Many of those on both the left and right found something to like in the news of Joe and Valerie Wilson’s lawsuit against administration officials they claim outed Mrs. Wilson as a CIA operative. Many on the left loved the idea of Vice President Cheney and Presidential Advisor Karl Rove facing legal headaches and accompanying expenses. Many on the right welcomed the prospect of the Wilsons being deposed under oath with the possible result of them being exposed to the general public as egotistical opportunists and liars.
Those on the right should not expect much. In spite of the facts, the Wilson-Plame story lives on in the mainstream media much the same as it was told in the beginning. The Wilsons won the public relations war and wrote the conventional wisdom on the story at the time Joe Wilson wrote his July 2003 opinion piece in the New York Times, and Robert Novak wrote his column the same month naming Valerie Plame as the probable reason Wilson was sent on the Africa mission. The story has remained largely unchanged in mainstream media outlets since then.
Wilson sat for fawning profiles on 60 Minutes and other network broadcasts in which he was always put forward as the brave whistleblower trying to protect his victim wife from the unwanted media spotlight. It was presented as fact that Wilson had debunked the “16 word” statement in the State of the Union address that British Intelligence sources believed Iraq had sought uranium from Africa. Reporters never pointed to any of the many inconsistencies in Wilson's stories. They fed him softballs and painted a picture of an out-of -control administration that would out a CIA agent, putting her very life in danger, in order to discredit and get revenge on a critic of the President's war policy.
Robert Novak’s revelations last week showed that many of Wilson’s assertions, which had been repeated time and time again as fact, were flat out false. Many of the facts that have come to light over the past three years from other sources are also contrary to Joe Wilson’s very colorful original story.
When Joe and Valerie Wilson announced their lawsuit the day after Novak broke his silence, the obvious question was, why would they choose timing that would surely draw attention to the glaring discrepancies between their claims and the testimony of Novak.
The Wilsons knew what they were doing, though. Just as the tale of Joe Wilson had been spun and regurgitated by reporters over the past three years in spite of contradictory information, reporting on the lawsuit followed the same old script.
Even the Washington Post, in an editorial published in April, concluded that Joe Wilson had lied and that the White House was justified in leaking information to correct those lies. But those editorial page conclusions did not successfully survive the jump to the news.
As Christopher Hitchens recently wrote, in spite of the facts contrary to Wilson’s claims, the story lived on:
“When one thinks of the oceans of ink and acres of paper that have been wasted on this mother of all nonstories, one wants to weep for the journalistic profession as well as for the trees. Well before Novak felt able to go public, he had said that his original source was not "a partisan gunslinger," which by any reasonable definition means that he was consciously excluding the names of Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. And how likely was it anyway that either man, seeking to revenge himself on Joseph Wilson, would go to a columnist who is known to be one of Wilson's admirers (praise for him and his career was a central theme in the original 2003 article), is friendly with the CIA, and is furthermore known as a staunch and consistent foe of the administration's intervention in Iraq? The whole concept was nonsense on its face.”
Yet it has survived for three years and continues to survive in mainstream media coverage.
The 9/11 commission findings, a Senate committee report and the Novak revelations, which should have been reported as proof that Wilson was not telling the truth but were not, have convinced me that the public might never get the truth about the Wilson-Plame story from the mainstream media. I am even more sure that we will never hear the story of how and why so many bought Wilson’s story hook, line and sinker and stuck with that storyline in the face of various sources of contradictory information over a period of years.
In recent weeks we have seen the story of a woman brutally raped by white athletes at an elite school turn into the story of a district attorney who pursued a case with little or no evidence that a crime even occurred. David Brooks, whose columns were credited by some as providing the tipping point for the change in perception in the Duke Lacrosse rape case, described the stages of a witch hunt. “First frenzy, when everybody damns the souls of people they don’t know. Then confusion, as the first wave of contradictory facts comes in. Then deafening silence, as everybody studiously ignores the vicious slanders they uttered during the moment of maximum hysteria.”
Evidently there is another way the witch hunt sometimes plays out in modern politics and media—especially when the “witch” is a conservative. The stages are the same, but the result is different. As was the case in the 2000 recount, the allegations and accusations come fast and furious. Then, as more facts become known there is some confusion until the truth becomes clear. At the end of this witch hunt, though, the perception doesn’t change. Contradictory facts are not reported with sufficient prominence to override the prevailing conventional wisdom. In the 2000 recount, the myth that the election was stolen remains the conventional wisdom for many, even though the media-sponsored recount, the results of which were released publicly some time after the original story had been written, proved otherwise.
My fear is that the Wilson-Plame story, as it is written in the mainstream media (and possibly in the book and movie to follow), will most closely resemble the latter example.