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The Daily Briefing 21/10/05
1 More to come?
The long piece on US politics below, (and a messy head cold), slowed things down this morning, and means that a number of articles have not made it into this edition. Two editions in one day are never ideal, but if the energy levels hold up, that's what will happen today.
THE DAILY BRIEFING
2 Miller, the NYTimes and the Bush scandal
The scandal that has grown from the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame by conservative columnist Robert Novak, who surprisingly seems to have disappeared from the story, has presented TDB with something of a dilemma this week. On the one hand it is the most written about Washington story, bar none. On the other hand, as a service that is meant to help save time, TDB tries to avoid mere speculation and wait for those definitive pieces, preferably with some insight and analysis, that sum up the situation. In this case, practically everything written so far is speculation - the key player, Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, has said nothing and is yet to issue a report or indictments. But there will surely be a development soon, and besides, there are all these links sitting in the "unpublished stories file".
The person central to the drama is Judith Miller, the NYTimes reporter who spent 85 days in jail apparently for refusing to reveal to Fitzgerald who told her Plame's name - even though she didn't write a story and her source was seemingly happy for his name to be revealed for most of that time. (Nothing about this story is simple.) For a short overview with a lot of internal links to other significant stories, the Matt Welch piece linked to below is a good place to start. As Welch hints, Miller is a contentious character. An account of the story so far for Editor & Publisher describes her as "Miss Run Amok". The Columbia Journalism Review also offers some background and insights into Miller, a former Pultizer Prize winner and author of the book "Germs" about biological warfare.
The most controversial part of Miller's career was in the lead up to the Iraq war when she used Iraqi exile and anti-Saddam activist Ahmad Chalabi as a source (and was used by him) for a series of stories that supported the Bush administration's case for the invasion of Iraq. The NYTimes subsequently apologised for those stories in May last year, without mentioning Miller by name.
And from here on in, it quickly gets into the realm of conjecture and partisan argument, although there is almost universal agreement that Miller has not handled herself well, and that she has damaged the reputation of the NYTimes. Although, check out the paper's Public Editor's Web Journal castigating the Times on October 13 for failing to have given an explanation of why Miller had been released from jail two weeks earlier, and answered question from the prosecutor in front of a Grand Jury on September 30. Byron Calame rips into the paper that employs him for that failure - "Now is The Time" - again underlining the value of having such a position. No Australian newspaper has a Public Editor and you have to give some credit to a paper that both has one and allows him to be independence. Calame's regular Sunday column should be interesting after the events of this week, and will be in TDB Monday.
Finally, on October 16, the Times' published a long story about Miller and her evidence; Miller wrote a personal account of events; and the Times' published a useful graphic tracking the timeline of the story, right back to the journey to Niger by Plame's husband Joe Wilson looking for evidence that Saddam was trying to buy uranium yellowcake. Those accounts satisfied almost no-one, with Editor & Publisher saying many questions remained unanswered; and Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post having an even stronger response (in a piece with numerous links to other reactions).
Miller's source was I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief-of-staff to Vice-president Dick Cheney, and best of all, so far as liberals and Democrats are concerned, there are suggestions the Karl Rove, otherwise known as "T*rd Blossom", might also be involved. This Washington Post story from a couple of days back suggesting that Cheney himself might have been involved got the whole world talking, but like everything else, it is so much speculation no matter how well informed. It is the sort of speculation Liberals love of course, and the story has given a huge boost to Arianna Huffington's newly set-up Huffington Post blog which has covered the story in great detail. (An even better blog for coverage is Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, but that's a personal preference.) Tina Brown in The Washington Post looks at the role the bloggers have played, and also at why she thinks the NYTimes' has tried, and failed, at being open about the whole business.
Even better news for the left was this Financial Times report that the investigation was being widened to "include questioning about the administration's handling of pre-Iraq war intelligence." And Rove himself has now been called back to give evidence four times, again exciting speculation about his role in it all.
