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ISIKOFF BREAKS OUT THE DOLLS! When big journos play with dolls, they get to dream up what was said: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 21, 2009

Who knew: That this was Memorial Day weekend? Yes, we’ll post again tomorrow. But already, operations wind down.

Isikoff breaks out the dolls: Imagining can be fun!

Yesterday, President Obama held a meeting with various human rights groups. What happened isn’t entirely clear, for fairly obvious reasons. In this morning’s New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg cites accounts of the meeting from “two participants, outsiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was intended to be off the record.” (Her sources “said they left the meeting dismayed.”) Stolberg quotes her sources—but not Obama himself. She offers a general idea of what sorts of things may have been said.

But last night, on our TV machine thingy, we saw Michael Isikoff give a much more detailed report about what happened. At times, videotape seemed to run in his head, so granular were his descriptions. He seemed to know what Obama had said—and where he looked when he said it, not to mention what he’d been feeling. Isikoff was using anonymous sources too—but his sources seemed to be skillful novelists. He spoke with Rachel Maddow:

ISIKOFF (5/20/09): The leaders of these groups that were—you know, repeated many of their criticisms [of Obama]. They expressed concerns that some of the premises that Obama was using on military commissions, on the prospect that we might get indefinite detention of some of the Gitmo detainees, holding them indefinitely without trial—in moving in this direction, he was accepting some of the same premises as the Bush administration. They laid that out.

Obama didn’t like that. He started out the meeting by complaining at one point about the mess he’d been left by his predecessor. And when some of these interest groups raised, some of these human rights groups raised this, he was quite clear he didn’t like it. He said, “It’s not helpful to equate me with President Bush.”

Obama wasn’t simply clear—he was quite clear in what he said. But then, so was Isikoff! Indeed, the person who prepared the official transcript seemed to he’d been quoting Obama. At any rate, Maddow asked about “the subject of torture prosecutions, the possibility of maybe a truth commission or a commission of inquiry of some kind onto the issue of torture.” Videotape started running again inside Isikoff’s head:

ISIKOFF: Well, actually, it was interesting. When the truth commission came up towards the end of the meeting, the president had a somewhat different explanation for his resistance to that. He talked about all the congressional investigations that were going on, the litigation that was going on, and he said it was too distracting to his staff—that too much time was being taken up. He actually looked directly at Attorney General Holder, who was present at the meeting, and—indicating that Holder was having to spend too much time on this issue.

Did Obama look directly at Holder? He certainly might have done that! Soon, Isikoff was describing Obamat’s manner as he dismissed an idea:

ISIKOFF: Then after that, one of those present raised the idea of a criminal prosecution, even one criminal prosecution, as a symbol, sort of—a “trophy,” I think the word was used—to show that such conduct would—for torture, to show such conduct would not be tolerated again. And the president sort of curtly dismissed the idea, made it clear he had no interest in that.

Isikoff thought the word “trophy” had been used, although—not having attended the meeting—he couldn’t exactly remember. At any rate, Obama didn’t dismiss the participant’s idea “curtly.” According to Isikoff’s non-recollection, he did so “sort of curtly.”

We’ll have to admit it. By this time, we thought Isikoff may have been letting himself imagine things just a bit too freely. And when journalists let themselves dream about facts, they may start to dream about interpretations. Maddow joined Isikoff in that venture; she said the exchange we have just described “seems like the biggest news here.” From there, the pair of scribes went on at length, stating their view of what Obama had done—strikingly so, since it ain’t entirely clear they know what actually happened:

ISIKOFF (continuing directly): What was interesting about that is, his attorney general, again, Eric Holder—

MADDOW: Right!

ISIKOFF: —sat there silently, didn’t say a word. The president could have said—

MADDOW: Yes. Sorry. Go ahead.

ISIKOFF: Go ahead.

MADDOW: I was just going to—

ISIKOFF: Yes, the president could have said it’s—that’s Eric Holder’s decision to make, but he didn’t. He seemed to cut it off.

MADDOW: I’m sorry to have interrupted you, Mike. That’s exactly what I was going to interject to say. That seems like the biggest news here...

Maddow and Isikoff went on from there about the significance of what Obama did. Soon, the pair were thundering about Obama’s unfortunate conduct in “sort of curtly” “making it clear” that he had no interest in whatever it was that someone may have proposed. (Isikoff thinks the word “trophy” was used. But he doesn’t know, of course.) “Those political factors should not have any influence whatsoever,” Isikoff was heard to thunder. “There`s a reason why the top law enforcement official of the United States is not the president of the United States, but rather the attorney general,” Maddow curtly agreed.

Really? Could a president, on his own watch, reject the idea of a “trophy prosecution?” We’re not sure. But then, we’re not sure what anyone actually said. With videotape seeming to run in his mind, Isikoff felt less encumbered.

Little children like to play dolls, imagining what the objects are saying. In our culture, “journalists” like to imagine things too. At any rate, as she finished the segment, Maddow was taped saying this:

MADDOW: Incredible news, incredible reporting. Michael Isikoff, MSNBC contributor, investigative correspondent for Newsweek—it’s invaluable stuff. Thank you, Mike.

Was this really invaluable stuff? Being sane, we’re inclined to say no. But by then, the analysts were chuckling softly. Putting their high school Latin to use, they thought about original meanings of the word Maddow offered: “incredible.”

We thought the term was a bit too harsh. Surely, some of Isikoff’s claims were credible. Some of his claims may even be accurate. We just don’t know which ones.

Captured on tape: To watch this segment, just click here. The transcript has already appeared on Nexis, but not at the MSNBC site. The transcript of Tuesday’s Maddow show hasn’t shown up either place.

No wonder Isikoff felt so free! Like the CIA, this cable channel seems comfortable in the absence of records.