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Dan Froomkin Meets the Journamalists

And in spite of everything he knows and has seen, Dan Froomkin seems shocked at the extent of the feckless corruption of the Washington political-news press corps. Informing their readers and viewers is simply not on their agenda.

Froomkin watches Tim Russert:

Dan Froomkin - Washington Journalism on Trial - washingtonpost.com: If you're a journa[mal]list, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public? Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.

And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.That's not reporting, that's enabling. That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're [covering]....

Many things are "on trial" at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse right now.... Libby's boss, along with the whole Bush White House, for that matter, is being held up to public scrutiny as well.And the behavior of elite members of Washington's press corps -- sometimes appearing more interested in protecting themselves and their cozy "sources" than in informing the public -- is also being exposed for all the world to see.

For Russert, yesterday's testimony was the second source of trial-related embarrassment in less than two weeks. The first came when Cathie Martin, Cheney's former communications director, testified that the vice president's office saw going on Russert's "Meet the Press" as a way to go public but "control [the] message." In other words... Russert could be counted on not to knock the veep off his talking points -- and, in that way, give him just the sort of platform he was looking for.

Russert's description of how he does business with government officials.... [D]efense attorney Theodore Wells sounded incredulous that Russert wouldn't have asked Libby some questions. After all, former ambassador Joseph Wilson had gone public just four days earlier with his provocative charge that the administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq. Wilson had done that in a New York Times op-ed -- and on "Meet the Press" itself. "You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about it?" Wells asked. "As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?"

Russert replied: "What happened is exactly what I told you."

Froomkin watches Howard Kurtz carry water for Tim Russert:

Howard Kurtz writes in today's Washington Post that Russert "emerged relatively unscathed yesterday." But I think Kurtz was more dead-on in his CNN show on Sunday when he broke from the role of neutral moderator and said: "Well, here's my two cents. I mean, anonymous sources are absolutely vital for investigative reporting for the exposing of corruption, health and safety problems, and that sort of thing. But journalists have gotten so promiscuous on granting anonymity on routine political stories that it makes us look bad."

It doesn't make you people "look bad," Howard. You are bad. Own it.

And Froomkin watches Arianna Huffington:

Arianna Huffington had this to say on PoliticsTV.com after Russert's testimony:

This assumption that somehow any conversation with a government official is automatically assumed to be highly confidential... gives the sense to the average citizen that this is a kind of club, to which government officials and major news reporters belong. And that anything discussed between them is automatically off the record, no matter whether it is of public interest or not...

That's putting it too softly. It's not a problem of the impression the average citizen receives. It's a problem of what Russert and company do. It doesn't "give the sense to the average citizen"; it, rather, informs the average citizen of the reality.

This is important: The elite political news journalists of Washington have known since 2000 of the fecklessness, incompetence, disconnection from reality, mendacity, and malevolence of George W. Bush and the highest levels of his administration. They have heard the same stories as I have--and they have heard more of them. I have listened to some of them dine out on those stories. Yet the number who have worked to incorporate what they know from whispered off-the-record conversations into what they report to the public is very small indeed.

In their New York Times story, Neil Lewis and David Johnston do challenge Russert--in the twenty-sixth and final paragraph of their article:

As Neil A. Lewis and David Johnston write in the New York Times, Wells "also challenged Mr. Russert about initial efforts to avoid testifying. Mr. Russert had said in an affidavit that it was a matter of journalistic principle to refuse to divulge his conversation with Mr. Libby. But Mr. Wells, who also displayed this affidavit on-screen, noted that when Mr. Russert was first reached by telephone by an F.B.I. investigator, weeks before the affidavit, he spoke freely about it."