Time to Change The 'Back Channel'

Leave it to the New York Times to pronounce something "corrupt" and then wholeheartedly embrace it as "crucial."

This week's Sunday magazine piece by Max Frankel is the most recent and stunning example of the Times' weird world view.

In a cover story, the paper's former executive editor concludes that "the real lesson" of the recent Scooter Libby trial is that Washington's "black market in information" -- which the Times defines as "the messy and at times illicit traffic in secrets carried out among Washington officials and those who report on their doings" -- is an evil necessary for democracy. "Leaks, backgrounders, favors, masked attribution: For decades, journalists and government officials have ... manipulated one another and, to some extent, readers too," the magazine noted. "It's not pretty -- as the Libby trial revealed. But it's crucial."

True, the trial provided a rare public glimpse at the corrupt nexus of Big Politics and Big Media -- of which the Times is of course a charter member. While Frankel's assessment that "it's not pretty" is certainly sound, the rest of his analysis is unsurprisingly skewed. "Favors and masked attribution" do sound journalistically ugly and corrupt -- as does "manipulating readers" -- but the Washington back channel is certainly not crucial for anyone except perhaps the privileged players who participate in it. Moreover, it's demonstrably bad for our democracy. (Witness the ongoing carnage in Iraq, which the Times manipulated many of its readers into supporting!) Only charter members of the Big Media club, which performed so shamefully during the run up to both the war and the Libby trial, could conclude otherwise.

"So there I sat, watching the United States government in all its majesty dragging into court the American press (in all its piety)," Frankel's article begins, mockingly, "Forcing reporters to betray confidences, rifling their files and notebooks, making them swear to their confused memories and motives and burdening their bosses with hefty legal fees -- all for the high-sounding purpose, yet again, of protecting our nation's secrets. Top-secret secrets! In wartime!"

Frankel is accurate in noting that Libby was indicted "as an agent of government who lied and obstructed justice to protect the misuse of secrets." He is "no Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the top-secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times to expose the nation's devious drift into war in Vietnam." Instead, Libby's intent was "to defend misjudgments and misrepresentations on the path to war in Iraq."

And that's not all Frankel managed to get right. He also decried reporters' "messy relations with officialdom," as "celebrated correspondents routinely grant anonymity -- better called irresponsibility -- to government sources just to hear whispered propaganda and other self-serving falsehoods."

To Frankel, it all sounds "so familiar" -- and no wonder. As he writes, "government officials spreading secrets to shape a story and to advance their interests, large and small" have long been a staple of Washington. This is particularly of the New York Times, whether it involved LBJ whispering in Frankel's ear or Scooter Libby nibbling on Judith Miller's.

A case in point, per Frankel: "On Tuesday, July 8, in what his normally detailed calendar listed only as a 'private meeting,' Libby spent two hours at breakfast with Judith Miller to enlist her help in countering Wilson's attack. He told the grand jury that he admired her reporting, on Al Qaeda and chemical and biological weapons, and presumably also her prewar articles lending credence to the administration's wild alarms about Iraqi W.M.D.'s -- credulous articles that The Times eventually disowned."

Frankel fails to explain, however, how the back channel relationship between Libby/Big Politics and Miller/Big Media was somehow "crucial" to our democracy. "Miller testified that Libby brought her selected excerpts from a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate to buttress his claim that long after Wilson's mission, the C.I.A. still endorsed reports that Saddam Hussein had 'vigorously' pursued uranium in Africa," Frankel reports. Credulous, indeed! Corrupt? Yes. Crucial? Hardly ...

Instead of blaming the system, Frankel -- like many Times writers before him -- simply blames Miller, who he says should have realized, "that the remedy for bad leaks is more leaks." He then takes a few gratuitous swipes at poor Judy, noting her "role in the case served no one very well. On cross-examination, she was rattled into multiple confessions of uncertainty, poor memory and wobbly note-taking."

But somehow, while coming up with the correct diagnosis -- "the shameless ease with which top-secret information is bartered in Washington for political advantage" -- Frankel amazingly contends that the disease of corrupt relationships between Big Politics and Big Media is really good for all of us, and that our dying democracy needs no cure!

Explain to me, Max, why it is good for me that Vice President Cheney can use Meet the Press -- "our best format," as his communications chief Cathie Martin testified -- to control "our message." Maybe I'm dense -- why are all your pals in Big Media so convinced they can do their jobs "only by subscribing to the convoluted code of conduct governing Washington interviews?"

After all, as you admit, "the system is sloppy and breeds confusion." Scooter Libby, for example, often spoke "off the record" when he really meant "deep background." And Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper seems equally confused, testifying that "off the record" meant a reporter couldn't use the information given him -- and then went ahead and used information Libby had given him "off the record."

Despite these and numerous other examples of incompetence mixed with perfidy, Frankel somehow concludes it's all for the best. "Clearly, from the perspective of the public interest, there are and always have been both good and bad leaks, true and illuminating betrayals of secrets as well as false and conniving ones." To the Times man, "there are no neat lines of distinction."

It's quite clear how such ambiguity can serve the special interests of both sides of the Big Politics/Big Media equation. But how does it serve the reader, the citizen, and our democracy?

"Much as I enjoyed the human drama and revelations of the Libby case, I wound up regretting the rough ride of the law through the marketplace of information," Frankel concludes. "Attorneys general should resist the temptation to interfere with newsgathering or to delegate such a decision to a single-minded special counsel. When a White House leak is suspected, it is hard to avoid an independent prosecutor, but it's a pressure worth resisting.

"It may sound cynical to conclude that tolerating abusive leaks by government is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government. But that awkward condition has long served to protect the most vital secrets while dislodging the many the public deserves to know."

In loose translation: Prosecutors of the realm let this back-alley market flourish. Attorney Generals and others armed with subpoena power, please leave well enough alone. Back off. Butt out.

It's true that the damage to news gathering from the Libby trial "has been significant," as Frankel notes. But it's even truer that preserving the corrupt black market in information that pours through the "Washington back channel" is even more dangerous to journalism -- and democracy -- than a dozen Special Prosecutors could ever be.

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