The “fantastic job” Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe claims he is doing

The amiable and self-praising chat between Tony Snow and White House correspondents tells you all you need to know about the state of our nation's press corps.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

At the National Press Club last night, White House spokesman Tony Snow sat down for a chat with what appeared to be some of his best friends — our nation’s elite “journalists” assigned to the White House — and they all sat around amicably bemoaning how terribly unfair the criticism is that is directed at them by blogs (h/t Atrios). Apparently, one of the most pressing media problems in America is . . . that bloggers demand too much of the national journalists who are assigned to report on the activities and claims of the Government.

Special attention is warranted for the remarks last night of Newsweek‘s so-called “Senior White House Correspondent,” Richard Wolffe. After Snow asserted that when you “open” a blog, “this wonderful, imaginative hateful stuff [] comes flying out” and that therefore “you probably shouldn’t believe your opposition’s blogs,” he turned to Wolffe and asked: “what do you think, Richard?” Wolffe instinctively replied to Snow: “I totally agree.”

Wolffe then proceeded to expound on Snow’s attacks on bloggers by complaining that blogs are engaged in a “witch hunt” against the poor, besieged White House correspondents, which is terribly unfair because — and, honestly, this is really an actual quote from Wolffe: “the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general.” Wolffe then adopted his most sneering and patronizing tone to observe with bewilderment that there are actually these “blogs duly devoted to media criticisms, which is itself kind of interesting given all the things you could comment on.”

That is such a great point. Really, what kind of warped and obsessive American would devote themselves to such an unnecessary task as “media criticism,” as though our elite national journalists — who are doing such “a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general” — need anyone, let alone bloggers, telling them how to do their job.



Besides, Wolffe patiently explained that bloggers who are criticizing journalists have no understanding of the real function of journalism, just as the NYT‘s Michael Gordon lectured Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman when Goodman had the audacity to criticize Gordon’s pre-Iraq War “reporting” on Iraq’s aluminum tubes. Gordon sniped: “I don’t know if you understand how journalism works.” Wolffe similarly enlightened the confused, misguided critics of journalists as follows:

They want us to play a role that isn’t really our role. Our role is to ask questions and get information. It’s not a chance for the opposition to take on the government and grill them to a point where they throw their hands up and surrender.

See, all journalists are supposed to do is ask questions of their friends — like that great guy, Tony Snow — and that is how they “get information.” Then, they pass it along. That’s it. That’s their job (that echoes what Gordon told Goodman: “the way journalism works is you write what you know, and what you know at the time you try to convey as best you can”).

Those who think they should actually do more than that — as embodied by the demand of bloggers that they actually be adversarial and skeptical about the information-gathering process, and that they actually investigate and scrutinize what the Government tells them, rather than mindlessly pass it along — is all just a lamentable by-product of how unpleasantly political and angry bloggers are. Wolffe explained what we fail to understand:

It’s not a political exercise, it’s a journalistic exercise. And I think often the blogs are looking for us to be political advocates more than journalistic ones.

The reality, of course, is that most media-criticizing bloggers do not want journalists to be “political advocates.” They want them to do what journalists are supposed to do – which is not, contrary to Wolffe’s belief, sit around with their good, trustworthy, nice-guy friends in the White House and simply “ask questions” and “get information,” but instead to scrutinize that information, treat it with doubt, investigate it before passing it along to determine whether it’s true.

And the reason bloggers want them to do that, the reason that bloggers demand more of journalists like Wolffe, is not because bloggers are enraged, confused, unreasonable partisans. It’s because bloggers are American citizens who are deeply concerned about what has happened to their country over the last six years and criticize the press and demand more of it because Wolffe’s overly-friendly relationships with Bush officials like Tony Snow, and Wolffe’s simplistic and lazy conception of what a reporter does, produces extremely destructive and shoddy “journalism” like this:

By Richard Wolffe — Financial Times — August 1, 2002 (via Lexis)

Iraq’s military poses a substantial threat to US forces if the Bush administration orders an attack to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, military and Iraqi experts warned yesterday.

However, without US intervention, Iraq is likely to develop nuclear weapons within two years, as part of an intensive and covert weapons programme, a Senate committee heard.

The expert warnings to the Senate foreign relations committee reinforce similar concerns by senior administration officials that renewed weapons inspections by the United Nations are unlikely to detect the full extent of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

By Richard Wolffe — Financial Times, September 14, 2002

The Pentagon believes that Iraq is developing missiles with a range of up to 1,500km that could be operational within the next three years. . . .

The Pentagon sought to reinforce those warnings yesterday by detailing both Iraq’s links with terrorist groups and its development of chemical and biological weapons. In recent days the White House has distanced itself from the suggestion that Iraq was linked to the hijackers responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks last year. But the administration insists that there is a serious threat to world security posed by the overlap between terrorists and rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction.

A senior Pentagon official said yesterday that there was evidence of continued development of chemical and biological weapons. “We continue to see suspicious activities at sites that we believe are related to their CW (chemical weapons) and BW (biological weapons) programmes,” the official said.

