Excerpt: Book suggests Libby's relationship with reporters spared him Plame coverage

Eric Boehlert
Published: Friday May 12, 2006

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In the new book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, author Eric Boehlert claims that a good relationship with the press may have spared former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby unflattering coverage--and as a result, silenced the media on the unfolding Plame Affair. Reprinted with permission.


On the eve of the Scooter Libby indictments, a search of transcritps via the Nexis database revealed that since Sept 28, 2003, when the Washington Post first revealed there had been a concerted effort from inside the White House to try to discredit [Valerie Plame's husband] Joseph Wilson, CBS's award-winning investigative series 60 Minutes, as well as its spin-off 60 Minutes II, aired approximately 180 episodes during that time frame. Zero of them examined the Plame case. Over at NBC it was the same story with the network's primetime news magazine, Dateline. Between Sept. 28, 2003, and Oct. 28, 2005, Dateline aired approximately 100 episodes. Zero of them examined the Plame case. More of the same at ABC's Primetime Live, which aired approximinately 100 episodes. Zero addressed the Plame case. That meant in the 24 months after the Plame story broke, there were nearly 400 broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC's signature long form news programs and none reported on the leak investigation that reached into the most senior levels of the White House. It was worse if added into the equation was the fact that shows like 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II include multiple topics within each broadcast. That meant between Sept. 2003 and Oct. 2005, the network news magazines aired at least 750 reports. None were about the most talked-about criminal investigation of the Bush presidency.

Fact: During the 24 months between Sept. 2003 and Sept. 2005, ABC's Nightline devoted just three full programs to the unfolding Plame investigation, for which a special assistant to the president was eventually indicted. On the night of the Libby indictmnets, Nightline devoted just five percent of its program to that topic. In the week following the criminal charges, Nightline never revisted the issue. Compare that to the fact that during the 24 months between Jan. 1994 and Jan. 1994, ABC's Nightline devoted 19 programs to the then-unfolding Whitewater real estate scandal. The MSM's stunning apathy on the Plame story did not reflect mainstream Americans, 79 percent of whom said the indictment of Libby was a matter of importance to the nation; a greater percentage than who said the same thing about 1998 charges that Clinton had lied under oath about his affair with Lewinsky.

Indeed, the contrast between the MSM's go-slow approach to the Valerie Plame leak investigation and the media's obsession for digging during the Clinton years was stunning. For instance, when it was alleged in 1998 that senior members of Clinton 's staff had privately contacted reporters to smear Monica Lewinksy's reputation for political gain, following news of her affair with the president, the news angle was covered with wild abandon. (The smear campaign was later proven to be non-existent.) A search of Nexis for articles and television reports between 1998 and 2000 regarding the Lewinsky saga that also contain mention of the White House and "smear campaign" retrieves approximately 850 matches. But a Nexis search for news accounts between September 2003 and October 2005 on the Plame investigation that mention the White House and a "smear campaign" [to discredit her husband Joseph Wilson] found just 150 matches.

Even after the Libby indictments were filed on Oct.28, Newsweek rushed to assure readers, in the second paragraph of its cover story, that Libby and Cheney likely never meant any harm by their Plame whispering campaign. Instead, relying on a hunch, the magazine reported, "It is much more likely they believed that they were somehow safeguarding the republic." [Emphasis added.] Elsewhere, the same article compared Libby to "to Roman centurions and Plato's Men of Silver." White House officials couldn't have said it better themselves.

Libby's soft-edge coverage was telegraphed in the weeks before. As legal trouble loomed for the VP's chief of staff in the fall, the MSM played nice as they introduced the Washington insider to readers and viewers with profile after profile detailing Libby's resume, from his college days right through his time in the White House. It was telling how many of those features forgot to mention the fact that during the 1990's Libby pocketed $2 million in fees working as the American attorney and chief advocate for Marc Rich, the disgraced billionaire fugitive. It was Libby who helped construct the sales pitch used to try to secure Rich a presidential pardon. The pardon was finally granted by President Clinton during his last days in office, which ignited one last free-wheeling Clinton press scandal. (Libby called Rich to congratulate him when he heard the good news of the pardon.) Prior to the indictments, it was the only real stain on Libby's impressive resume and cast some doubt of Libby's lofty, Man for All Seasons persona pushed in the press. And it certainly seemed worth at least a passing mention. But the MSM politely demurred.

On television, there was complete amnesia about Libby's work for Rich. During the week when the Libby indictments were announced and the story was treated as very big news (except, still, at the long form network news programs). The investigation generated constant chatter on the CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, ABC, CBS, and NBC. In fact, the name Libby was mentioned more than 3,200 times according to TVEyes. The name of Marc Rich though, was mentioned just eight times.

In an Oct. 21, feature published online at Slate, titled "Who is Scooter Libby," the magazine painting a detailed portrait of Libby's professional life--"Lewis Libby is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia University School of Law"--but did not think the Rich/pardon angle needed to be included. Neither did the Knight Ridder News Service, which touched all the Libby bases in a 1,000-word profile and forgot to mention the Rich scandal. Ditto for a detailed, page 1 biography of Libby in the Baltimore Sun -- no Rich mention. Newsweek set aside seven full pages for its fawning Libby feature (he boasted "a heroic, romantic sense of his boss and his own role in history), but there was no mention of Rich. Meanwhile, on Oct. 23, the Washington Post published a gentle, page one Libby portrait, told exclusively through the eyes—and quotes--of his conservative, partisan friends, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and Mary Matalin. There was not a discouraging word to be found in the 2,400-word valentine, in which readers learned Libby has a strong "sense of humor," was an "audacious novelist" who boasted "animated conviction," yet rarely lost sight of "the grandeur of his mission." (A reference to Rich's pardon was tucked into the 28th paragraph.) One week later the Post published another fawning Libby profile ("a self-effacing public servant, more interested in service than power ") which politely omitted any mention of Libby's $2 million payday courtesy of the billionaire fugitive.

Perhaps the most telling tidbit about Libby found in the Post profile though, was this: "He is diligent about returning reporters' calls." In other words, inside a White House that was notoriously close mouthed, reporters liked Libby and found him to be a useful source, which may have been another reason so many journalists seemed allergic to the idea of aggressively uncovering the two-year whodunit in which Libby had become entangled in.