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Tim Rutten, Woodward Joins a Decadent Dance

Woodward Joins a Decadent Dance

Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

Whatever impact the scandal surrounding the leak of former CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity ultimately has on the Bush administration, it continues to spread through the Washington press corps like a toxic plume.

As it does, it discredits not only individual reporters and damages their news organizations but also an entire style of reporting that has come to dominate the way Americans are informed — or misinformed — concerning their government's conduct.

This week's casualty was the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who, as it turns out, has concealed for 17 months the fact that a Bush administration official he still refuses to name to his readers leaked Plame's identity to him before the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby — now under indictment for perjury — named the then-covert agent to New York Times reporter Judy Miller and others.Woodward's disclosure was motivated not by a sudden pang of conscience, as it turns out, but by the sudden necessity of testifying under oath before a federal grand jury. Along the way, he incidentally revealed not only that he had concealed this information from his editors and readers for fear of subpoena, but also that he had in the interim gone on several television shows to trash the special prosecutor investigating the affair. Moreover, it now emerges, the reporting that went into his last best-selling book, Plan of Attack, involved the submission of written questions in advance to Vice President Dick Cheney, a fact he never bothered to share with the book's readers.

There is something singularly appropriate about the fact that the Plame affair should involve Woodward, whose skillful and courageous use of the ur-voice among confidential sources virtually created a whole genre of Washington reporting. It's a journalistic strategy style dependent on the cultivation of access to well-placed officials greased by promises of "confidentiality." It's a way of doing journalism that still serves its practitioners' career interests, but less and less often their readers or viewers because it's a game the powerful and well-connected have learned to play to their own advantage.

Whatever its self-righteous pretensions, it's a style of journalism whose signature sound is less the blowing of whistles than it is the spinning of tops.

That's why the Washington press corps, whose ranks include so many alleged commentators that you can't spit without hitting one, steadfastly refuses to put the Plame affair and its participants in the context that explains the event. That context is the Bush administration's unprecedented — and largely successful — effort to bend Washington-based news coverage to its ends. The Washington press corps doesn't want to talk about this because it basically puts some of its most admired members in a line of venal patsies. But consider:

Who can forget the administration's payment of nearly a quarter of a million dollars in federal money to the hapless pseudo-columnist and television and radio commentator Armstrong Williams, to promote the president's "no child left behind" initiative?

Then there was the distribution to local television stations across the country of federally financed, pre-packaged video reports designed to support the administration's educational and energy policy initiatives. The videos were tricked up to look like regular news feeds and apparently ran on numerous small stations whose viewers never were informed that they were watching government propaganda.

This week, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's inspector general reported that PBS' former chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, appears to have violated federal law by trying to force a political slant onto the network's programming. The inspector's report alluded to e-mails between Tomlinson and a White House official. On Thursday, Bloomberg.com reported that "Presidential advisor Karl Rove" and Tomlinson "discussed creating a 'conservative talk show and adding it to the public television lineup.' " According to Kenneth Konz, PBS' inspector general, Tomlinson and Rove, President Bush's chief political advisor, also corresponded about "shaking up the agency" and "adding Republican staff."

Placed in this context, Woodward, Miller, Time magazine's Matthew Cooper and NBC's Tim Russert are less tragic figures in a grand journalistic drama than they are sad — but willing — bit players in somebody else's rather sorry little charade.

This is hardly the first administration intent on managing the press for its own convenience and advantage. Abraham Lincoln had no more compunction about shutting down Copperhead newspapers than he did about suspending habeas corpus. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson's Justice Department was ruthless in its treatment of our then-vast and vigorous foreign-language press and publishing houses.

The preternaturally charming Franklin Roosevelt found it easy to play the White House press corps like a violin, since most of its members — unlike their papers' proprietors — were favorably disposed toward the New Deal. Roosevelt, moreover, consciously used the new mass medium of radio to speak around the country's generally hostile editorial pages and directly to the people.

John Kennedy, who genuinely liked reporters and was fascinated by journalism, made famous and effective use of his warm friendships with White House correspondents, including Benjamin C. Bradlee, who would go on to be Woodward's editor. Richard Nixon — for whom charm was not an option — plotted to use the IRS against reporters, editors and cartoonists who irritated him. (An ill-advised digression into burglary short-circuited the plan.) Bill Clinton, who always thought he could sweet talk the chrome off a trailer hitch, was fond of making personal calls to reporters' homes. (This writer was the recipient of a couple of those, and found them — like cheap champagne — a mildly heady, if ultimately unconvincing, experience.)

Two things have distinguished this Bush administration's efforts at press manipulation from those that have gone before.

One is their sweep and consistency. There has been bribery — as in the egregious case of the wretched Williams. There has been deception — as in the planting of phony news videos. There have been alleged violations of federal laws and regulations — as in Tomlinson's and Rove's efforts to subvert public television. There has been stealth — as in the whispering campaign to discredit Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

And, of course, there has been good old-fashioned bullying, as in the president's and vice-president's assertions that raising questions about their push to war or the torture of U.S. captives is somehow "reprehensible" and unpatriotic. It's a melancholy comment on the state of the American press that it takes a former director of Central Intelligence, Adm. Stansfield Turner, to identify Dick Cheney for what he has become — "vice president for torture" — and that he had to do it in a foreign forum, on Britain's ITV news, as he did Thursday.

The other reason all this has more or less succeeded and gone all but unremarked upon is that the administration has adroitly availed itself of the cultural complicity that prevails in a fin de siècle Washington press corps living out the decadence of an increasingly discredited reporting style. As the Valerie Plame scandal and its spreading taint have made all too clear, the trade in confidentiality and access that has made stars of reporters like Bob Woodward and Judy Miller now is utterly bankrupt.

It still may call itself investigative journalism — and so it once was — but now it's really just a glittering and carefully choreographed waltz in which all the dancers share the unspoken agreement that the one unpardonable faux pas is to ask who's calling the tune.