Drawing Blood

Posted: Sep 30, 2006 12:01 AM
Drawing Blood

You might not notice if one mosquito bites you. But if a bunch of mosquitoes all bite in the same place, you’ll get a big itchy lump.

Reporters are like that. They swarm, attacking the same place again and again. There are too many to swat them all aside. That’s why President Bush will probably never again surpass 50 percent in an approval poll, because he’ll just keep getting bled by media mosquitoes.

The latest example is the much-touted leak of a portion of the National Intelligence Estimate. “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat,” said a New York Times headline on Sept. 24. The Washington Post countered that day with “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Hurting U.S. Terror Fight.” Buzz buzz.

Of course, the full story was much more nuanced. After President Bush unclassified parts of the NIE, we learned that it says (in part), “United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al Qaeda and disrupted its operations.” Overall, the NIE paints a much-brighter picture than the excerpts quoted in the early reports.

The problem with the Post and Times stories is that they relied on sources that refused to be identified. “More than a dozen United States government officials and outside experts were interviewed for this article, and all spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified intelligence document,” the Times story said. The Post explained, “this official and others would only discuss intelligence analyses on the condition of anonymity.”

Well, those intelligence analysts are probably breaking the law by giving classified information to reporters, so it makes sense they’d want their names kept out of the papers. But should the newspapers allow these leakers to hide behind anonymous quotes?

Earlier this year, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. defended reporter Dana Priest’s Pulitzer Prize. “The reporting that Dana did was very important accountability reporting about how the CIA and the rest of the U.S. government have been conducting the war on terror,” Downie announced.

“Whether or not the actions of the CIA or other agencies have interfered with anyone’s civil liberties is important information for Americans to know and is an important part of our jobs.” In other words, Downie thinks the government shouldn’t be able to keep secrets from us.

Well, right. Oversight is a good thing. That’s why members of Congress are given much of the same classified information the president gets -- so they can ensure it’s being interpreted correctly.

But while lawmakers are checking up on intelligence analysts, who’s fact-checking The Washington Post and The New York Times? If reporters want to run with stories such as the NIE leak, they ought to have to identify their sources, so readers will know whether the United States is really less safe (as the initial story said) or whether some anti-administration bureaucrats are simply leaking selected information they think will hurt the president.

Reporters will insist this is a bad idea, since if they didn’t allow anonymous sources, there would be a “chilling effect.” But it would be better in the long run to have no stories than to have misleading stories such as the NIE reports of Sept. 24.

Alas, like mosquitoes, journalists can cause problems when they inject themselves into a story. The insects can carry the West Nile virus, encephalitis, even malaria. Reporters, meanwhile, can drive a campaign down into the mud.

Consider Republican Sen. George Allen’s campaign for re-election in Virginia. A Sept. 21 Washington Post story announced that “he has been forced to deal publicly with a very private matter,” his religious heritage. Nice use of passive voice there. The reality is that it’s reporters who forced Allen to “deal publicly” with the fact that his mother’s Jewish, and now they’re splashing the story they created on the front page.

After all, it was TV reporter Peggy Fox who asked Allen during a debate, “Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews, and if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?” When Allen took offense, asking, “why is that relevant?” Fox answered “Honesty, that’s all.”

But that’s sort of like asking a candidate when he stopped beating his wife. There’s no dishonesty to track down here until a reporter asks a question that doesn’t need to be asked in the first place. Buzz buzz.

The real pity here is this is a race that could have been decided on the most important issue of the day: the War in Iraq. George Allen is a staunch “Stay the Course” Bush supporter. His opponent Jim Webb wants to start moving troops out of Iraq, possibly shifting them to Jordan or Kuwait.

Instead, the media are talking about Allen’s religion, whether Webb discriminates against women and whether either man ever used the “N word.” Like a bunch of mosquitoes, journalists have drawn blood from both men. By doing so, they’ve sickened the political process. Bring on the chilling effect -- please.