Chuck Todd's arguments against investigations

Blocking investigations of those in political power is one of the unifying beliefs of establishment journalism.

Published July 15, 2009 11:16AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

NBC's Chuck Todd -- who, remember, is billed as a reporter covering the White House, not a pundit expressing opinions -- was on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday discussing reports that Eric Holder is likely to appoint a prosecutor to investigate Bush torture crimes.  Needless to say, everyone agreed without question that investigations were a ridiculous distraction from what really matters and would be terribly unfair.  This, along with Mika Brzezinski and Pat Buchanan, is what Todd argued after he was asked about the Holder story and the Cheney/CIA story (video is below):

Todd: Look, let's take all of these stories in one big thing:  really, the only important thing -- the most important thing -- the President has to focus on is getting the public's trust on the economy, and pushing health care.  Cheney, the CIA, and in some respects Sotomayor are cable catnip --

Brzezinski:  Yep.

Todd:  It's news catnip - but they're sort of clouding the two most important issues the President's got to get his arms around this week:  winning back trust of the middle on the economy and pushing health care through.

Brzezinski: I would completely agree with you, yet the questions are being raised by news organizations like the New York Times.  Pat Buchanan, chime in, because as I've been reporting [sic], and I'll say it for Chuck's benefit here:  speaking to a former senior intelligence official yesterday on the phone for quite some time, saying that this program that Cheney was apparently blocking the CIA from giving Congressional intelligence officials information on, was not even a program -- it was not operational -- it was not even at the stage where you would tell Congress about it or talk to high-level administration officials about it.

Is this much ado about nothing to get the attention off what needs to be done?

Buchanan:  Well it's exactly what Chuck said, it's a massive distraction . . . . Let me ask Chuck this:  it seems to me you got a real problem for the administration if you go forward at Holder's level --

Todd: Right.

Buchanan: and they appoint a Special Counsel, the first thing the CIA guys do is say is: yeah, we did it; we waterboarded them; and here's the authorization from these lawyers who said we could do it --- the lawyers come in and say we were asked for our opinion and Cheney was the guy who asked us, and the President told us to go ahead and do it.  Aren't you right into the White House of the Bush administration as soon as you appoint that independent counsel?

Todd: And I think that's why, in the President's gut, he doesn't want to do this.  They've made that clear they don't want to do this.  I think that's what you see a lot of the West Wing -- they don't want to get into this because of what you're saying.

Ultimately, a lawyer gets paid to not tell you what the law is -- but to interpret the law, to tell you how far you can push things until you cross a line that a judge will say is illegal.  That's what lawyers get paid to do:  they get paid to interpret the law, and interpret the law in a way that allows you to stretch things.  

You are on a slippery slope - this is a very dangerous aspect to go after, because these CIA guys will say, as you said Pat, we got the letter from these lawyers in the Bush Justice Department that said we can do this.  You can't suddenly change the law retroactively because there's another interpretation of this.  I'm sure there are a legal minds that will fight and say I don't know what I'm talking about here, but it seems to me that's a legal and a political slippery slope.

This is about as typical a discussion as it gets among media stars as to why investigations are so very, very wrong and unfair and unwise.  Still, this discussion in particular vividly highlights several important points worth noting about the role of the establishment media:

(1) In response to virtually every media criticism (at least the few they acknowledge), establishment journalists will insist that their role is to be steadfastly neutral.   They simply report on the debates, not take sides or express opinions about them.  Taking one side or the other is not their role.  Only partisan ideologues do that.

Yet here is Chuck Todd -- who covers the White House for NBC News -- explicitly arguing against investigations, and adopting the Bush/right-wing mentality to do so.  Investigations are a distraction from what matters.  It's extremely unfair to hold lawyers accountable when they authorize criminal conduct.  It's "dangerous" for one administration to investigate the prior one where that prior administration had its DOJ lawyers authorize what was being done.

Wouldn't the standard claim of establishment journalists maintain that Chuck Todd shouldn't have (or at least not express) opinions on these topics?  Yet here he is -- as so many establishment journalists routinely do -- explicitly advocating against investigations of Bush-era crimes.  Even more notably, the arguments in favor of such investigations merit no mention whatsoever.  Would anyone listening to this discussion even have the slightest idea what the arguments are in favor of investigating and prosecuting?  

The notion that these establishment journalists don't choose sides and are mere honest brokers of debates is, rather obviously, transparent fiction.  What justifies Chuck Todd becoming an advocate in alliance with those who oppose investigations of Bush crimes?  Isn't he supposed to be a reporter?

(2) Notice what, as always, is missing from this discussion:  any reference to the fact that the conduct in question -- torture -- is illegal.  What about the argument that numerous detainees died as a result of these methods?  What about the argument that many interrogations plainly exceeded even the authorizations given by the DOJ?  What about the argument that granting immunity to high-level political officials anytime they can find a low-level DOJ functionary to approve their behavior will destroy the rule of law?  

Our media class literally believes that high executive branch officials have the right to break the law.  For that reason, they cannot even recognize illegality as an issue worth anyone's attention.  Thus, all this "torture" and "lying to Congress" and violating oversight laws is just "cable catnip," political posturing that obscures what truly matters.  So sayeth NBC News' White House correspondent.

