Franken grills Dickerson on Time-Rove scandal: "Why can't you just say they're big liars?"

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Former Time magazine correspondent John Dickerson answered questions raised by a Media Matters item during an appearance on The Al Franken Show. His answers indicated that he is familiar with the Media Matters item, yet Dickerson did not deny the central point of the item -- that he and his colleagues participated in the publication of misleading articles that contained statements they knew to be false. Nor did Dickerson offer a single relevant explanation or justification for the knowing publication, without rebuttal, of a false statement by White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Former Time magazine White House correspondent John Dickerson appeared on the February 8 broadcast of Air America Radio's The Al Franken Show, where host Al Franken asked him about a February 7 Media Matters for America item. The February 7 item demonstrated that Dickerson and at least two Time colleagues, White House correspondent Matthew Cooper and Washington bureau chief Michael Duffy, helped to write an October 2003 article that contained statements they knew to be false.

When the article was written and published, all three reporters knew for a fact that White House senior adviser Karl Rove had outed undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. They knew this because Cooper was one of the reporters to whom Rove leaked Plame's identity in July 2003; at the time, Cooper told Duffy and Dickerson about the leak. But the October 2003 article reported that Rove had "initially" been suspected to be the source of the leak, falsely suggesting that these suspicions were no longer valid. Worse, the article quoted White House press secretary Scott McClellan describing the accusations as "ridiculous" and saying, "There is simply no truth to that suggestion." As Media Matters demonstrated, Cooper, Duffy, and Dickerson all knew that McClellan's statement was false, yet their article presented it without rebuttal.

Further, Media Matters quoted a January 2004 article co-written by Dickerson that pretended that it was an open question whether anyone "in the White House" outed Plame despite the fact that Dickerson knew full well that someone "in the White House" had outed Plame; Dickerson also asserted that it was "likely that no charges will be filed."

His answers to Franken's questions about the matter indicate that Dickerson is familiar with the February 7 Media Matters item, yet Dickerson did not deny the central point of the item -- that he and his colleagues knowingly participated in the publication of misleading articles that contained statements they knew to be false. Nor did Dickerson offer a single relevant explanation or justification for the knowing publication, without rebuttal, of McClellan's false statement.

Instead, Dickerson repeatedly argued that he and his colleagues were unable to report that they knew that Rove had outed Plame, because doing so would violate Cooper's confidentiality agreement with Rove. But even if true, this is entirely irrelevant. Neither Media Matters -- nor anyone of whom we are aware -- has suggested that Time should have done anything to break that confidentiality agreement. Media Matters and others have simply suggested that Dickerson and his colleagues should not have published unchallenged statements they knew to be false and that they should not have misled Time's readers. During his Al Franken Show appearance, instead of answering Franken's question about the February 7 Media Matters item, Dickerson suggested that those who have criticized the Time articles do so because they "hate Karl Rove" -- precisely the sort of irrelevant misdirection that journalists scoff at when utilized by politicians.

Dickerson now writes for Slate.com, which is published by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. Neither Cooper, nor Duffy, nor Time magazine has addressed the questions Media Matters has raised about the October 2003 article.

From Dickerson's February 8 appearance on The Al Franken Show:

FRANKEN: You were, as White House correspondent for Time magazine, privy to the fact that Matt Cooper had talked to Karl Rove, and that Karl Rove had outed Valerie Plame, not by name but by identity, to Matt Cooper. And tell me if I got this wrong -- that there were in subsequent articles you contributed to in one way or another in Time magazine that wrote about the controversy of Plamegate, there was things like quoting Scott McClellan saying the White House had nothing to do with this, that kind of thing, where you guys knew that he was not telling -- that what he was saying wasn't true. And that you allowed it to stand without saying, "We know this not to be true." Which, I understand why you would do that. But there are some people a little peeved about this.

DICKERSON: Yes, there are some people peeved about that. I think that's right: I think if you look at the articles, you know, when they were written, it was all very, very carefully written. And the reason you can't just come out and say, "They're big liars, they're big liars," is because you end up giving up a source. Now, people who hate Karl Rove and hate the president think, well, "Yes, damn it, you've got to give up your source." But, um, you know --

The "very carefully written" articles Dickerson referred to contained statements Dickerson and his colleagues knew to be false and misleading -- a fact that Dickerson has not contested. Dickerson's attempt to shift the discussion to "people who hate Karl Rove" is misleading at best: The Media Matters item that sparked this conversation did not include a single negative word about Rove. Karl Rove is not the issue here; Time's publication of a misleading article containing statements its authors knew to be false is the issue. Nor did the Media Matters item suggest Time should have "give[n] up" its source. It simply suggested that Time reporters should not have misled their readers.

As Dan Froomkin, columnist for Washingtonpost.com (also published by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive), explained in addressing the Media Matters item, Dickerson and his Time colleagues had several options that would have neither "give[n] up" their source nor misled their readers:

Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog Web site, raises an interesting point about Time Magazine's coverage of the Valerie Plame affair.

Back in this October 2003 story, the magazine reported: "White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are 'ridiculous.' Says McClellan: 'There is simply no truth to that suggestion.'"

It is now clear that several reporters and editors at Time knew very well that McClellan's statement was false.

Media Matters writes: "But despite that knowledge, they participated in the publication of an article containing that quote, with no indication that it was untrue. They participated in the publication of that article, which, in reporting that 'Rove was initially accused by Wilson of being the man behind the leak,' implied that Rove was no longer under suspicion -- even though they all knew that Rove was, in fact, [Matt] Cooper's source."

