“Media Matters”; by Jamison Foser

For all the cheerleading the Post's editorial page has done for various Bush administration blunders, it has also denounced -- in sometimes blistering and blunt language -- the administration's lawlessness.

Lawlessness ... and fecklessness

Yesterday, Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote:

The Washington Post Editorial page has been one of the most establishment-defending organs over the last six years, repeatedly minimizing or dismissing criticisms of the Bush administration and reserving its vigor primarily for attacking Bush critics (and for supporting the Iraq war). That's what makes its Editorial this morning regarding James Comey's testimony -- entitled “The Gonzales Coverup” -- so striking, and potentially indicative of a compelled acknowledgement by the Beltway class of how serious the NSA [National Security Agency] scandal is and how serious it has been all along.


[Washington Post editorial page editor Fred] Hiatt-like protests are welcome (even if inexcusably belated), but they must be accompanied by genuine and relentless demands for follow-up and accountability otherwise they will amount to nothing more than inconsequential rhetoric. The Attorney General lied continuously, and the administration concealed pervasive criminality at the highest levels of our government. Even Fred Hiatt says so. So now what?

As we have long noted, it is the “So now what?” that is the problem.

For all the cheerleading the Post's editorial page has done for various Bush administration blunders, it has also denounced -- in sometimes blistering and blunt language -- the administration's lawlessness.

Lawlessness: that's how the Post editorial board described the Bush administration in Wednesday's editorial about Comey's testimony -- “Bush administration lawlessness so shocking it would have been unbelievable coming from a less reputable source.”

And that's the way the Post has described the Bush administration several times in the past.

  • On March 11, the paper described as a "lawless practice" the FBI's use of “exigent letters” to assure telephone companies that federal investigators needed access of phone records due to “an emergency situation and that subpoenas or national security letters would follow,” though the “exigent letters” were in fact often used when there was no urgency and no subpoenas followed.
  • On September 7, 2006, the Post ran an editorial headlined "Ending the Lawlessness; President Bush wants congressional action on detainees. That's good -- as long as he doesn't get the bill he wants."
  • On June 20, 2006, the Post editorialized that, despite passage of “the McCain amendment, which prohibits 'cruel, inhuman, or degrading' treatment of all prisoners in U.S. custody ... the administration has not accepted that ban as the last word. It still has not renounced the right to subject some detainees to practices such as 'waterboarding,' or simulated drowning, even though they violate the law. It has yet to adopt clear standards governing the interrogation and treatment of foreign prisoners, or return to full compliance with such treaties as the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. Until this situation changes, there will be more of the lawlessness and simple confusion that have led to hundreds of cases of abuse, and dozens of homicides, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.”
  • On June 18, 2006, a Post editorial declared "the Bush administration's lawless practices have so discredited it that it has lost support even for legitimate anti-terrorist measures."
  • On March 23, 2006, a Post editorial described the Bush administration's efforts to implement an EPA policy that the District of Columbia Circuit Court had “already rejected” as "simply lawless."
  • On December 16, 2005, the Post wrote “Thanks to a belated White House retreat, Congress is on the verge of taking an important step toward curtailing the systematic human rights violations committed by the Bush administration in its handling of foreign prisoners. President Bush said yesterday that he would agree to an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) prohibiting ”cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of all prisoners held by the United States. [...] Whether Mr. Bush will heed the message, or the new legal standard, unfortunately remains an open question. [...] [P]assage of Mr. McCain's amendment will not end waterboarding or curtail the administration's policy of abuse unless there is aggressive follow-up by Congress. There must be an independent check on the administration's legal interpretations. [...] In short, restoring the rule of law over an administration that deliberately chose lawlessness in its treatment of detainees may be an arduous process."
  • A November 3, 2005, Post editorial denounced "the discredit the United States has earned for its lawless treatment of foreign prisoners" and noted “President Bush has authorized interrogators to subject these men to 'cruel, inhuman and degrading' treatment that is illegal in the United States and that is banned by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The governments that allow the CIA prisons on their territory violate this international law, if not their own laws. This shameful situation is the direct result of Mr. Bush's decision in February 2002 to set aside the Geneva Conventions as well as standing U.S. regulations for the handling of detainees.”
  • On July 3, 2005, the Post editorialized that the Bush administration's seizure and torture of a “radical Egyptian cleric” constituted "lawless behavior."

Washington Post columnists have also described the administration as “lawless” several times. David Ignatius, for example, described the NSA's wiretapping operation as a “lawless approach” in a December 28, 2005, column that was largely supportive of the program. And David Broder memorably described Bush as “lawless and reckless” in a September 21, 2006, column that noted Bush “started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution.”

The editorial board of The Washington Post has been moved to describe the Bush administration as “lawless” at least nine times. Its columnists have done likewise, and its reporters have detailed some of that lawlessness.

But does The Washington Post actually care that the executive branch has engaged in years of lawlessness -- and lawlessness about important things like torture and spying on Americans?

It is difficult to conclude that the Post does care. Individual reporters may, of course, but institutionally, the Post seems content to occasionally note the administration's lawlessness and stonewalling, then move on.

