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Daily Howler: Cokie's daughter bungles the Plame case again
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ALL IN THE FAMILY! On NPR, Cokie’s daughter bungles the Plame case again: // link // print // previous // next //

HAIR CARE SI, HEALTH CARE NO: We can’t recall a morning when the broken state of American journalism was on such vivid display. First, we hit John Solomon’s lengthy “investigative hair-care” report, atop page one of the Post’s Style section. (Solomon has been a nightmare for years. Presumably, that’s why the Post hired him.) Then, we moved to George Will’s relentlessly illogical column about the Seattle and Louisville school assignment procedures. (Last week, a lot of liberal caterwauling—about the supposed demise of Brown—was almost as clueless. We’ll probably post on this subject tomorrow.) But then, Michael Kinsley’s downward spiral continues on the Times op-ed page, as he weirdly tries to explain why Scooter Libby was caught in a “perjury trap.” (According to Kinsley—we’re trying to follow—you can’t be questioned about a possible crime if the press corps played some voluntary role in your conduct.) And Maureen Dowd’s Wednesday column still rang in our ears. Regarding Dowd’s latest, we’ll only say this: Clearly, the people who publish the Times are incapable of feeling embarrassed.

Truly, this morning’s work is a nightmare. In some ways, though, we were most struck by Philip Boffey’s “Editorial Observer” about Michael Moore’s Sicko. We saw the film last night, and we thought it was boffo—a superlative piece of social argument, by far Moore’s best work. Reading Boffey, were struck by the way he does what his cohort so often does when confronted by work from outside their circle. In his opening paragraph, he pretends that he and his colleagues are the real sages—and that Moore is the one who’s “superficial.” “[O]n the big picture...Moore is right,” Boffey concedes. But did he even see what Moore’s big picture is?

In fact, Boffey’s piece strikes us as a display of raging press Antoinettism. Watching Sicko, he somehow thought he was watching a film which attacks the “flaws” in our health care system. How little does Boffey seem to grasp the size and shape of Moore’s attack? In his penultimate paragraph, he pens a pensee which could only be typed deep inside Versailles
BOFFEY (7/5/07): As for Cuba, can it really be true that three volunteers who worked on the smoldering World Trade Center pile after 9/11 were unable to afford care in this country and had to visit Cuba to get it? The hospital they went to reportedly caters to dignitaries and foreign tourists and is hardly representative of health care for the Cuban masses.

Mr. Moore makes much of the fact that the World Health Organization ranked the United States 37th in an evaluation of health systems, only one notch above Slovenia. He failed to mention that it was two notches above Cuba.
Only a militant Antoinette could fail to see the irony here. The U.S.—the richest nation on earth—is essentially tied with impoverished Cuba in a major ranking of health care performance! But so what? Reasoning tightly, Boffey somehow thinks this counts against Moore’s critique. Indeed, as he finishes, he seems to have missed Moore’s basic claim completely:
BOFFEY (continuing directly): Mr. Moore's heart clearly lies with the single-payer, tax-supported, governmental health systems abroad. That solution would be hard to sell here, where suspicion of the insurance companies is matched if not exceeded by suspicion of the government. Yet the case for some form of universal coverage is strong. The claim that we provide the best medical care in the world is hollow; international comparisons rank us below other industrialized countries on measures of quality, access and clinical outcomes. Mr. Moore is right to ask how a country that spends so much more on health care than any other nation can't take care of everyone who is sick.
“The case for some form of universal coverage is strong,” he opines. But Sicko principally argues that our system fails to care for those who do have such coverage! Seeming to miss that point altogether, Boffey says we should get everyone into the system—the system which Moore says is broken.

Here at THE HOWLER, we aren’t experts on health care; we’d love to see someone flesh out and critique Moore’s (brilliant) presentation. But uh-oh! Like us, Boffey doesn’t seem to be the man for that assignment:
BOFFEY: [T]he main target is the health insurance industry, particularly the for-profit insurers and the managed care companies. A former insurance company ''hit man'' talks about combing through a patient's past medical records and life history, looking for excuses to deny coverage. A young women says she was denied coverage because of a trivial yeast infection years earlier that she had not thought to mention when applying for coverage.

