Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dafna Linzer, "Secret Surveillance May Have Occurred Before Authorization" (Washington Post, January 4, Page A03

From tmorange
Sent Wednesday, January 11, 2006 2:26 pm
Subject Dafna Linzer, "Secret Surveillance May Have Occurred Before      Authorization" (January 4, Page A03)

Dear Ms. Howell,

I've reviewed the dispute between you and Media Matters for America over Dafna Linzer's January 4 article about the Bush administration's domestic spying operation, and I am alarmed that you have not publically and for the record acknowledged the Post's errant reporting.

You claimed in your internal "omblog" for Post employees that "It was clear if you read the story that she [Linzer] was simply giving the administration's point of view as well as others." Only in the broadest sense, however, is your characterization accurate. In fact, Linzer engaged in typical journalistic end-of-story recapping that is dangerous precisely because of the inaccuracies it potentially allows to sneak in unchecked and uncorrected. Let's consider the paragraph in question again.

     The NSA program operated in secret until it was made public in news accounts
     last month. Since then, President Bush and his advisers have defended it as
     legal and necessary to protect the country against future attacks and have said
     Congress was repeatedly consulted. But Democrats, some Republicans and
     constitutional law experts have raised concerns about whether Bush overstepped
     his constitutional authority and violated privacy laws meant to guard against the
     government spying on its own citizens without a warrant. The NSA's work,
     which is normally restricted to eavesdropping overseas, also angered judges on
     a special court that administers warrants for secret investigations.

Broadly speaking, yes, Linzer "was simply giving the administration's point of view as well as others" -- the second sentence reiterates the Bush adminstration's position, and the third reiterates the opposing view. But on the rhetorical and factual levels, Linzer's reiterations do not square with one another. Rhetorically, just look at the verb choices: "have defended" and "have said Congress was repeatedly
consulted" imply that the administration responds to attacks with facts, while "have raised concerns [about the program's legality]" is tentative and speculative at best. By other accounts, FISA's provisions are unequivocal and Bush has broken the law. Clearly, in seeming to merely reiterate the two positions, Linzer has already tipped the balance in favor of the Administration.

Factually, there's no contest: Linzer's reiteration of the Bush position, that "President Bush and his advisers... have said Congress was repeatedly consulted," contains a blatant untruth. Representatives Hoekstra and Pelosi, former Senators Graham and Daschle, and Senators Rockefeller and Reid have all gone on the record describing in detail the extent to which Congress was NOT repeatedly consulted on this matter, and I'm sure I don't need to cite these instances.

Ultimately, what gets left out in these end-of-story recaps is often just as important, if not more so, than what gets left in. To give you another example, Linzer's last sentence in the above paragraph states that "The NSA's work... also angered judges on [the FISA Court]," which is factually correct but omits the fact that Judge James Robertson resigned in protest over the president's program -- a far more decisive act than merely being angered.

As I see it, precisely these end-of-story recaps hold the greatest potential for the reiteration of misinformation, factual inaccuracies and outright lies. It's where the reporter is in a rush to squeeze in the back story and is therefore most susceptible to sound bites, talking points and received "truths." But it's an essential part of the journalist's job to interrogate such conventional wisdom rather than blindly parrot it. Linzer and her editors should have pointed out the dispute over the adminstration's claim to having consulted Congress or omitted it altogether.

Finally, this case bears a striking resemblance to the September 4 Post article entitled "Many Evacuated, but Thousands Still Waiting; White House Shifts Blame to State and Local Officials," in which an anonymous "senior Bush official" falsely claimed that "[a]s of Saturday [September 3], [Louisiana Governor Kathleen] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency." As then-ombudsman Michael Getler noted a week later, "The Post moved quickly to correct this." I urge you to follow his example in this case.


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