(3) One aspect of journalistic corruption that receive less attention than it deserves is the servile attitude so many of them develop to those who control access to their beat.  As a White House reporter, who dominates Todd's professional life and determines the access he needs?  To whom does he spend much of his day speaking?  Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, and their underlings ("the West Wing") -- the very Obama political advisers who, by all accounts, vigorously oppose any investigation of Bush crimes because they believe such investigations will be bad for Obama politically.

Todd doesn't cover them as a reporter, adversarially scrutinizing what they argue and do.  Instead, he becomes their spokesman.  He not only describes what they believe, but he adopts it and advocates it himself (Todd: "the only important thing -- the most important thing -- the President has to focus on is getting the public's trust on the economy and pushing health care . . . ."[investigations are] sort of clouding the two most important issues the President's got to get his arms around this week: winning back trust of the middle on the economy and pushing health care through"). 

If one wanted to be generous, one could say that a President's political strategists should be thinking in such terms -- about how to keep the President's approval ratings as high as possible.  But that, quite obviously, isn't Chuck Todd's role.  Yet the distinction disappears.  That is how Chuck Todd thinks because it's how those on whom he depends think.  He's not a journalist wanting to impose accountability or find out the truth of what our government did.  Instead, he serves as an advocate for the agenda of the political strategists who determine his access.

(4) Bef0re he opines on it again, can someone please explain to Chuck Todd the difference between (a) the role of a private lawyer hired by a client and (b) the duties and obligations of Justice Department lawyers generally and OLC lawyers specifically?  George Bush and Dick Cheney treated the DOJ as though it were their personal law firm there to serve their personal interests, so that's how Chuck Todd apparently understands it.  The role of OLC lawyers isn't to "allow you to stretch things." 

The constitutional powers of the President are quite limited and one of his only explicit duties is he "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."  "Faithfully executing " the law doesn't mean "stretching" the law and it certainly doesn't mean breaking the law.  I'm aware that talk of what the Constitution and the law require is just cable catnip, but ignoring that produces some rather significant consequences.  I'd like to ask Chuck Todd:  if Bush had John Yoo write a memo opining that it was perfectly legal for Bush to deploy hit squads within the U.S. to assassinate American citizens without any due process, would it be wrong to investigate and prosecute that, too, on the ground that everyone had permission slips from a DOJ lawyer and that's just what lawyers do?

(5) Ever since it was first revealed that Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to conceal an intelligence program from Congress, there has been one anonymous leak after the next designed to defend what Cheney did.  That's why I noted that laughable CNN "news article" earlier today:  this is how our political debates are shaped.  

Note how those anonymous claims now just become an unquestioned part of these discussions by "journalists."  Some anonymous intelligence official chats on the phone with Brzezinski and makes a bunch of Cheney-defending assertions; she excitedly writes it all down and goes on the TV and repeats it as Truth (and, of course, calls what she's doing "reporting").  And now, all of that is just assumed to be true by these "journalists": there was no real program, it never got off the ground, Congress was briefed anyway, Cheney did nothing wrong, there were no briefing obligations at all.  Therefore, there's nothing to see here.

Nobody even thinks to question or challenge that.  It's just accepted as true.  Therefore, all of this is just petty cable catnip obscuring what truly matters, decrees NBC "reporter" Chuck Todd.

(6) As I've noted many times before -- though it still never ceases to amaze me -- the most revealing fact about our political culture is that the group most opposed to investigations of high-level political officials happens to be the very same group that was supposed to lead the way in investigating:  our journalist class.  Thomas Jefferson said:

Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.

That's now completely reversed.  It's the establishment press that stands most stalwart against investigations.  They believe, as Richard Cohen so memorably put it when railing against the Lewis Libby conviction, that "it is often best to keep the lights off."  Few things explain better what has happened to our political class than the fact that (with some important exceptions) it is establishment journalists who are the most aggressive opponents of investigations of high-level government lawbreaking.  Trying to prevent investigations of their friends, colleagues and bosses in political power is one of the few times they're willing so explicitly to turn themselves into advocates, as Chuck Todd did here.

* * * * * 

Chuck Todd/Morning Joe video (excerpted clip begins at 2:15):



UPDATE:  I just received an email from Chuck Todd which read in its entirety:  "happy to chat . . . sorry you couldn't email me or track me down..."  My reply:

I'm happy to chat, too -- if you want, we can do a podcast discussion which I'll happily append to what I wrote.

I think your words speak for themselves and I don't think discussing or critiquing them requires calling you first to ask your views. What you said was broadcast to many people as is and that won't change based on whatever comments you want to add after the fact.

Let me know if you want to do a podcast interview about what I wrote -- I'm happy to do it and I think readers would benefit from hearing from you directly.

I genuinely hope he accepts.  I'll post any updates as they develop.


UPDATE II:  Todd just emailed me and agreed to do a podcast interview to discuss these matters. It's scheduled for later this afternoon and should be posted here shortly thereafter.


UPDATE III:  The podcast discussion with Todd had to be postponed until early tomorrow morning because he was only able to use a cell phone today and the sound quality for the podcast wouldn't have been very good.  It will be posted early in the morning tomorrow in a separate post:  almost certainly before 9:00 a.m. EST.  I was hoping it would happen today but I'll be just as interested in hearing his answers to my questions tomorrow morning.

On an unrelated note, I contributed to a New York Times discussion on the Sotomayor hearings which will be posted there today.  All of the contributors can be read here, and my specific contribution is here.


UPDATE IV:  My podcast discussion with Todd can be heard here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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