Yet it is hard to know how true the stories are—Mr. Moore never gives enough details to help viewers determine—or how common the abuses may be. The stories are told from the viewpoint of the victims, with nary a peep from the insurers and not much from doctors who might know whether the refused care was appropriate.
According to Boffey, Moore’s film shows us wrenching abuses—but it’s “hard to know how common the abuses may be.” That’s surely true for the average viewer—and also, it seems, for Boffey. But uh-oh! Boffey isn’t the average viewer, as he tells us in his first sentence—the sentence which made us shake our heads as we read the rest of his piece:
BOFFEY: As the author of many health care editorials, I was eager to see Michael Moore's “Sicko,” a polemical attack on undeniable flaws in the way this country provides health care.
Are we reading that correctly? Boffey, who writes editorials on health care for the Times, doesn’t seem to know how common our system’s abuses may be! Indeed, he offers no thoughts at all about this basic question. Only from deep inside Versailles could such a statement be put into print, without the slightest sense of how odd it might seem to us superficial outsiders.

In his first paragraph, Boffey predictably tells the world that his cohort is smarter and more honest than Moore. Then he goes on to show us the truth. Timorously typing to stay safely centrist, the gentleman seems to lack the first clue about life as it’s lived outside the palace. His cohort knows a great deal about Edwards’ “coif” (Post headline)—but seems to know little about modern health care. What a shame, readers—that Michael Moore is so doggone “superficial!”

PORTRAIT OF THE DISCOURSE: America’s public discourse has lay in shambles for a very long time. In large part, the problem is caused by news orgs like NPR—and by “journalists” like NPR’s Rebecca Roberts.

On July 3, Roberts hosted NPR’s Talk of the Nation; the program was devoted to the Libby commutation. Midway through, Roberts spoke with Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. For the record, Moore is former president of the Club for Growth, which is often—and frustratingly—confused with the Hair Club for Men.

At any rate, Roberts requested the Journal’s view of the Libby commutation. What follows is Moore’s first statement. It contains an apparent howler:
MOORE (7/3/07): We think that President Bush should probably have gone beyond commuting the sentence and pardoned him, Scooter Libby. We believe that this was a case that became much more politicized than it should have. We believe that Scooter Libby got railroaded. That the whole hullabaloo about Valerie Plame was overstated; she was not a covert agent. And for all these reasons, we think that it would have been smarter for President Bush, and he would have had a greater profile in courage, if he had pardoned him rather than commuted his sentence.
Several parts of Moore’s statement were odd, but his statement about Plame was especially striking. In late May, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said, in an official court filing, that Plame had been a covert agent under terms of the relevant statute. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/3/07. Text of Fitzgerald’s statement below.) Indeed, Fitzgerald said that Plame’s covert status had been “clear from very early in the investigation.” By normal standards, Moore’s statement to the contrary should have been challenged or questioned by Roberts. But it has been a very long time since mainstream “journalists” worked that way in this land.

Indeed, Roberts didn’t question Moore’s statement at all. Thus enabled, Moore restated his point a bit later:
MOORE: If you look at the evidence, Valerie Plame was not a covert agent. She had a desk job in Washington and she had not been in the field for many years. And technically, under the statute of the—of that law, she was not a covert agent.
But let’s state the obvious: Fitzgerald’s access to the facts of the case (to “the evidence”) was vastly superior to Moore’s—and he had said precisely the opposite about Plame’s “technical” status. But so what? Once again, Roberts failed to question Moore’s claim. Valerie Plame was not covert: She let her guest say it three times.

In those exchanges, we see a portrait of the discourse as it has worked for the past fifteen years. Conservatives had invented a claim—a claim which now seemed to be false. But so what? Moore went on another major program and repeated the claim. And when he did this, a major journalist made no attempt to challenge or question what he said—to give her audience the relevant evidence. But then, this has been the shape of our discourse over the past fifteen years.

This small drama featured two players: Moore, the faithful conservative spokesman, and Roberts, the incompetent mainstream journo. But for the record, a third party played a role in this drama—the less than fully competent liberal/Democratic Party base.

