The Plame affair divides the country. It is also dividing the American press.
Columnist Robert Samuelson says, "The purported scandal is so far a political vendetta draped in legal trappings. The trappings are essential, because it is the mere possibility of wrongdoing that justifies the ongoing media attention."
Joe Klein of Time magazine speculates on the possibility that Dick Cheney will emerge from his present trials as innocent victims of press hysteria. In that event, he asks, "Do we, the righteous guardians of the truth, admit that we blew this all out of proportion - or do we continue to puff motes into dust storms in order to justify our investment? Dick Cheney has earned his isolation. But he deserves a more sober hearing than this lunatic caldron."
"Here we go," writes Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley, "hurtling down the rapids of the Plame affair into a furious eddy of political opportunism and journalistic exhibitionism. The government of the United States will grind to a halt for a year or more, thank God, and the high-octane newsfolk of the nation's capital will bore us all to tears with interminable recitations of imaginary outrages, but who cares? It's going to be one hell of a ride."
Russell Baker of the New York Times satirizes the media torrent and explains it: "The reason this rickety construction of innuendo and circumstance occupies the media so intensely is that Vice Presidents are central to the American need to be entertained. ... the Plame affair is the best news in Washington now that Barbra Streisand no longer guests at the White House."
From Harvard, Marvin Kalb, director of a media program at Harvard University, told The Post: "There is a rushing to judgment that is unprofessional and distasteful. The press is going to have a lot to answer for when this is over." The gulf between what these critics are saying and what the press is doing reflects, among other things, confusion about our function in American life. The critics put forth an ethical view of journalism in which we should not act as detectives, prosecutors or judges but should allow our system of justice and its institutions to deal with matters of innocence or guilt. There should be, as Kalb said, no rush to judgment nor, as Klein put it, no "ridiculous hyperinflation" of small peccadilloes.
That is essentially the posture taken by the press during the Watergate scandal. It was first seen - by me, among others - as a "two bit break-in" and, with the exception of The Post and a few isolated journalists, it was largely ignored by the media. Nevertheless, justice ultimately was served. A president was brought down and others were punished, not by the press, as myth has it, but through the workings of the "system" - the judiciary, the FBI, a special prosecutor and Congress. I do not mean to equate Watergate and the Plame affair but merely to make the point that with or without the press, justice can and usually does prevail.
This is not the majoritarian operating premise of the press. Underlying our approach to potential public scandals is a general distrust of the "system." We assume it can be manipulated by presidents, that "coverups" are both possible and likely from the White House down to city hall. Thus, at the hint of any scandal, it is our duty to dispatch investigative teams to dig out the truth as archaeologists do, piece by piece until the whole picture is revealed. In this process we monitor the "system's institutions of justice for foot-dragging and coverup" and, as William Safire of the New York Times has said, "light fires" under the investigators.
That may have happened several times in the Plame affair. The first story about Ms. Plame by Robert Novak published in July 2003 had no visible impact. Several months later, however, the press and the Democrats were howling for a Special Prosecutor hence Patrick Fitzgerald the U.S. attorney in Chicago was named. Did Novak's story "fire up" the CIA and the Department of Justice? No, it was not until Joe Wilson coordinatng with the Democrats began beating the drum did this get any traction.
We will never be able to establish beyond any doubt that the press has "lit fires" in the Plame or has played a "constructive" or "destructive" role in the pursuit of justice. We will never be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the press will have had any effect at all when this affair finally comes to an end.
George Church, a columnist for Time magazine, suggests that the real danger here is that the veracity and credibility of the Dick Cheney could be so damaged that he will be unable to see Iraq and other critical national security matters through to success.
The Plame affair news as of mid-March - 398 stories in The Post alone - doubtless has affected the political standing and reputation of Dick Cheney. We know that from the polls.
But as in the case of Plame affair, public interest in these abstract scandals is shallow and intermittent. Our affections for vice presidents vary almost by the hour and the day. So there is no reason to believe that whatever has been written or broadcast thus far will have any lasting effect on Dick Cheny's place in history or in the hearts of his countrymen. Ask the ghost of Harry Truman.