticking by their pledges of confidentiality in a San Francisco steroid case even when they knew their source, low-life defense attorney Troy Ellerman, was lying to a federal judge, accusing the prosecution of leaking the material he had leaked himself to the two reporters and demanding a mistrial be declared in the steroid case based on his false accusations.

Still, despite being right on these two counts, I think Rutten goes too far in so broadly blaming the press for ethical transgressions in the collecting of information in Washington during the buildup to the war in Iraq.

Rutten seems to be saying to the beleaguered press corps that they should not talk to sources unless they are positive they are good sources. He even takes out against Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, once again for talking to a "bad" source, Scooter Libby, when, in fact, she never wrote an article about what he had told her.

It is not a solution to the problems of Washington reporting to suggest that reporters should avoid high-ranking sources in the sitting administration, even if they are somewhat suspect.

What does Rutten want, that Washington reporters stick to listening only to those without power, in the opposition, so they can question those in power? This is no more workable a policy.

Rutten is putting too much reliance on the press being so savvy as to being able to distinguish between good and bad information at times when government is operating behind a veil and press knowledge of what is going on behind the scenes is very clouded.

We've reached a point where there is so much unhappiness about the way the war in Iraq is going that anyone who ever had anything to do with it is coming in for his or her share of the blame. Often, the shots are scattered.

The fact is that wars are nearly always accompanied by lies and delusions. It is too much to put the onus on the press for not providing quasi-revolutionary resistance to government officials such as Rutten seems to be demanding here.

The very nature of the reporting profession is that you have to talk to those in or close to authority who have the information and then try to sort out, as best you can, whether the information you are getting is true. Sometimes, you are going to make mistakes. In the very nature of things, not all reporting can be accurate.

I found myself, in covering politics for the Times, that high-ranking sources are sometimes not the best, and that the famed New York Times correspondent, Harrison Salisbury, was not always correct when he said the best leaks fizzed from the top.

Often, in fact, the best information came from lower-ranking people with access to the top.

This was certainly true when I covered Eugene McCarthy's campaign in 1968. It was McCarthy's mistress and his valet who both told me that McCarthy would hold back an endorsement of Hubert Humphrey for President after he lost the Democratic nomination to him at the riotous Democratic convention in Chicago. I went with it, quoting anonymous sources, and it turned out to be right.

Similarly, in the Russian boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it was not Peter Ueberroth or Juan Antonio Samaranch who told me the Soviets were going to boycott the Games. It was the Romanian member of the International Olympic Committee and an East German newsman. Knowing them well, I took their word for it and wrote accordingly, and I was glad later I'd been right in doing so. Still, I went off on a backpacking trip for a weekend with my son, and was lucky to get back in time for the actual Soviet announcement.

It is not a question of not using confidential sources. It is a question of trying to assess when sources are reliable, and then proceeding on your judgments.

Still, when you find out your sources have been lying, I agree with Rutten that it's important to say so.


Teresa Watanabe's non-dupe story in the L.A. Times Friday about the service and death in Iraq of UCLA political science graduate Mark Daily was a wonderful piece, for which she deserves the highest marks. I wish everyone who serves in Iraq could be as confident about the utility of their mission as Daily was. The fact, however, in this difficult war is that many who serve are not as sure they are always doing the right thing. That they go ahead and do the best they can anyway is admirable.



Anonymous james Fulton said...

It's good to see someone challenge Rutten's huffy, righteous comments once in a while. You're right on the mark in noting that Judith Miller draws his ire even though she didn't write a story.

2/17/2007 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

who gives a flying one about what russert says and how Rutten replies? Shop talk among pompous talking heads is hardly a riveting read and does little to illuminate the role of the so-called fourth estate versus the government.

2/18/2007 9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"non-dupe story in the L.A. Times"

Ken, as I used to point out once in a while to my former colleagues, the word "dupe" means someone who is a fool and easily taken advantage of. The in-house reference to the Col. 1 story should be "non-dup," as in a story that the competition can't duplicate.

2/22/2007 11:01 PM  

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