TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Washington Post Disses Joe Wilson: Chatter, Gossip and the Public Sphere

With so much to criticize in the character of public discussion, it is welcome to run into a rare moment of journalistic integrity. A Washington Post editorial of September 1 brings an end to the ridiculous obsession—a good example of Heidegger’s “chatter”—with the non-story about Valerie Plame, the minor CIA functionary whose “cover” was allegedly blown. Her media-hungry husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, claimed that the higher ups in the Bush administration had leaked her identity to the press in order to punish him (and, no doubt, it was all about him, as far as he is concerned). In fact however, this was not a matter of cloak-and-dagger or subterfuge or conspiratorial betrayal. A much more mundane human rhetoric was at stake:

“Unaware that Ms. Plame’s identity was classified information, [former Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage reportedly passed it along to columnist Robert D. Novak ‘in an offhand manner, virtually as gossip,’ according to a story this week by the Post’s R. Jeffrey Smith, who quoted a former colleague of Mr. Armitage.”

Gossip? This was a big story as long as the press tried to pursue a trail that would bring down Rove or Cheney; now that it turns out only to have been Armitage, “one of the Bush administration officials who supported the invasion of Iraq only reluctantly . . . a political rival of the White House and Pentagon officials who championed the war,” the presumably criminal activity of revealing the CIA operative’s identity ceases to be of interest. If you have the right politics, breaking the law doesn’t matter.

So: on the one hand, the partisan press massively magnified the importance of a relatively minor affair; on the other hand, the ego of the husband kept the matter in the public eye. Wilson could use the revelation of his wife’s identity as a stepping stone to prominence and public speaking engagements.

The editorial’s subtitle, “It turns out that the person who exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame was not out to punish her husband,” is deliciously ambiguous. Presumably it refers to Armitage, a chatterbox, not a conspirator. Or does the text refer to someone else? Who most “exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame?” The editorial concludes:

” . . . it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”

So it was the husband who was “most responsible” for ending his wife’s career? Tell me it ain’t true, Joe.

As the electoral season revs up, it is unlikely that the Washington Post‘s contrition will bring an end to the, well, yellow-cake journalism of the New York Times, for which any anecdote becomes “news” as long as it has a partisan pay-off. Beyond this partisanship, however, the Wilson-Plame-Armitage triangle raises questions about the nature of the public sphere, especially when it pertains to Washington. Where is the border between gossip and news? Can one maintain, philosophically, a distinction between a political column (Novak) and society columns? In this incident, at least, the formal proximity between Washington reporting and Hollywood hype became painfully clear. One wishes that journalists would pull back from sensationalism and political correctness, and that the institutions of journalism could support greater responsibility. If any good is to come out of this affair, it would begin—as in this WP editorial—with some reflection on how the press behaves. There is a kind of chatter that undermines the credibility of the public sphere.

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