By Richard Wolffe – Newsweek — December 11, 2002

“In ’62 you could have Adlai Stevenson producing pictures of missile sites being constructed in Cuba,” said one senior administration official in the Roosevelt Room, with more than a hint of disappointment. “In the last 40 years, countries like Iraq have become practiced in denying us the ability to collect these types of information and have invested great resources in that type of objective.”

So if you’re waiting for a smoking gun at the U.N., don’t hold your breath. This is not your father’s missile crisis.

By Richard Wolffe and Michael Hirsh — February 3, 2003 — Newsweek cover story

While the French argued that U.N. inspectors had “frozen” Iraq’s weapons programs, Powell was blunt and dismissive. “Inspections,” he told reporters categorically last week, “will not work.”

One senior State Department official explains Powell’s change of heart as a gradual awakening: “People ask why Powell is becoming increasingly hard-line. It’s because every day, when we wake up in the morning, the facts are clear that Iraq has gone back to its old ways and is refusing to disarm, and trying to prevent the inspectors from disarming them. It’s a big decision, especially for a former general who knows what this is all about.”

By Richard Wolffe – Newsweek, February 5, 2003

All this came after Powell made a compelling presentation–not just against Iraq, but against the inspections process itself. Playing tantalizing intercepts of conversations between Iraqi military officers, Powell made what seemed to be a cast-iron case of Iraq’s concerted efforts to hide its weapons from the U.N. inspectors.

Satellite pictures showed convoys of trucks outside what Powell called chemical-weapons plants. Warheads were being hidden in groves of palm trees. Biological materials were being produced in rail cars and cargo trucks. If Iraq is hiding so much, how could the inspectors ever lay their hands on Iraq’s illegal weapons?

By Richard Wolffe – Newsweek – February 17, 2003

As Powell cranked up the pressure to go to war, America’s threat barometer was moving in the same direction. At the end of the week, the administration raised its official threat level to Code Orange–the second highest security alert–based on fresh warnings of Qaeda attacks on American targets. Intelligence sources say the planned attacks appear to be timed to take place between the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, in mid-February, and the start of war in Iraq.

“Our reporting strongly suggests that Al Qaeda has completed preparations for multiple attacks with spectaculars set for the United States and probably Saudi Arabia, and is delaying them until just before or just after a war begins with Iraq,” says a classified FBI bulletin obtained by NEWSWEEK. “In that situation, Al Qaeda attacks will be described as an effort to defend Iraqi Muslims against the attack of the U.S.-led Crusaders.”

NEWSWEEK has learned that one of the administration’s most immediate concerns is the possibility of multiple attacks on American Jewish groups and businesses. Late last week FBI field offices across the country began contacting Jewish leaders and rabbis and urging them to enhance security. Other threats include reports of an attack using chemical, biological or radiological materials. “We had much more information on chem-bio stuff,” says one senior law-enforcement official. “That really unnerved me.”

That is the absolutely “fantastic job” which Wolffe did — all by “asking questions” of his administration friends, “get[ting] information,” and then dutifully passing it along — and doing little else.

And, as Wolffe explained last night — with the narrow, slothful, and self-defensive mentality of a low-level bureaucrat — that is his only job. They’re not supposed “to take on the government and grill them” — that would be terribly impolite, very “political,” and beyond his job description. Bloggers who think that Wolffe should have done more than regurgitate what he was told by a war-hungry administration are the real problem here — not Wolffe and his gullible journalistic colleagues who are doing a “fantastic job,” nor the administration officials who fed them these falsehoods.

And just for good measure, this is one “fantastic” paragraph which Wolffe told his readers in September, 2002:

The constitution gives the president the right to declare war but it gives Congress ways to counter that power. In 1973, Congress passed the war powers act in response to public alarm that unchecked presidential prerogative during the Vietnam war had led to an unacceptable toll on American lives.

Maybe his good friends in the White House told him that the power to declare war lies with the President, and nobody has grounds to complain about Wolffe’s reporting because he just passed along what he was told, and that is his job.

Reporters like Wolffe develop such close affection for the people that they are covering that they see themselves as part of the Government — which is what they become — rather than watchdogs over them. As Eric Alterman recounted when reviewing a documentary by Alexandra Pelosi:

If you want your mystery summed up in a single sentence, it would be hard to outdo Wolffe: “The Gore press corps is about how they didn’t like Gore, didn’t trust him…. Over here, we were writing only about the trivial stuff because [Bush] charmed the pants off us.”

It is truly astonishing that the people who enabled the administration to spew one falsehood after the next — and who aided and abetted the worst strategic disaster in our country’s history by mindlessly passing those falsehoods along to their readers, completely failing to investigate any of it, but instead obediently validating it all with journalistic approval — now want to sit around in the most self-satisfied way and pronounce that they are doing an absolutely “fantastic job” and complain about the vulgar masses who disrupt their tranquility by criticizing them for being insufficiently vigilant.

