Interview with Charlie Savage

The reporter who just won a Pulitzer for his articles on the Bush administration's abuse of "signing statements" discusses executive power, blogs and the national press, and principles of good journalism.

Published April 26, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

Last week, Charlie Savage of The Boston Globe was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles on the Bush administration's unprecedented abuse of "signing statements" as an instrument for evading the law. This week, I conducted the following interview with him via e-mail:

What prompted you originally to focus on President Bush's signing statements as a news story?

I had been covering both the McCain torture ban and the Patriot Act reauthorization fights in Congress as part of my regular beat, which is legal matters -- especially those with a connection to 9/11. Both of those fights ended with a provocative signing statement by Bush. After those two stories, it made sense to go back and look at all the other signing statements, including those unrelated to national security, to see what other laws Bush had declared himself free to bypass.

Why did you find the story significant?

In his signing statements, Bush was asserting that the president, as commander-in-chief and head of the "unitary" executive branch, has the power to set aside laws in which Congress has sought to restrict his power or to regulate the federal government. This view seemed to have momentous implications for the constitutional system of checks and balances. Moreover, it was coming to light in the wake of then-recent revelations about the warrantless wiretapping program, which circumvented a 1978 statute. The NSA program showed that the Bush administration was willing to act on its aggressive theory of executive power.

What was the reaction of the national press to your stories? Did your initial articles prompt much attention from other national media outlets?

There were initially very few news stories in the rest of the national print media that followed up on the Globe's articles about the Bush administration signing statements, although many editorial boards and opinion columnists in those same publications did write about them. One exception: a few days the Globe's initial story about the torture ban signing statement, the Knight-Ridder/McClatchy Washington Bureau did a very good story on the same topic. And by May, the signing-statements story had also been picked up by a number of radio shows, MSNBC, numerous bloggers and online columnists -- and Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

The Associated Press article reporting on the Pulitzer awards quoted you as follows: "The Globe for a while was throwing it out on the front page when a lot of people were ignoring it, and that took a lot of courage."

Can you elaborate on that? Who was ignoring it? And why do you believe it took "courage" for The Globe to continue to publish your articles on signing statements?

The Globe, unlike some regional papers, has made a decision to continue doing its own enterprise reporting in Washington. This means that the Globe can highlight its own stories rather than taking the safer route of joining in a single national agenda set in consensus with others. I think it took courage on the part of editors to keep putting the paper's reputation behind a very complex story that was not being echoed on the front pages of other publications. I believe this experience shows why it is very important to maintain a diversity of journalistic thought in Washington.

Many political blogs wrote extensively about your articles, even the earliest one back in January, 2006. Were you and/or your editors aware of how much attention your articles were receiving among bloggers? What effects, if any, did that have on how you and your editors perceived of this story?

I know my bureau chief doesn't read blogs, but I was certainly aware of the coverage in the blogosphere and grateful for the exposure that several prominent blogs and online columnists were giving to my stories. In many respects the Internet era has been hard on regional papers, but it can also be a great gift to national bureaus because it gives our stories an opportunity for much wider exposure.

In a related way, our website's "most e-mailed stories" lists, which I know editors pay attention to, provides a useful barometer for which stories are capturing readersb

Before 2006, the very idea of a "signing statement" was a new and unfamiliar concept for most people outside the executive branch, with the exception of a couple political science professors. Moreover, the documents themselves are hard to understand at first because they use very technical language and because they often refer to the laws being challenged only by section numbers within a general bill. It took me weeks of work to decipher the specifics of each of the more than 750 laws Bush had challenged in his roughly 125 signing statements as of April 2006. No one else had access to my database, and it was understandable that others would be reluctant to invest the same amount of time and effort in catching up, when the end product would simply be to recreate a story the Globe had already published.

I would also note that as the year progressed, several other print media outlets did begin picking up on Bush's newly issued signing statements, such as the one about minimum qualifications for FEMA directors or about opening first-class mail, suggesting that they were just waiting for fresh news on the topic to jump on.

What do you think are the defining attributes of quality political reporting? Relatedly, what do you believe it was about your reporting here that distinguished it from more ordinary stories?

I'll just mention one principle in particular which is important when writing about complex legal or policy matters: avoiding the easy route of "he said, she said" reporting, which does no favors to readers who don't have the time to become specialists in the subject themselves.

Sometimes government officials, seeking to "muddy the coverage" (in the words of a DOJ spokeswoman's internal email that was recently turned over to a congressional committee looking into the US attorneys firings), put out misleading talking points that are intended to distract reporters and the public from the real story. In such a case, one must go beyond simply quoting the government official and give readers the information they need in order not to be misled.

Examples of this were the government's repeated talking points that there was nothing different about Bush's use of signing statements when compared to previous presidents (a claim that ignores both his unprecedented number of challenges and his virtual abandonment of his real veto power) and that Bush "intends to faithfully execute the law in a manner consistent with the Constitution" (a dense and misleading phrase that seems to mean that Bush will obey the statute, but actually means he'll feel free to ignore the statute).

The Globe's Editor, Martin Baron, was quoted in the Globe's article on your prize as follows: "What Charlie does and the reason he won this richly deserved Pulitzer is because he covered what the White House does, not just what it says."

Is that one of your guiding principles as a reporter, and if so, can you elaborate on the dichotomy drawn by Baron between covering what the White House does versus what it says?

I think that the answer to this question is basically found in the same neighborhood as the answer to your previous question: all good reporters would agree that one must always bring a healthy degree of skepticism to official pageantry, be they press releases or elaborate bill signing ceremonies or anything else that is deliberately crafted for public consumption.

You have a forthcoming book about the Bush administration's efforts to expand presidential powers. When will your book be released, and what are its general themes?

Thanks for the plug. TAKEOVER: THE RETURN OF THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY AND THE SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY is due to be published by Little Brown this September. It recently got an pre-order page.

This book sets out to investigate the myriad ways in which the Bush administration, from its earliest days in office, has quietly undertaken a systematic project of expanding presidential power.

This agenda, I also found, stems largely from Vice President Cheney's desire to roll back the checks-and-balances that Congress imposed on the presidency (which had been accumulating unprecedented powers amid the early Cold War, a brief surge that climaxed under Nixon) after Watergate and Vietnam. Its push to concentrate greater authority in the executive branch has been one of the Bush administration's most successfully implemented policies, and it will leave a lasting imprint on the shape of American democracy.

In general, do you believe that American media has done a sufficient job in reporting on the Bush administration's expansion of presidential power? What have they done well, if anything, and what has been missing?

I believe that the Bush administration's systematic effort to expand presidential power is among the most interesting and defining themes of this era in Washington -- one that unites and explains many different policy controversies which are too often discussed in isolation from one another or without reference to the larger pattern.

By Glenn Greenwald

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