Politics & Policy

Embarrassing Coverage

Chum in the water sets off media feeding frenzy.

Now is the time to ask: What do John Mark Karr and Joseph Wilson have in common? Wilson is no more a would-be pedophile than Karr is a former diplomat. But they are both attention-seeking liars who deliberately helped launch criminal investigations that should never have gone as far as they did. Moreover, they launched media feeding frenzies that wasted everybody’s time.

It’s this second point that interests me more than the first. Ever since it was reported that Karr wasn’t the right guy, the media — cable news networks in particular — have been taking a beating by the professional fingerwaggers. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz declared that the Karr episode “instantly goes down with the greatest media embarrassments in modern history.”

In fairness, the fingerwaggers have a point. A woman who flew on the same plane as Karr, for example, was interviewed as if she had survived the downing of the Titanic. The Karr family baby sitter was filmed in shadows for her interview, as if she were in witness protection for ratting out Vincent “the Chin” Gigante.

“The problem is that the New York Times devoted in one of their articles … 13 reporters to John Mark Karr. They don’t have 13 reporters in Iraq. That’s the embarrassment,” exclaimed media writer Neal Gabler on Fox News.

But when it comes to the Joseph Wilson story, the wagging fingers shudder to a full stop. Wilson’s allegations were all outright lies or, at best, deceitful insinuations. At least when Karr lied, he put the blame on himself. In Wilson’s telling, he could do no wrong even as he was a one-man sprinkler system of false accusations — accusations that launched an absurd investigation, cost the vice president’s chief of staff his job, put a journalist in jail and threatened to do likewise to many more, and hurt America’s image around the globe.

As it turned out, Wilson’s accusation that President Bush lied in his State of the Union speech about Iraq seeking “yellowcake uranium” was debunked by the Senate Intelligence Committee. As was Wilson’s repeated denial that his wife didn’t help him get the Niger assignment. His suggestion that Dick Cheney sent him to Africa and that Cheney deliberately ignored Wilson’s shoddy report was pure Wilsonian conjecture. And, of course, his self-lionizing speculation that the White House launched a vengeful campaign against his wife never had any basis in fact. Indeed, there’s good reason to believe Wilson himself leaked the information that Plame was an undercover agent.

But that didn’t stop the press from going hog wild. The New York Times led the clamor for an independent prosecutor (who, once appointed, put the Times’ own reporter, Judith Miller, in jail). And unlike the journalists who insisted that John Mark Karr was innocent until proven guilty, the Times’ mob of liberal pundits worked from the opposite assumption when it came to Karl Rove et al. Paul Krugman suggested Rove should be in a jail cell when he receives his medal for ruining America. Maureen Dowd insisted, “The issue is the administration’s credibility, not Joe Wilson’s.” And, of course, the left-wing blogs spewed bile about “treason” all day long.

Now, I’m not saying the press shouldn’t have investigated Wilson’s allegations. Even if we now know he isn’t a serious man, the charges surely were. But I don’t think it was wrong for the press to cover Karr exhaustively (as opposed to excessively) either. The press has been in the true-crime business for centuries. The JonBenet Ramsey murder was a huge story, and a man with a reported record of interest in underage girls confessed to the crime in Bangkok — a Mecca for perverts. The Karr story was unfolding in real time, and the news is supposed to cover, you know, news. Most important, unlike Wilson, Karr was in a position to know the truth of the matter.

Kurtz wrote this about the Karr story: “Facts don’t matter in frenzies; what matters is camera-ready speculation, where opposing lawyers and ex-prosecutors can argue on one talk show after another.” Just replace lawyers and ex-prosecutors with spinners, pundits, and consultants, and the same holds true.

I don’t know if the Wilson fraud will instantly go down with the greatest media embarrassments in modern history. However, the press doesn’t seem to mind beating itself up when it overindulges the public’s passions. When its own self-indulgence is the issue, there’s never any need to feel embarrassed. Indeed, there’s no need to say anything at all.

©2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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