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Memo to the Media: Stop Enabling the White House Blame Game


When it comes to managing political crises (as opposed to national ones), the Bush White House has earned a reputation as masters of damage control. And rightly so -- let's see you get reelected after Abu Ghraib, the "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" memo, no WMD, no bin Laden (dead or alive), and "Mission (Most Definitely Not) Accomplished."

Well, according to the New York Times, Rove, Bartlett and the damage control boys are at it again, rolling out a plan to hang the post-Katrina debacle around the necks of Louisiana state and local officials... and, in the process, erase the image of a crassly incompetent administration too busy vacationing to worry about the dying in New Orleans.

Hence, today's Presidential Visit, Take Two. Can't you just see Rove yelling "Cut!", hopping out of his director's chair, pulling Bush aside, and whispering in his ear: "Okay, Mr. President, this isn't Armageddon meets The Wedding Crashers. So this time 86 the stories about how you used to party in New Orleans, and, for heaven's sake, do not focus on the suffering of Trent Lott. And no more hugging only freshly-showered black people who look like Halle Berry -- this time you gotta get a little closer to the living-in-their-own-feces crowd. Alright.... action!"

Look, as much as I despise the way they go about it, I get it: trying to save face by deflecting blame and sliming your enemies may be ugly but it's straight out of the Rove playbook and has proven highly effective.

What I don't understand is why the media continue to be star players on the Bush damage control team.

Take the way that both the Washington Post and Newsweek obediently, and ineptly, passed on -- and thus gave credence to -- the Bush party line that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's hesitancy to declare a state of emergency had prevented the feds from responding to the crisis more rapidly.

The Post, citing an anonymous "senior Bush official," reported on Sunday that, as of Saturday, Sept. 3, Blanco "still had not declared a state of emergency"... when, in fact, the declaration had been made on Friday, August 26 -- over 2 days BEFORE Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. This claim was so demonstrably false that the paper was forced to issue a correction just hours after the original story appeared.

So here are a couple of questions: 1) Had everyone in the WaPo fact-checking department gone out of town for the Labor Day weekend? I mean, c'mon, the announcement of a state of emergency isn't exactly the kind of thing government officials tend to keep a secret. 2) Why were the Post reporters so willing to blindly accept the words of an administration official who obviously had a partisan agenda -- and to grant this official anonymity?

Weren't they familiar with the Post's policy on using anonymous sources, which states: "Sources often insist that we agree not to name them in the newspaper before they agree to talk with us. We must be reluctant to grant their wish. When we use an unnamed source, we are asking our readers to take an extra step to trust the credibility of the information we are providing. We must be certain in our own minds that the benefit to readers is worth the cost in credibility. ...Nevertheless, granting anonymity to a source should not be done casually or automatically." Here it was clearly done both casually and automatically.

The Post's policy continues: "We prefer at least two sources for factual information in Post stories that depends on confidential informants, and those sources should be independent of each other." Oops. They could have saved themselves a lot of grief if the second source they never got for this story had been a staffer for Gov. Blanco... or, if the price of a phone call was too much, the state of Louisiana website where the truth about the state of emergency declaration was a click away [pdf].

Especially since the Post instructs its reporters: "When sources have axes to grind, we should let our readers know what their interest is" and "We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information they may give us." You mean like checking to see if the line of bull they are feeding you is, y'know, a line of bull?

If anything, Newsweek's effort to assist the Bush damage control effort was even more egregious. While claiming that "Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Barbineaux Blanco seemed uncertain and sluggish, hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency, which would have opened the door to more Pentagon help" the magazine didn't even bother to cite a "senior Bush official," choosing instead to report Blanco's alleged failings as fact. Wonder where they got that "fact"? You think it might have been from the same "senior Bush official" that snookered the Post? Josh Marshall wonders...

The unquestioning regurgitation of administration spin through the use of anonymous sources is the fault line of modern American journalism. You'd think that after all we've seen -- from the horrific reporting on WMD to Judy Miller and Plamegate (to say nothing of all the endless navel-gazing media panel discussions analyzing the issue) -- these guys would finally get a clue and stop making the Journalism 101 mistake of granting anonymity to administration sources using them to smear their opponents.

The Washington Post corrected its article. Now it should take the next step and reveal who the source of that provably false chunk of slime was. And Newsweek should do the same.

It's time for the media to get back to doing their job and stop being the principal weapon in Team Bush's damage control arsenal.