Plame’s status under the relevant statute had been debated for years. Conservatives had claimed that she wasn’t covert under the detailed terms of the statute; Fitzgerald’s statement in late May was, by far, the most authoritative contradiction of that claim that had ever been offered. But so what? When Fitzgerald made his statement in May, the mainstream press almost wholly ignored it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/26/07). And the liberal base made little effort to insist that mainstream news orgs tell the public what Fitzgerald said.

Result? On Talk of the Nation, citizens were told, several more times, that Valerie Plame was not covert. Rebecca Roberts sat and stared while NPR listeners got misled—again. But guess what? Until we liberals and Democrats find a way to insist that the most basic facts get reported, we’ll see this drama played out again—and again, and again, and then again, and then after that one more time.

GUESSING AT MOTIVES: Did Moore believe what he said about Plame? Did Roberts know about Fitzgerald’s statement? If we had to guess, we’d guess maybe yes—and most likely no. The information flow in late May was so poor that it may well be that neither party was aware of Fitzgerald’s statement. Our “journalism” is just that bad; it has been for the past fifteen years.

MAYBE THEY SHOULD PAY THE CALLERS: A fourth party came into play in this drama—NPR’s frustrated listeners. Roberts, the professional “journalist,” was clueless. But John in Oregon wasn’t:
ROBERTS: Suzanne, thanks for your call....Let's try John in Grants Pass, Oregon. John, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

JOHN: Hi. This is a very clever strategy. By commuting the sentence, they cannot ask Libby any further questions because he'll deny any answers since he is—he can't be questioned while there's an appeal open. This is just a wonderful firewall to keep the investigation from going to Dick Cheney's office where it actually belongs. And as far as that Washington Post man saying that Valerie Plame was not a NOC agent and he couldn't—

ROBERTS: He is a Wall Street Journal—

JOHN: —out of the country—


JOHN: —that's nonsense. The CIA itself said that she was an agent.

ROBERTS: So you are saying that if Libby were pardoned, then he would testify in a further trial, maybe one against someone who is his superior?
John should have skipped that technical term (NOC), and Fitzgerald’s legal authority is stronger than the CIA’s. Beyond that, when John mistakenly said Washington Post, it introduced an interruption—and confusion—into the flow. But at any rate, Roberts completely skipped his point about Plame actually being covert. So Bob in Minneapolis gave it a try. He seemed to be frustrated too:
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Bob in Minneapolis. Bob, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

BOB: Yeah. I just wanted to comment on something that your last guest said, from the Wall Street Journal, which is that they are still claiming that by statute Valerie Plame was not covert, making this is not a crime, even though Fitzgerald just revealed the documents that showed she was actually acting in covert fashion and oftentimes under non-official cover. And yet, they still get away with it and still don't get challenged on saying things like that.

ROBERTS: Bob, thanks for your call. We'll hear more of your thoughts about the president's decision to commute Lewis Libby's jail sentence when we come back.
Bob was well-informed—but for our taste, he was too polite. Here’s what he should have said:
BOB, LESS POLITE: They are still claiming that by statute Valerie Plame was not covert, making this is not a crime, even though Fitzgerald explicitly said, in a court filing in late May, that it was clear from the start that Plame was covert under terms of the relevant statute. And yet, they still get away with saying she wasn’t covert because NPR journalists refuse to challenge their statements. I’m wondering why you let Stephen Moore keep making that statement, which has now been directly contradicted by the prosecutor. Do you even follow the basic news on the topics you cover on the air?
We’d like to see NPR’s callers say that. But here again we saw the shape of a broken, fifteen-year press drama. Bogus spin-points go unchallenged; only the callers seems to know basic facts. That said, we have a question to ask: Why in the world—why on earth—is Roberts being paid as a journalist?

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Here’s how this mainstream press cohort works:

Boffey, Times editorial writer on health care: No apparent clue about the extent of the abuses shown in Moore’s film. (These types of abuses have been discussed approximately forever.)

Roberts, NPR host: No clue about the basic facts on a topic she is discussing.

By way of explanation, yes, it’s true: The hapless Roberts is Cokie’s daughter. On the brighter side, her favorite restaurant is Mon Ami Gabi, a French-bistro-style eatery in Bethesda.