Is there any excuse for a news organization to print a statement that they know is untrue, without at least trying to clue their readers into the truth? That seems to defeat the central purpose of journalism.

So what should Time have done? One option might have been to go to Rove and say: We know McClellan isn't telling the truth. You either need to tell us the truth, on the record, or tell him the truth.

What if Rove had refused? One option might have been to go to McClellan and tell him that they had reason to think his statement was not accurate.

And if McClellan brushed them off? They should have stopped at nothing until they found a way to report what they knew to be the truth.

Froomkin did not suggest another option: Had Time reporters been unable to find a way to "clue their readers in to the truth," as Froomkin put it, they could have simply decided not to print the false statement.

Franken and Dickerson continued:

FRANKEN: Do you really give up the source, or do you just go, "They're big liars, they're big liars, but we won't say who" --

DICKERSON: Well, you can't do that, because you can't, for one of two reasons. One, you've got to show your proof, you can't just say "They're big liars, and we know something you don't, and that's -- but we're not going to say any more." And if you say we do know they're liars, when they're talking about whether Karl Rove was involved or not, the only way --

FRANKEN: Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, why can't you say, "They're big liars, they're big liars," and not show your proof? Because you don't show your proof all the time.

DICKERSON: Well, but you can't, you can't say, in that instance, it's -- if you say, "We're certain we know," there's only one way you could be, or in this case, when you're talking about Karl Rove, there are only ways, you know there's, if you know, you know it's Karl. I mean, you can't--

Dickerson's explanation of why he and his colleagues couldn't have indicated that they knew McClellan's statement was false is not only completely irrelevant, it is inaccurate as well. Dickerson's point seems to be that if Time had reported that McClellan's statement was false, readers would have known that Rove had outed Plame -- and that readers would have known that Rove had done so to a Time reporter, thus violating the Cooper-Rove confidentiality agreement.

But that is not true. Readers would not necessarily have known Rove was Time's source. To take the most obvious example: An October 2003 reader would have had to consider the possibility that another journalist -- say, New York Times reporter Judith Miller or syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak -- to whom Rove outed Plame had told a Time reporter about it on background, so that the truth would come out without anyone knowing that they had broken their agreement with Rove. By Dickerson's logic, once Rove and Cooper agreed that their conversation was confidential, no Time reporter could ever report that Rove had outed Plame -- regardless of how they found out about it.

Franken and Dickerson continued:

FRANKEN: Well, you're in an odd position, because you guys are --

DICKERSON: You are in an odd position, I guess, but the larger point is this: You have a source, and you make an agreement with that source not to blow their identity. That, you have to keep that agreement. And the reason you do that, even in a situation where some people may, for all those people who may hate Karl Rove and this White House and want them to be outed, you've got to remember that the same protections are the ones that protected the people who came forth about the NSA wiretapping. And people come forward about things all the time knowing their cover isn't going to get blown. Sometimes it's in an instance that people would like, because it uncovers an NSA wiretapping scheme that they don't think is appropriate, and in some cases it protects people that they hate and would like to see run out on a rail. But you can't pick and chose.

One might imagine that the "larger point" is actually that journalists should never knowingly mislead their readers -- under any circumstances. Again, however, Dickerson's focus on a journalist's agreement with a source is a red herring. It simply doesn't matter. He and his colleagues could have fulfilled their obligation not to mislead their readers while still respecting Cooper's agreement with Rove. They chose not to do so.

Franken and Dickerson continued:

FRANKEN: Is there any distinction, however, between a whistleblower who is outing something that the government is doing which is possibly unconstitutional, and a whistleblower who is outing a whistleblower?

DICKERSON: Well, it, sure, there is, but the point is, you have, when you make a promise to somebody, you make the promise, you make the promise. It stands. I mean, it's not, you, that's, you know, you don't say, well, you don't say, "Well, I'm going to make this promise until things get, you know, until I decide not to make it, or until I decide I'm going to out you." I mean, you know, there's just, it's not the way you do it.

One might imagine that printing statements of government officials that you know to be false -- without any hint of rebuttal -- is "not the way you do it," either. Dickerson, however, expressed no regret that he had participated in the publication of an article that did exactly that.

Franken and Dickerson concluded:

FRANKEN: You're gonna get the tough questions on this show. But you know that, don't you?

DICKERSON: Sure, sure, sure. But you can see how you can't, you know, you make a promise, and then you just decide to break the promise, it's --

FRANKEN: Can't you just, like, hint --

DICKERSON: You can't have a, you can't have a, you can't have a situation, you can't have a press that works, or that functions, without anonymous sources.

FRANKEN: I understand.

DICKERSON: I mean, maybe in a perfect world, we'd like no anonymous sources ever --

FRANKEN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

DICKERSON: -- and it's all, but you can't, if one person decides, well, I'm going to break this because in this instance it's compelled, now, of course, I mean, if it's a murder, or some other -- situation, perhaps you have a situation where you're saving lives by breaking a confidence, that's another matter. But in this, but in, in order for the system to stay whole, you have to keep your promises.

"In order for the system to stay whole," Dickerson lectured, reporters have to keep their promises to sources. He offered no insight about what happens to the system when journalists knowingly deceive their readers.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
Time Magazine
Show/Publication
The Al Franken Show
Stories/Interests
CIA Leak Investigation, Media Ethics
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