Whatever  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2006

Whatever   

After months of saturation Plamegate coverage, the media couldn’t work up much excitement when the person who revealed Valerie Plame’s CIA role was identified.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


There are many ways to characterize the media's response to the news that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was responsible for outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. "Feeding frenzy" isn't one of them.

"Collective yawn" is more like it.

After all the blanket coverage of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, after all the speculation about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, after all the allegations of dastardly doings by the Bush White House, you'd think IDing the leaker would be big news.

That's particularly true when it turns out the villain wasn't an angry neocon bent on revenge against a critic of the Iraq war – Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson – but a Colin Powell ally who was at best a lukewarm supporter of the invasion.

Far from being part of an orchestrated plot or a vast White House conspiracy, Plame's unmasking was simply the handiwork of that Washington, D.C., staple, an insider with a big mouth. The culprit was gossip, not political gunslinging.

It should be noted that the left is not giving up on this one, continuing to point ominously at Bush aides' behavior vis-à-vis Plame and Wilson. But there's little doubt that Armitage's role is a body blow to the conspiracy theorists.

It was, as they say, a "stunning reversal," the kind of development Ben Bradlee loved to half-kiddingly call "a correction." It stood the official narrative of Plamegate completely on its head.

Not only was it a fascinating development, it was the kind of story that cried out for attention for fairness reasons. But that wasn't destined to happen.

Consider: Between October 24 and 28, 2005, the week Libby was indicted for obstruction of justice and perjury (but not with leaking Plame's name), the saga got more time than anything else on the nightly network newscasts, according to the Tyndall Report. When Libby was arraigned the following week, the story stayed in the Top Ten (at No. 8). The week before the indictment it was No. 4.

When Armitage's lawyer, confirming a report in a forthcoming book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, said in late August that his client was indeed the guy, the development couldn't crack the Top Ten. Nor could it the following week, when Armitage fessed up on national television. The story couldn't compete with the likes of the death of the crocodile-hunting Steve Irwin.

The big national papers were all over the Plame story for months. But after Armitage's attorney weighed in, the New York Times played the story inside on page 12 (it ultimately ran an Armitage piece out front on September 2), and USA Today ran a brief. As of mid-September, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, like many other newspapers, still hadn't given the story page-one treatment.

Back in the day, when Wilson was demanding that Karl Rove be frog-marched out of the White House, Plame was a cable extravaganza. But the denouement never came close to receiving equal time, let alone a place in the JonBenet/Missing White Women pantheon.

Bob Woodward held forth on CNN's "Larry King Live" at the height of Plame frenzy, belittling Fitzgerald's investigation (Woodward was later embarrassed when it came out that he had his own inside knowledge about Plame but had not disclosed it). But King convened no panels on Armitage.

In a column agreeing with readers that his paper had underplayed Armitage and that the story belonged out front, Kansas City Star Readers' Representative Derek Donovan put it well: "Questioning – even suspicion – of those in power is a dearly-held American tradition, and many critical eyes have long, and I think rightly, focused on Rove's political influence at the White House.

"But that's not the issue here. From a simple standpoint of reporting news equitably, I think the Armitage revelation merited more prominent play." So why the lame response? The easy answer, and a popular one on the right, is that much-ballyhooed liberal bias of the media. And there's no doubt an episode like this gives great ammunition to those who see the press as a bunch of card-carrying, fire-breathing lefties.

But I'm not buying it. Is that the same bunch of pinkos who were so cowed after 9/11, so credulous in their coverage of WMD? The same ones who brought us the Monica Lewinsky circus? (OK, lying about sex under oath is bad, but worse than leading a nation into an optional war with a dubious rationale, far too few troops and no plans for what to do after the fighting stops?) Or, speaking of long-running, high-profile "scandals" about not so much, the ones who wallowed in Whitewater?

Maybe it's simply a matter of embarrassment. After so much breathless coverage of supposed White House character assassination, maybe the MSM just kind of hoped the whole thing would go away.

Whatever the reason, it was a curious and disappointing performance.

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