NEW YORK -- Some say the Washington press corps is biased toward the left or right. David Corn agrees there is bias but believes it is a "bias towards officialdom. ... It includes the White House, Congress and people in the cabinets." D.C. reporters, he says, are simply not comfortable doing "anything that could be seen as challenging the agenda or anything that could be seen too much as crusading."
Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is often credited with being the first to report that Robert Novak's controversial "leak" column may have contained information given to him by White House officials in violation of federal law. Corn was also the first to surmise that the information may have been leaked to Novak as part of an effort by White House officials to punish or discredit Joseph Wilson, whose wife was "outed" as a CIA worker by Novak. The theory is that someone in the administration was trying to discredit Wilson's criticism of Bush's Iraq policy.
Corn views this press bias towards "officialdom" and a "pack" mentality in the Washington press corps as reasons why it took major news outlets until September to report a story he broke in July, just two days after Novak's column originally appeared.
Washington reporters say, "Get it first, but first get it second," Corn said. "Every reporter wants a scoop, but it's hard to see outside the pack."
Corn's book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception, has just been published.
He credits his distance from the traditional Washington press corps, as well as personal knowledge of the CIA and intelligence laws, for allowing him to see the story behind Novak's column. According to Corn, it is the close relationship between the press and the White House, and the fear of tarnishing this relationship, that kept reporters from looking at Novak's column under a critical light and reporting about it until recently.
"Here was Novak being used," Corn says. "Maybe it's because I'm not from that form of Washington journalism that the exploitation stuck out a bit. Since I don't get the handouts, I got to scrape my own stuff together. I got to look at the Washington terrain with a different set of eyes and try to find the things. And this thing was quite low-lying fruit."
The current media frenzy regarding the Novak leak is not surprising, Corn says, but follows an expected pattern when the media fails to properly cover a story at first.
"The media always overreacts," Corn says. "The media ignores something that's important for awhile, then jumps all over it. I think it's just part of the beast."
Even if it turns out that no laws were broken, or no arrests are made, Corn still believes that someone in the White House made an ethical misjudgment in leaking the name of Wilson's wife. Furthermore, Corn is adamant in his belief that the leak was part of an effort to discredit Wilson for criticizing the administration's foreign policy.
"I think they were lashing out," Corn says. "They felt attacked and Wilson was a fellow causing problems for them and they wanted to punish or discredit him. They were throwing out whatever they could."
Among the many questions that still linger regarding the leak, Corn feels that the fact that White House officials apparently gave at least six reporters the confidential information is especially cause for concern, and evidence of a conscious effort to smear Wilson.
"You have six or seven reporters who know," Corn said. "[Administration officials] were either trying to plant this story or promote it once it was out."
Corn believes that while anonymous sources are important for journalists, reporters must avoid spreading unaccountable lies or becoming pawns for a political agenda.
"The public does benefit from leaks because you get things that the government refuses to put out officially," Corn says. "I think reporters sometimes get too close to sources over all, which means they become too eager to take anonymous tidbits, and not as skeptical as they should be of them in their reporting."
This issue is not exclusive to political reporting, Corn says, but rather affects all forms of beats.
"Beat reporting is very tough," Corn says. "You live with the sources and they can make your life easy. But if you come down too hard on them, they're not gonna do it. It's a series of judgement calls for anyone working a beat -- how oppositional you think you can get.
"It's a very hard balance to strike," Corn says. "Obviously, for most human beings, when you get a tough call the decision is going to be what's easiest for you."
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