Il Giornale, August 11, 2004
Once again the American press is at the center of attention. 30 years ago – it was the 9th of August – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two Washington Post journalists, forced US President Nixon to resign from office because of the Watergate scandal, uncovered in a report in their paper.
Today there is no such triumph to be celebrated. A judge has ordered the arrest of Matthew Cooper, a top journalist with the news magazine Time, and has inflicted a fine of 1’000 US dollars per day on the magazine until the beginning of the trial. What did Cooper do? He refused to disclose his source of information. The penalty has been suspended until the inception of the appeals procedure. Another journalist, Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s program Meet the Press, has avoided sanctions but only by agreeing to collaborate to some extent.
This case is important because federal authorities and the press have not clashed this openly since the mid 70s, but particularly because once again the White House is involved. The events are well known. In July 2003, former diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote an article revealing that President Bush’s allegations of Saddam Hussein’s attempts to get uranium in Niger were based on unchecked information. The scoop infuriated the government, which took its revenge by telling conservative columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s fascinating wife, Valerie Plame – a breathtaking blonde – was actually a CIA agent. Disclosing the identity of an under-cover secret agent is a felony in the United States. Thus it was that there was an inquiry with embarrassing consequences. The tip hadn’t been given to columnist Robert Novak by just any government office, but by the White House itself. The main suspect is Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. As a result, all the important members of the Administration, including the President, have been questioned about the affair.
The judicial aftermath of the affair is obvious. The Time journalist refuses to be questioned, and will therefore be found guilty, despite the fact that he has appealed to the First Amendment of the Constitution which allows journalists not to disclose their sources of information. The political epilogue is potentially explosive just a few weeks before the presidential elections.
For now, the most important question, however, concerns American information. Not because freedom of the press is in danger, but because this affair highlights the obscure role of “spin doctors”, the modern witch doctors of the news. It is super-experts in communication like Libby or Bush’s personal adviser Karl Rove who, learning from the mistakes made by Nixon during the Watergate affair, apply techniques that enable the White House to have the upper hand in their relations with the press. When employed with moderation, these techniques can be effective, but carried to extremes, however, they can compromise the credibility of institutions. In London, Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was forced to resign a few months ago. A repeat in Washington is far from improbable.