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Central Points And The Frivolous News Judgments Of The News Media

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Message Lawrence Velvel

June 12, 2007

 Re:  Central Points And The Frivolous News Judgments Of The News Media   From: Dean Lawrence R.  

Dear Colleagues:


            I would like to once again take up the theme of focusing on the central point(s) of the matter, on the heart-of-the-matter points, instead of attending all of the jazz that is not central (even if it is intensely interesting, especially to political junkies).  Today the theme of focusing on the central point(s) will be combined with another matter which is crucial to the health of our society but is largely attended by failure: the news judgment of the news media itself.  The combination of these two points leads to a formulation that goes as follows: the news media often misses or ignores the central substantive point(s) of the matter, focusing instead on the inessential, the sexy, the horserace aspects of politics.  One might say that the central point here is that the media generally misses the central point.  It discusses the inessential instead. 


            This has been my view for a long time, but some recent articles in the supposedly august New York Times brought it forcefully to mind yet again.  Two of the articles, appearing on Thursday, June 7, were on the question of a pardon for Libby.  The longer of these two was dubbed “News Analysis,” a dubious claim if one is looking for presentation of the crucial matters.


            The so-called “News Analysis,” written by a fellow named Jim Ruttenberg (and beginning on page 1), was almost entirely anything but a serious news analysis.  There was lengthy discussion of political matters such as Bush having kept his distance from the Libby matter until now; the right wing’s vexation at the lack of a pardon to date and its view that it is unfair to send Libby to jail when the original problem, a leak, was by Armitage; whether his right wing base will desert Bush if he does not grant a pardon;   the effect or lack of effect of Bill Clinton’s abominable pardoning of Marc Rich; Justice Department guidelines regarding pardons; and pardons or lack of pardons by Reagan and the first Bush.  But in an article that was lengthy, there were only two sentences on one of the central points of the matter:  the effect on the rule of law of issuing a pardon (in the absence of remorse or time served).  There also was one other sentence that dealt with a point close to the central ones:  Libby’s crime of lying to investigators is the same kind of matter that led to Clinton’s impeachment.


            The other article, which was a relatively short one on the jump page, merely listed pardons given by various presidents to such great American heroes as Richard M. Nixon, Gordon Liddy, Armand Hammer, Caspar Weinberger and a few others.  So it too did not consider central points.


            What, then, are the central points that should be discussed in a major New York Times piece on a pardon if the Times were to exercise a news judgment that one could respect.  Those points are substantive ones, instead of being focused on claptrap political horse race points such as the reaction of Bush’s base. 


One central point arises from the extraordinarily widespread, already partly documented, fear that our government is and since 2000 has been in the hands of persons who are criminal, immoral and incompetent, and who accordingly have created disaster.  Arising from this context, the heart-of-the matter point consists of a question:  Could there be a possibility that, in return for a greatly reduced sentence, or even lack of jail time, Libby would tell Fitzgerald or other prosecutors, or even tell Congress, everything he knows about the numerous plainly or possibly illegal, and often highly ignorant and/or stupid, actions of the Executive since 2000?  These subjects could range from Cheney’s secret discussions on energy policy early-on through lies to take us into war, torture, rendition, throwing out habeas corpus, holding citizens for months or years on end, electronic spying, signing statements and God know what all.  Libby very possibly -- very likely -- knows things that the country should learn as an object lesson in what should not be done and as a warning for the future. 


            One presumes that -- but experts should be asked whether -- a diminution in jail time is possible via prosecutorial agreement to request it from the judge in return for information.  Indeed, a lawyer who should know tells me that confidential offers of such help in return for information are often made by prosecutors, and that there could conceivably be such an offer on the table right now.  This kind of stuff is beyond my knowledge, but there are experts, and maybe even knowledgeable insiders, whom a New York Times reporter could ask about it.  None of it appears to have been asked about for, and certainly one can see that none of it was written about in, the NYT’s two articles of June 7th.  Yet one would think that the New York Times would not disagree that the possibility of obtaining crucial information about the vast mishandling of this country’s affairs since the year 2000 is a question of the first magnitude.


