Mike Allen of Politico this morning is defending allowing a former Bush official to attack Obama’s decision to release torture memos. Apparently, he was feeling stung by criticism from what he described as the “liberal blogosphere.” (While I believe Andrew Sullivan supported Obama, his record hardly qualifies him as a liberal blogger.) Allen’s defense is interesting on a couple of levels.
While I was writing the piece, a very well-known former Bush administration official e-mailed some caustic criticism of Obama’s decision to release the memos. I asked the former official to be quoted by name, but this person refused, e-mailing: "Please use only on background." I wasn’t surprised: While Karl Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney have certainly let loose in public comments, most top Bush officials have been reluctant to go on the record criticizing Obama. They have new careers, and they know it’s a fight they’ll never win. He’s popular; they’re not — they get it. [emphasis added]
I figured that readers could decide whether the former Bush official’s comments sounded defensive or vindictive. [emphasis added] And POLITICO readers aren’t so delicate that we have to deceptively pretend there’s no other side to a major issue. So at the bottom of the Axelrod story, I tacked on an ellipsized excerpt of the former Bush official’s quotes, removing several ad hominem attacks on Obama. I quoted less than half of the comment and took out the most incendiary parts — a way to hint at the opposing view without giving an anonymous source free rein. I also added a final sentence with additional White House perspective, so the former Bush official wouldn’t have the last word. [emphasis added]
I’m not sure why, if the opposition knows it’s a battle they will lose, why a journalist then thinks he can cut them a break so they can have their cake and eat it too. Helping sources preserve their careers isn’t usually included in the job descriptions of most journalists. I would be unlikely to use somebody’s quote – a critical one at that – unless they gave it to me on the record. So will Allen then keep going back to the guy as Obama’s popularity wanes, so the guy can burnish his GOP credentials when it’s safe to do so?
Letting readers decide if the quote is “defensive or vindictive” is a abdication of the journalists’ responsibility, although one could argue that it’s perfectly logical – indeed mandatory — for a stenographer to include the comments. Here are the comments:
"It’s damaging because these are techniques that work, and by Obama’s action today, we are telling the terrorists what they are," the official said. "We have laid it all out for our enemies. This is totally unnecessary. . Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again – even in a ticking-time- bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake."
"I don’t believe Obama would intentionally endanger the nation, so it must be that he thinks either one, the previous administration, including the CIA professionals who have defended this program, is lying about its importance and effectiveness, or 2. he believes we are no longer really at war and no longer face the kind of grave threat to our national security this program has protected against."
The source is identified only as a “former top official in the [Bush] administration.” That gives us precious little to go on to judge the guy’s comments. Does this person really have the expertise to know that “these are techniques that worked”? How does he know it does “grave damage to our national security”? These are comments that not only are unsubstantiated but cannot be substantiated. Yet, Allen defends their use. Certainly, there are Bush officials who have a little courage of their convictions who would be willing to be quoted. At least that way we’d know if it were someone who knows something about national security or is only a political operative.
Moreover, it is the journalists’ responsibility to judge why someone requesting anonymity would be making a comment and to not use them if the reporter felt it was a ad hominen attack.
Lastly, the next time a reporter tells you that who gets the last word in an article isn’t important, show them this admission that reporters believe it does and are mindful of how they end an article. I tell clients that they want their point of view in the headline, lede and last graph – in that order. If you’ve got all three, the rest of the auricle doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.