Media have excuses for Sestak obsession, not reasons

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Long after many reporters insisted that if only the White House revealed whether Joe Sestak was offered a job the story would go away, reporters are getting ever-more-creative in their attempts to justify covering what is quite clearly not a scandalous act. Two excuses dominate: The Obama camp's promise to be more ethical than predecessors, and its promises of transparency.

Marc Ambinder (who, I should note, has been good about making clear that there's no legal issue here) explains the first:

This is the reason why ethics lawyers can read the text of the statutes, which seem to be clear, and conclude that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would ever bring a case against a White House for doing what the Obama White House did. However, since the Obama White House holds itself as an avatar of ethical excellence, it might have to hold itself to a higher standard than other White Houses. That is an optical problem, not a legal one.

First of all, every incoming administration promises to be more ethical than its predecessors. Remember George W. Bush's pledge to "restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office"? Despite that pledge, reporters could barely pretend to care when Bush's administration outer a covert CIA operative, or when they tried to turn U.S. attorneys into opposition researchers with the power to issue indictments. Despite that pledge, reporters had to be dragged kicking and screaming to (briefly) cover evidence that the Bush administration had lied its way into war. And despite that pledge, reporters certainly didn't care when Karl Rove reportedly offered someone a job to get him to drop out of a campaign.

But things are different now: The Obama administration may have offered someone a job to get him to drop out of a campaign! Oh. Wait…

Second: It's one thing to say the White House promised a higher level of ethical excellence and should be held to that promise, and another to invent, after the fact, ethical transgressions that have never before in the history of the republic been considered ethical transgressions. Yes, the Obama team said they'd be ethically excellent (as does every incoming administration) and yes, they should be held to that promise (as should every administration.)

But that has nothing to do with offering Joe Sestak a job, because offering Joe Sestak a job is not ethically suspect. (It may be politically suspect, but that's a different kettle of fish.) Nobody considered it ethically suspect when previous presidents did it, and nobody has explained why it should be considered ethically suspect now. It's like criticizing Obama for failing to live up to his promises of ethical behavior because he wears a blue shirt. It doesn't make any sense, because you haven't established that there's anything wrong with wearing a blue shirt.

The fact that nobody considered such job offers when previous administrations made them brings us to Matthew Dowd on ABC's This Week:

I think this issue is - it is - it is a political issue. And it does hurt his brand because he came to Washington and said I'm going to change things. I'm going to do things differently. I'm not going to be like Bush and Cheney. We're going to do a whole new politics. We're going to bring people together. We're not going to do all - we're not going to politicize things. And then all of the sudden their excuse now in this thing, everybody does it, so we do it. That's a problem for his brand.

That would be a very good point, if the Obama White House was currently saying "It's cool that we outted a covert CIA agent and lied our way into war, because the Bush administration did it, too." But that isn't what the Obama White House, or anyone else, is saying. What they're saying is that nobody complained when previous administrations of both parties did the same thing, because there's nothing wrong with it. That's quite different. It's the difference between "one person previously did it, and there was widespread outrage" and "everyone does it and nobody complains, because there's nothing wrong with it." The difference between "Yeah, I have brown hair; so does half the country" and "Yeah, I killed him and put his head in the freezer; so did Jeffrey Dahmer." Not the same. Different. Curiously, the implication of Dowd's criticism is that any time the Obama White House does something the Bush White House did, that's inappropriate. Curious, that is, coming from one of Bush's chief strategists.

Finally, there's the "they promised transparency" excuse. Yes, the Obama campaign promised transparency. No, that was not a promise to reveal every word of every conversation everyone ever has in the White House. No, nobody thought that's what it meant at the time. The tendency of some reporters to invoke the transparency pledge, and to suggest that it has been broken, every time they want to know something is dishonest and in bad faith.*

These two justifications have something in common: they're all invoked to get around the sticky little problem created by the fact that there's nothing wrong with offering Joe Sestak a job. Rather than explain why it would be unethical to do so, reporters say "well, they said they'd be more ethical, so they should be." OK, fine: How haven't they been? What is unethical about offering Joe Sestak a job? Nothing. What's wrong with refusing to discuss details of a totally legal job offer? "Well … they said they'd be transparent!" OK, fine: Did anyone ever interpret that to mean they'd disclose all details of all job offers? Of course not.

These are not substantive criticisms of the White House. They are excuses to prolong the story. Those are the kinds of things you expect from the political opposition. Why are they coming from journalists?

* I'll happily retract that statement just as soon as anyone can point me to any comment made by Dan Balz or any other reporter in 2008 indicating that Barack Obama had pledged to make public every word of every conversation anyone acting on his behalf has with anyone about any job.

Matthew Dowd, Dan Balz, Marc Ambinder
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