It's widely accepted the Plame's name was leaked as pay-back after her husband Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes undermining a plank of the Bush case for invading Iraq, and naming a covert CIA operative (as Plame was) is an offence, if it is done knowingly - so there is doubt in some quarters as to whether any crime has actually been committed. Yes, it's hard-ball politics, but should it even be an offence? Jacob Weisberg in Slate says it's "an illiberal prosecution" that undermines important liberal values. "Anyone who cares about civil liberties, freedom of information, or even just fair play should have been skeptical about Fitzgerald's investigation from the start. Claiming a few conservative scalps might be satisfying, but they'll come at a cost to principles liberals hold dear: the press's right to find out, the government's ability to disclose, and the public's right to know." For another contrarian take on the business, Slate blogger Mickey Kaus thinks it could backfire on the Democrats if they use it to "refight the war", and if you scroll down further you'll see he argues that the liberal media is targeting Miller for her "treason": "Miller wasn't just perceived as in cahoots with neocons in foisting the war off onto the public. She was doing it from within the New York Times, which the Left correctly perceives as one of "its" institutions. As a traitor within the liberal camp, she has to be expelled and punished, in a way she wouldn't be punished if she'd been an equally mistaken and influential reporter for National Review. The host body rejects her."
There is something for everyone in this yarn, but the bottom line is that it comes at the worst possible time for George Bush and the Republicans, who are not short of political woes; and Bush would be the lamest of lame-duck presidents if Libby, Rove ("Bushes brain") or even worse, Cheney, were indicted. Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times looked at the impact all this may already be having.
The main reaction to writing that long account is that nobody emerges unsullied from the whole tawdry business - trying to understand it all is like hacking through a jungle of lies and half-truths where you keep wishing that more of the players were trying to tell it like it is, and not push an agenda. Oh, and that the pubic interest and good policy outcomes are but nothing compared with winning short-term political battles and the wider culture wars that have corrupted US public life.
3 The state of play
If the summary above on US politics was too much, George Packer's New Yorker essay covers the main points. Packer is a superb journalist, who has won praise for his coverage of the US invasion of Iraq, a war he supported, and is the author of "The Assassins' Gate", an account of the war (TDB recently linked to this review of it by Michael Hirsh in The Washington Monthly.)
In this article Packer looks at the conservative-Republican implosion in the US and at how the Democrats can benefit from it. "Above all, the Democratic Party needs to overcome its own self-esteem problem. Its leaders have to show imagination and take risks, to be confident and aggressive, to proceed as if the current occupant of the White House no longer mattered-as if the Democrats fully intended to win and govern. The Democratic Party has to speak for the common good in a moral language; and it has to believe what it says, so that when the opposition's attacks come, as they will, it can find the heart and the courage to fight back."
One quibble. Packer says the "Republican implosion has come with startling speed". Not sure about that. This final phase of it has, but it has had a long slow build up, particularly on fiscal policy, that TDB has followed since last year.
GEORGE PACKER/THE NEW YORKER
4 The dark heart of Scotland
The UN has described Scotland as the most dangerous country in the developed world (2000 serious assaults every week); it is said to have a murder rate higher than America's. Novelist Irvine Welsh looks at culture, history and politics as he looks for causes and solutions. "Scottish sectarianism operates in the same way as racism. When you continually dehumanise somebody by labelling them as an "Orange" or "Fenian" bastard, on the basis of their surname, the school they attended or the colour of the daft Carling beer top they sheepishly wear, it makes it all the easier to abuse them in other ways. One factor again comes shining through here: alcohol and our twisted association with it. But that relationship might be a little more appropriate if some Scots had better homes, jobs and educational and cultural opportunities. In other words, if many of our people had the chance to genuinely celebrate life rather than simply getting out of it."
IRVINE WELSH/THE GUARDIAN
5 Rollins, Sartre, scholars and jazz
David Yaffe, assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, has written "Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing" and presumably this is taken from it. Yaffe recalls a meeting between Sartre and Sonny Rollins, looks at the impact of an academic essay on Rollins by Gunther Schuller, and takes a suitably scholarly approach to it all, even though he remembers the influential tenor sax wanted no part of it. "For his part, Rollins resolved never to read reviews of his work again. He also never played "Blue 7" again and soon after embarked on his two-year commercial sabbatical of silence, exile, and cunning. Even though he now insists that it was not Schuller who drove him to the bridge, the timing has made many Rollins watchers think otherwise. "It was too close of an examination of the artistic process," Rollins recalled. "It made me think too much about what I was doing. When I'm playing, I don't want to think. I want to be on a 'beyond' level."
DAVID YAFFE/THE CHRONICLE REVIEW