            There is another central question raised by the possibility of a pardon.  This one was touched upon, but only very briefly, in the Times’ political-horse-race type of article.  This question is:  what is the effect on the rule of law, and on the entire question of honesty, if a member of the elite like Libby can deliberately lie to a grand jury and then, via pardon, get off scot free.  The question is only the more acute because of the other criminals from elite walks of life who have been pardoned by Presidents, pardons discussed in the second article, located on the jump page.  With continuous pardons for the elite, won’t there come a time - - especially given all the other evidence of criminality and rule dodging which are not punished - - when, to the great detriment of the country,  ordinary folk will regard almost all law as but a snare and delusion and as something to be evaded whenever beneficial and possible?  It seems to me that this is a far more important question than whether Bush will have more or less political support depending on whether he does or does not grant Libby a pardon. 


            Maybe the Times would respond to all of this by saying that the question of whether Bush will gain or lose support depending on whether he grants a pardon is important because the degree of his support may determine what he can do in Iraq and  on immigration, or may help determine Republicans’ chances in the 2008 elections, and so forth.  Well, if this would be the Times response, suffice to say that no word of it is breathed in its two articles.  This, of course, casts doubt on whether any such response, were it put forth, could be anything other than an after the fact rationale designed to try to cover up for a news judgment that no serious person can respect.


            (After the foregoing was written, I read a three column article by Peter Baker in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition on the pardon question.  My understanding is that articles in the NWE have previously appeared in the Post itself -- is this wrong, or sometimes wrong?)  The article was as bad as the Times’  piece.  In a way it was even worse, since it took pains to quote or cite obnoxious hack Republicans, including the GOP's presidential aspirants, who said they would pardon Libby.  There was not a breath, not a whisper, regarding central substantive questions.  Thus our two leading newspapers.)


It is perhaps more than a bit ironic and interesting that on June 8th, the very next day after the two Times’ articles on pardons, a Times' columnist, Paul Krugman, took the news media to task for its frivolous, jejeune attitude towards what constitutes news and its failure to bring up major points.  I can't say whether all of Krugman's specifics are right, though memory says his specifics about the year 2000 are correct, but his general point seems to me quite correct.


Without getting into the details of his charges, which you can read for yourself online, Krugman lambasted the media for focusing on a trivial mistake by Huckabee  (about Ronald Reagan’s birthday) during the recent debate among Republican Presidential candidates, instead of focusing on a huge mistake by Romney about how we got into the Iraq war.  Krugman compared this to the media focusing on the fact that Al Gore rolled his eyes at George Bush's major lies in their October 3, 2000 debate instead of focusing on Bush's major misstatements.  Krugman also decried the media’s failure during the recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates to call Hillary Clinton to task for her failure of specifics regarding her proposed health plan.  He decried as well the media's focus on the horse race and  theatrical criticism aspects of the Democratic debate, as if the debate “were a high school popularity contest."  Near the end of the piece Krugman said that, as shown by the last 6 1/2 years, “it matters who becomes president -- and that listening to what candidates say about substantive issues offers a much better way to judge potential presidents than superficial characteristics.  Mr. Bush's tax lies [in the 2000 debate], not his surface amiability, were the true guide to how he would govern.”


            Amen.  The media's news judgment is awful, with its focus on frippery and horse race questions instead of on central substantive questions vital to our country.  The media itself, however (and, one must therefore assume, the journalism schools that teach our news people their craft), does not recognize that it uses terrible news judgment, evades or ignores the central question(s), and conceivably may even be too ignorant or even too stupid to even understand what the central questions are.  Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that the New York Times columnist who, it is said here, did focus on a central point, Paul Krugman, is not in reality a newsman, but a trained economist who moonlights as a regular op-ed columnist.  As said before here, it might be far better, even if deeply paradoxical, if more of the writing and broadcasting for our mass media were done by people who are not professional news people, but have other day jobs entirely, be they trained economists, trained lawyers, professors, trained members of the military, or what have you.  Such people seem to be interested in substantive central points, whereas professional news people are interested only in fluff and exercise their news judgment accordingly.*

  R:\My Files\Blogspot\Blogltr6.12.07.doc

* * This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.  If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website,  All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law.  If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at   

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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