The Post editorial board's reluctance to deal with the questions raised by its own statements -- what should the nation do about the president's lawlessness? -- and apparent lack of long-term (or even medium-term) memory are particularly breathtaking.

Most people, after concluding for the ninth time, that the executive branch is behaving in a “lawless” way, would begin to wonder what steps -- special counsel? congressional censure? impeachment hearings for Gonzales? for Bush? -- could be taken to force the administration to begin obeying the law.

Most people, after noting again and again and again that the administration is stonewalling and covering up legitimate inquiries into its actions, would realize that expecting the administration to be forthcoming is a fool's errand, and would begin searching for ways to compel the disclosure that isn't coming voluntarily.

But not the Washington Post editorial board. The Washington Post editorial board steadfastly refuses to call for so much as a special counsel to investigate what it describes as lawlessness. (The newspaper, as we have often noted, called for such an investigation of President and Mrs. Clinton when there was, in the Post's words, “no credible charge” that they had done anything wrong.)

To be sure, the Post stamps its feet and shakes its fist with the best of them. And when it is done, rather than keeping the pressure on; rather than using its influence to press for an investigation that might actually yield the answers -- and changes in behavior -- the Post claims to seek, the paper simply moves on. And a few months later, some other situation pops up that causes the Post editorial writers to sternly denounce the cover-ups and lawlessness. (See here and here for our previous explanations of this pattern.)

Not that the Post's editorial board is alone in failing to devote sufficient attention to the administration's lawlessness. The paper's reporters and editors have some soul-searching to do as well.

Roughly a month after the initial disclosure of the Bush administration's domestic spying operation, we examined the enormous disparity between the resources the Post and The New York Times had apparently devoted to the spying story and the resources they dedicated to the Monica Lewinsky story in 1998:

All told, on January 22, 1998 [the day after the first Lewinsky story in the Post], the Times and the Post ran 19 articles (five on the front page) dealing with the Clinton investigation, totaling more than 20,000 words and reflecting the words of at least 28 reporters -- plus the editorial boards of both newspapers.

In contrast, on December 17 [the day after initial disclosure of the spying operation], the Times and the Post combined to run five articles about the NSA spying operation, involving 12 reporters and consisting of 6,303 words.

On February 25, 1998, 35 days after the story first broke, the Post ran four articles and an editorial about the Clinton investigation, totaling 5,046 words, involving 11 reporters, and the paper's editorial board. The Times ran four articles, two opinion columns, and an editorial -- seven pieces in all, totaling 5,852 words and involving at least six reporters and columnists, in addition to its editorial board. The papers combined for 12 articles, columns, and editorials, involving 17 reporters and columnists, as well as both editorial boards.

On January 20, 35 days after the NSA story first broke, the Times ran one 1,324-word article about the NSA operation written by two reporters. The Post ran one 945-word article written by one reporter. Combined: two articles, three reporters, 2,269 words.

We could go on and on with comparisons like these, and bring in other news organizations, but it should be clear by now that the nation's leading news organizations haven't given the NSA spying story anywhere near the coverage they gave the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. And, based on available evidence, they haven't dedicated nearly the resources to pursuing the NSA story that they dedicated to the Lewinsky story.

So, some questions for the Times, and the Post, and ABC, and CBS, and NBC, and CNN, and Time, and Newsweek, and other leading news organizations:

1) How many reporters, editors, and researchers did you assign to the Lewinsky story when it broke? How many remained assigned to that story one month later?

2) How many reporters, editors, and researchers did you assign to the NSA story when it broke? How many remained assigned to that story one month later?

3) How do you explain the disparity?

We never got formal responses to those questions, but the answers were obvious. Despite concluding that the Bush administration spent years engaging in lawless activities aimed at the American people, the nation's news media have dedicated significantly less resources to pursuing the story than they did the Lewinsky matter. Probably less than they devoted to the OJ Simpson trial, for that matter.

It's simple, really: A news organization that believes the president is acting in a “lawless” way in ordering things like torture and “systematic human rights violations” and spying on Americans but does not dedicate overwhelming resources to pursuing every possible aspect of the story is failing its readers, and failing its profession.

But at least the Post has covered James Comey's testimony. ABC and CBS just can't be bothered to do so. (CBS did manage to find time to report that the soon-to-be-published private diaries of Ronald Reagan show that he “did not want war with the Soviet Union,” and that he “adored” his wife, but “hate[d] Mondays.”)

And none of the three broadcast networks quoted President Bush's refusal to answer a question about whether he sent Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales on a possibly illegal and certainly inappropriate trip to John Ashcroft's hospital room. Nor did The Washington Post (though the paper mentioned it in an editorial) or USA Today or the Chicago Tribune or the Los Angeles Times or countless other news organizations.

Journalism may be the first draft of history, but that does not mean its practitioners are immune from history's judgment. Those who fail to do everything they can to educate the public about presidential lawlessness relating to torture and domestic spying will find that judgment can be harsh.

But can we wait that long? Or will it then be too late to undo the damage done by a lawless and torture-happy administration (inadvertently aided and abetted by an insufficiently vigorous press corps) to the ideals and values that distinguish us from the enemy we claim to oppose?

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.