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VIEWS The Plame Game, Michelangelo Signorile

This article shared 2884 times since Wed Oct 15, 2003
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As if we'd been transported back in time to a previous Bush administration, the word 'outing' is in vogue again. As the FBI investigates the White House, breathless press reports tell us that Valerie Plame was 'outed' as a CIA operative by columnist and Bush lackey Robert Novak back in July. Novak was given her name, he says, by two administration officials, in what looks like payback directed at Plame's husband, the former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, for exposing Bush's uranium lies.

According to news reports, one or more people in the administration leaked the information to at least six journalists. But only Time magazine and Novak used it, Novak running Plame's name in a column that appeared in syndication, including the Washington Post. So far, though the heat is on, none of the other reporters who were given the information will 'out' the leakers.

If we're going resurrect the word 'outing' and expand its definition, it's instructive to look at a classic outing to see just how hypocritical much of the press is being in the Plame case. Editors and reporters have been riding the high horse of 'journalistic ethics' in defending both Novak's outing and reporters' failure to identify administration leaks. But this story has little to do with ethics and everything to with self-preservation and careerism. As has been pointed out by some media critics, the journalists who were given the information on Plame (but chose not to use it) could and should have done a story about how the White House was leaking the name of a CIA agent—all without using the name of the agent or even the leakers. They chose not to for the same reason they won't now release the names of the leakers, despite the felony of exposing a covert operative. They believe that if they did, they'd lose all access to the White House, that their competition would get a leg up and that their careers would suffer.

Back in 1991, I wrote a cover story for The Advocate about Pete Williams, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in the Bush administration and Pentagon spokesman throughout the Gulf War. Williams was known to be gay by higher-ups in the Pentagon, including then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and, it appeared, President Bush. Meanwhile the Pentagon was booting gays and lesbians out of the military, claiming they were a security risk because they might have access to classified information and could be blackmailed. But the truth is, the average cook, private or porter had no access to state secrets while Pete Williams certainly did.

The Washington Post was at the time faced with a situation similar to the one it faced this past July with regard to Novak: Should it run a column that named a name?

The veteran syndicated columnist Jack Anderson had penned a column on the Pentagon's policy of ejecting gays, and he pointed by name to Pete Williams' homosexuality as an example of the Pentagon's hypocrisy, citing my upcoming Advocate story, an advance of which had been sent to him. There had been public protests by gay activists against the policy at the Pentagon, where Williams' name and face had been plastered on signs. Some smaller news outlets and local TV had also named Williams by that point, referencing The Advocate story, and Anderson had called Williams for a quote on rumors that he might resign.

'Williams says he is not paid to talk about his personal life nor offer his personal opinions on issues,' Anderson wrote in the syndicated column sent out to 700 papers. 'He told us he has 'no plans' to resign, but that could change on [Defense Secretary Dick] Cheney's request. If Williams stays and the questions persist, the Pentagon will have a hard time defending its dubious policy against gay soldiers ... .'

The Post killed the column, though it could have let it run without naming Williams and saying a 'Pentagon official' was outed—as it later was forced to do, as the controversy grew. Anderson's column did run in Williams' hometown daily, Cheyenne's Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. That paper even ran a follow-up with quotes from Williams, who wouldn't address his sexuality but did say he wasn't resigning. With Williams giving interviews on the subject and with everyone in his home state—including his family—knowing all the facts, was the Washington Post really protecting Williams' privacy? Or was it protecting his bosses from an embarrassing exposure regarding a controversial military policy?

Naming Valerie Plame potentially damaged national security, blowing not just her cover but possibly the cover of her contacts around the world. It ended her career as a covert operative and may have destroyed the careers of others as well. It could even have put lives at risk. Pete Williams, on the other hand, was not only known to be gay by his friends and superiors, but was never forced to resign. (He even landed a big job as a correspondent at NBC, disproving the notion that reporting on people's unstated but well-known homosexuality destroys their careers.)

Curiously, in both cases the Post benefited a Bush administration, at least in the short term. Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post's editorial page editor, has expressed that 'in retrospect, I wish I had asked more questions' of Novak before publishing Plame's name. I believe him when he says his guard was down, but, curiously, editors' guards often seem to be down when the right floats something dubious, while there is constant vigilance about not letting activists on the left 'manipulate' them, to the point that many stories go unreported. Right-leaning pundits are fair and balanced, while left-leaning ones are just pushing an agenda. In almost all of the reporting about Novak's outing of Plame—including on CNN, which apparently fears he might cut loose and go to Fox if they criticize the guy—we keep hearing that he is a fair, balanced and even 'wonderful' journalist. In fact, he's a biased hack and attack dog for the Bush administration. Amidst the high-minded arguments about 'ethics' and the relationship journalists have to their sources, where are the stories about the identity of the criminal leakers in the White House? Surely every editor in Washington now knows who they are.

Back in 1991, none of the Pentagon reporters who sat in the briefing room would ask Williams about The Advocate story, which had already been referenced—without naming Williams—by Sam Donaldson in a talk with Dick Cheney on ABC's This Week. The only one who finally asked the question was a visiting German reporter who was seized upon by some gay activists before entering the building and begged to bring up the question. With the story coming just after the Gulf War, when reporters were conditioned like dogs to happily consume the little morsels of information doled out to them, no reporter who needed Williams was about to displease him. The same dynamic operates today, with the White House reporters trained not to bite the hand that feeds.

This article shared 2884 times since Wed Oct 15, 2003
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