And to those American citizens who remain rather angry about the complete failure of the press to scrutinize the war-justifying claims made by their friends in the government — and who wake up every day and devote themselves to trying to prod the press into performing its intended adversarial watchdog role so that our Government has at least some checks on what it can say and do — people like Richard Wolffe have nothing to say other than to agree with Tony Snow that they are vulgar and hateful and to lecture them — in his snidest and most condescending tone — that they are just ignorant, confused, and unreasonably demanding.

Truly, the spectacle of watching our country’s leading White House journalists sitting there next to Tony Snow — all of them oozing pomposity and self-satisfaction — while Snow engineers the entire discussion and treats them like the friendly puppets that they are (Snow: “What do you think, Richard?” Richard: “Yeah, uh, well . . . I totally agree.”), is quite difficult to endure, but is nonetheless truly revealing. How can someone who authored the above-excerpted articles, in which they disseminated to the world patent falsehoods that helped to unleash a grotesquely unnecessary and grotesquely brutal war, all on false pretenses, now parade around in public touting what a great job they have done and attack bloggers for criticizing them?

With rare exception, could our national press corps be any more self-regarding, empty, corrupt and worthless? Given that our national media is composed of “journalists” like Richard Wolffe (and Michael Gordon) — who look at their behavior and conclude that they are doing a “fantastic job” and that the real problem lies with the ignorant, dirty barbarians who dare to criticize them — is it really any wonder that our political discourse and our political institutions are as fundamentally degraded and as broken as they are?

UPDATE: Marvel at another “fantastic job” by Wolffe — this one in regurgitating a January, 2005 Newsweek profile of George Bush — based exclusively on interviews with “Bush’s aides and friends” — which literally would not have been more adoring had it been written by Laura Bush, or even Hugh Hewitt (h/t El Tiburon and sysprog). This was Newsweek‘s understated headline for Wolffe’s article:

He’s hands-on, detail-oriented and hates ‘yes’ men. The George Bush you don’t know has big dreams — and is racing the clock to realize them

From the “fantastic” Wolffe, we “learned”:

* Other presidents might leave the tough stuff to subordinates, but Bush wanted to do the job himself.

* Bush’s leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent and covets his own downtime. In fact, Bush’s aides and friends describe the mirror image of a restless man who masters details and reads avidly, who chews over his mistakes and the failings of those around him, and who has grown evermore comfortable pulling the levers of power.

* Bush has always thought big, and always believed you earn political capital by expending it.

* In laying out his second-term agenda, Bush is building on the big ideas he launched in Austin.

* “When he wants to be, he’s a real stickler for details,” says one Republican senator. “When he calls you to talk about a bill, he knows the nitty-gritty. You don’t get the sense he’s been reading the Cliffs Notes guide to an issue.”

* Another popular misperception: that Bush doesn’t read. Aides describe numerous debates inside the Oval Office, where the president digs deep into his briefing books. “I’ve seen it time and time again,” says Rove. “We all get the briefing papers the night before, we’ve all read them, and he’ll inevitably have thought about three steps ahead of anyone in the room.”

* Judging from the press coverage of his new cabinet, you’d think Bush’s guiding principle was to put yes men in positions of power. But Bush draws a sharp line between people who can get things done, and those who simply agree with anything he says. His style in policy briefings is to narrow the debate with a series of questions, crystallizing the competing opinions and exploring the disagreements between his staff.

* To hear his friends tell it, Bush hates toadies, and loves to mock sycophantic remarks . . .”If anyone is too much of a suck-up, the president is the first one to call them on it,” says Card.

* It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Bush doesn’t worry about the consequences of his decisions, especially in Iraq. Behind the scenes he was intimately involved in the details of the Fallujah offensive last year, keeping close tabs on strategic decisions and getting regular updates on the troops’ progress. “He thinks long and hard about it, particularly where American lives are at risk,” says one confidant, “including the postwar plan, the role of the former Baathists and the number of troops.”

There is, literally, a complete absence of a single negative or even balancing comment. It is three Newsweek pages pulsating with pure, tongue-wagging, unadulterated praise, all based on Bush-loyal sources. But the only ones who could possibly find that objectionable are the partisan, idiotic bloggers who do not understand the lofty function of journalism [although an intern at Salon, several months after publication of the Wolffe homage, documented that actual reporters had discovered just how false were the glorifying depictions of Bush fed to (and then obligingly spewed out by) Wolffe].

It is also worth noting in passing the depravity of Tony Snow’s complaints (endorsed by the agreeable panel) about the “hateful stuff” that allegedly spews forth from blogs. Contrast Snow’s complaint with that Beacon of Civility whom Snow and other administration officials have chosen as their personal interviewer. But it would be entirely unreasonable to expect any of the Senior White House Correspondents on the friendly panel to have mentioned that because their role is simply to ask questions, not to be “political” or to “grill” the administration.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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